Opals II: The History of the Myths

“The delicate colour and tenderness of the opal remind me of a loving and beautiful child.” – Onomakritis, Greek poet 6th C BC.

A superb Art Nouveau Marcus & Co brooch (New York), enamelled gold set with opal circa 1900, Victoria & Albert Museum. Height 3.6 cm. If you owned this, the last thing I would call you is unlucky.

Last week American jeweller and collector Sarah Nehama wrote a wonderful piece on the variety of opals and how she has used them in her own work. In the article she touched on the most undeserved reputation that the opal acquired in the 19th century of being an unlucky stone. As the opal is one of my favourite gemstones (alongside moonstones and garnets), and is of course the national stone of Australia I had to look at this further, to discover a bit more about the source of this most unjust superstition and some older emotional associations to the glorious opal.

One of my favourite opal pieces. Boulder opal features as a body of water, with fishermen – one on a boat, the other on rocks, trees on either side, and fence in the foreground, rays of the sun feature atop – all in gold. Circa 1900 by Priora Bros, Sydney. Width 5 cms. Collection unknown.

19th C Misconception

If you know someone who thinks the opal has unlucky connotations you should ask them why. More likely than not they will not be able to answer you. Superstitions often seem to be inherited without basis, so now you can tell them – stuff and nonsense!

The most commonly held source of the unjust superstition stems from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Anne of Geierstein published in 1829.

In George F. Kunz, The curious lore of precious stones published in 1913 he writes of the source of this superstition:

“There can be little doubt that much of the modern superstition regarding the supposed unlucky quality of the opal owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Anne of Geierstein. The wonderful tale therein related of the Lady Hermione, a sort of enchanted princess, who came no one knew whence and always wore a dazzling opal in her hair, contains nothing to indicate that Scott really meant to represent the opal as unlucky. […] when a few drops of holy water were sprinkled over it, they quenched its radiance. Hermione fell into a swoon, was carried to her chamber, and the next day nothing but a small heap of ashes remained on the bed whereon she had been laid. The spell was broken and the enchantment dissolved. All that can have determined the selection of the opal rather than any other precious stone is the fact of its wonderful play of color and its sensitiveness to moisture.”

However, there is another possible source that one comes across here and there. The story of King Alphonso XII of Spain, who was in power from 1874 to 1885. He presented to his wife a gift of an opal ring, tragically she died soon afterwards. Before the funeral, the King passed the ring on to his sister, who also died soon afterwards. Sadly the pattern persisted when the ring was passed to his sister-in-law and she too passed away 3 months later. Alphonso, who obviously didn’t connect the ring with these untimely deaths wore it himself, he also died. The funny thing with superstition emerging from coincidental patterns is that it could randomly be associated with anything. An illness, the age in which they lived, did they all wear blue in the months prior to their deaths? Did they eat bread: milk from the same cow? And so on.

At any rate, not everyone in 19th century England and America shared this superstition. Queen Victoria was a great admirer of the opal. She gave Prince Albert a Badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1841 featuring the stone, which was also one of Prince Albert’s favourite gems. The Queen was known to present her daughters with opal jewellery on celebration of their weddings – certainly not an occasion to risk any association with bad luck.

In August 1886 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book we see that the opal has recovered from the undeserved reputation of an unlucky talisman, it reads: “During the last few years, a reaction has taken place and American women are accepting the magic gem”. (Bell, p. 103).

By the end of the 19th century with the dominance of the Arts and Crafts and the Belle Epoque movements the opal was a popularly used stone in jewellery and smalls, used with extraordinary creativity that focused on the stones natural beauty.

Opal cameo of helmeted warrior attributed to Wilhelm Schmidt. In a diamond set enameled setting, Marked C&AG for C & A Giuliano, circa 1895. English. Collection of the British Museum.

Some earlier myths and responses

For centuries prior many peoples around the world had creation stories, folklore beliefs, wax lyrical responses to the opal. Discover them for yourself!

Pliny the Elder wrote The Natural History of the World in the First Century AD describing the opal:

“Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe them is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. For there is amongst them the gentler fire of the ruby, there is the rich purple of the amethyst, there is the sea-green of the emerald, and all shining together in an indescribable union. Others, by an excessive heightening of their hues equal all the colours of the painter, others the flame of burning brimstone, or of a fire quickened by oil.”

