Over history, many cultures have linked opals to a whole range of mysterious properties. Ancient Arabic myths tell us that these gemstones were carried down from the heavens by huge forks of lightning.
This might have been linked to the way in which opals flash in different colors, according to the way that light interacts with their surface.
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Opal Meanings – Ancient Beliefs
In Ancient Greek civilization, many people believed that opals enabled their owners to see into the future, as well as protecting them from various illnesses. Pretty nifty, right?
These properties of sight and illness were also linked, as many Ancient Greeks believed that opals would specifically protect against infections and diseases of the eyes.
The Ancient Greeks also thought that opals formed from tears that the god Zeus cried when he defeated the Titans (the Titans were a group of gods who ruled before the Olympian gods).
The Ancient Romans were also fans of opals, believing they symbolized both hope and romance. The Roman word opalus actually means ‘precious gem’, showing the importance of these gemstones in that era.
However, some people in Ancient Rome also used opals for their less positive associations.
Opals sometimes went by the name of patronus furum (Harry Potter fans out there, prick up your ears), which translates as “patron of thieves”.
Opals got this reputation as the Romans believed these stones could make other people fail to notice them as they passed by, if the gems were wrapped in a freshly picked bay leaf.
Throughout history, these gemstones have also been associated with magical beings (especially the more mysterious black varieties of opals) as well as with powers of invisibility and with bringing their owners great wealth.
Opal myths survived to influence more modern European and Asian beliefs, which connect opals to qualities of truthfulness and pureness, as well as hope.
Opals are formed from miniscule spheres made of silica. The way that these tiny silica spheres line up and fit together within the gemstones’ structure affects the overall color scheme of the opal.
The silica shapes have to align themselves just right in order to create enough color for the human eye to see. Unsurprisingly, the more impressive the range of colors that an opal gemstone has, the higher its price tag is likely to go.
The way that opals subtly flicker from color to color has mesmerized humans for centuries. Much of the legend and folklore surrounding these gemstones stems from this amazing feature.
It’s even been said that opals had the power to keep the color of blond hair nice and vibrant, since these gemstones showed off so many colors!
In the medieval age, blond-haired women supposedly had their hearts set on necklaces strung with opals. They believed these gemstones would keep their hair lustrous for as long as they lived.
Pliny, a very well known Roman scholar, was incredibly complementary about opals’ rainbow properties. He compared the gemstones to the huge range of colors painters used to create their artworks and to the variety of shades in flickering flames.
As opals contained such