Solid black opal cabachon ring with nice high dome and flashes of fire; with diamonds, set in 15 ct gold, stamped APEX (later Rodd, popular Australian jewellers) circa late 1920s-30s. From our MOLAM shop.

In Australia there are a different stories from a number of different Aboriginal language groups, some of which can be found in this interesting post

Further references can be found here on this fascinating site by opal enthusiasts.

There are some wonderful literary references to opals found on the CSIRO website

One of my favourite opals – a tiny portrait bust carved entirely out of one solid opal stone – Love! Found in Berlin, believed to be of German creation, was in the collection of a Berlin antiques collector. A portrait of whom? Germany had a central hub in Oberstein for the mineral and gemstone trade. From our MOLAM shop.

Reference:

Bell, C. Jeanenne, Collecting Victorian Jewelry, 2004
Bell, C. Jeanenne, Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry, 2008.
British Museum
Cody, Andrew & Damien, The Opal Story, a corporate brochure for The National Opal Collection, 2008.
Gere, C, & Rudoe, J., Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World,2010.
Opal Rainbow of the Desert – a CSIRO sponsored website
Opals Information Website
Phillips, Clare, Jewels & Jewellery, 2008
The Royal Collection website
Scholfield, Anne & Fahy, Kevin, Australian Jewellery 19th and Early 20th Century, 1990.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Wikipedia – search Opal and Anne of Geierstein

The Amazing Variety of Opals by Sarah Nehama

There are many things I love about being a jeweler, but one of my very favorite things is going to a gem show. I feel the need to handpick the gems that I use in my jewelry work- they need to speak to me, and I must see and touch them to get inspired with ideas for new creations. The infinite variety and beauty of nature’s mineral world never ceases to amaze me- I can get lost for hours looking at gems, minerals and fossils. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, a new material comes on the market and rocks my world (excuse the pun!).

Before I started working with gems, I was under the misconception that opals were always white, semi-transparent stones with some tiny specks of color, nothing dramatic, and nothing to get all that excited about. How wrong I was! Opals, I’ve found, come in an amazing variety of colors and forms and from many parts of the world. I’d like to share with you some of these beautiful stones, all from my own collection. I’ll show some examples of my finished work utilizing a few different kinds of opals as well.

Australian Opals

Australia produces most of the world’s supply of precious opal, and it is the country’s national gemstone. Every variety of opal is found in Australia, some of which are detailed below.

White opal, which is the one most Americans are familiar with, probably because it is one of the most common types of opal, is only one type of opal mined in Australia. The white opal is generally milky-white or yellow-tinged. Because it is so light, any flash of color contained in it appears less bright than in other types of opals, which are darker (except crystal opals, which are more translucent), and therefore allow the bright colors to stand out. Black opals are the rarest of all opals and are the only type of opal with trace elements of carbon and iron oxide that give them their dark body color against which the other colors, such as greens, blues, pinks, purples, and gold flash with such dramatic intensity. Mintabie in South Australia is where some of the finest black opals are found.

Boulder opals are only found in Queensland, especially in Quilpie, but other gorgeous varieties of boulder opals such as Yowah opals and Koroit opals, named for the areas where they’re mined, are also from Queensland. Boulder opals are more stable than other varieties, as they are formed in cracks of ironstone and are usually cut with the ironstone matrix present. If the cutter has a good eye, he or she will cut the rough stone to take advantage of the best areas of opal vein contrasting with the surrounding ironstone, achieving remarkable patterns in the cut gem. Pictured here is a silver and gold ring with a boulder opal and three very fine pair of boulder opals from my collection: a Yowah “nut”, a pair I believe to be from Quilpie, and an amazing pair of Koroit boulder opals which to me has an Art Nouveau feel in the pattern of opal veins against the dark ironstone.

Boulder opal ring in silver and 22k gold

The main body of crystal opals is transparent or semi-transparent. Mintabie produces much of the gem-quality crystal opal available on the market. Lightning Ridge, in New South Wales, is where the opals in the necklace shown here were mined. The stones were cut, drilled, and polished in Hong Kong, in an unusual “fang tooth” shape, and the beads were strung on blue silk and finished with an 18K gold clasp I made to echo the shape of the stones. Also pictured here is a very fine loose crystal opal.

Lightning Ridge opal necklace by Sarah Nehama

Some incredible fossil opals are to be found in Australia. I once worked for Australian opal dealers at the Tucson, AZ gem show- they had found an extremely rare fossilized dinosaur rib bone replaced with opal and I got to see it before it was sold to a collector. At the same show I’ve seen gorgeous pieces of fossilized wood with opalized sections- one day I hope to have such a thing for my “museum”! And I’m still kicking myself for not buying the beautiful fossil opalized clam from Australia I saw again in Tucson- I’ve seen other opalized clams since, but none as nice, and at $100 USD, it was a steal. Oh well, I hope it went to a good home!

Opals from Other Areas

Mexican fire opal 12.5 x 10 x 5.5mm 2ct

Mexico

Transparent or translucent opals in orange, red, yellow, and yellow-orange colors from Mexico are known as fire opals. They don’t usually show any play of color, although some of the best ones will exhibit bright colored flashes. Pictured here is a bright orange, faceted Mexican fire opal of 2 carats. Transparent opals from Mexico, usually in a matrix of rhyolite, come in a variety of colors including oranges, greens, green-blues, and yellows- these are known as Mexican jelly opals.

United States

Jelly opals are also found in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. They are transparent with overtones of lavender, yellow, orange, browns, and blues. The teardrop shaped yellow-orange jelly opal and the large jelly opal egg (weighing 1,483 carats!!) are both from Opal Butte, Oregon. The commercial mines there have been closed for over 100 years as the opal is mined out, but until recently, rock hounds were able to find some nice material. Now the area is closed to rock hunters as well.

Peru

Peruvian opal, which is known as blue opal, though it also comes in pale pink, is a semi-opaque to opaque stone. This type of opal does not display pleochroism, which is the property of a crystal to absorb different frequencies of light from different angles, giving the change of color, or flash, seen in many opals when they are turned. Pictured here is a ring in 22K and 18K gold with a rare Peruvian blue opal; rare because the stone includes no black veins and displays a uniformity of color. Also shown is a pair of earrings in 22K with bright blue Peruvian opals with the more common black veining.

Peruvian opal ring in 22k by Sarah Nehama

Peruvian opal earrings in 22k by Sarah Nehama

Ethiopia

Opals were discovered in Ethiopia in the early 1990s. Much of the early finds were dark opals with chocolate brown or reddish body colors, including the lovely “cola color” opals, an example of which is shown here, still in its matrix, and exhibiting amazing pinpoints of red and green flashes. In 2008, new opal sources were discovered in the Welo province in northern Ethiopia rivaling some of the finest Australian crystal opals. An example of an Ethiopian crystal opal is this one with bright orange, red, and green flashes.

Opals and Folklore

Opals today are often associated with misfortune and superstition has it that unless opal is your birthstone (if you were born in October), then it is unlucky for you to wear it. Where this superstition comes from is open to debate; it seems to have arisen in the 19th century, as opals prior to then were viewed as auspicious, and one of the opal’s properties was to preserve the wearer from disease- as such, it was used as an amulet since antiquity. Perhaps the nature of the stone itself, which is inherently brittle and prone to crazing and cracking, contributed to the negative association- for opals have a high water content, and can crack over time if exposed to dry conditions, even if not worn. A good treatment for opals is to periodically coat them with a little bit of pure mineral oil on a soft cloth and keep them away from strong sunlight. Some opals are less resistant to fracture than others- the boulder opals for instance are much more durable because of the strong ironstone matrix.

Mother: Come, let me place a charm upon thy brow,
And may good spirits grant, that never care
Approach, to trace a single furrow there!


Daughter: Thy love, my mother, better far than charm,
Shall shield thy child- and yet this wondrous gem
Looks as though some strange influence it had won
From the bright skies- for every rainbow hue
Shouts quivering through its depths in changeful gleams,
Like the mild lightening of a summer eve.

Mother: Even so doth love pervade a mother’s heart;
Thus, ever active, looks through her fond eyes.

– From Gems of Beauty by the Countess of Blessington, London, 1836

Note to the reader about the stones and jewelry pictured here:
All of the loose opals pictured here are available for purchase, and with the exception of the larger mineral specimens, are available to be set in a custom piece of jewelry. Please contact me for specifics including prices. The items of finished jewelry shown here have been sold, with the exception of the Australian opal necklace and the Peruvian opal earrings, which are still available. Those (and more of my handmade jewelry and unique gemstones) may be seen on my website at http://www.sarafinjewelry.com. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you are interested in a particular stone or a custom designed piece of jewelry. Dimensions for stones are given length x width at widest point x depth, plus total carat weight.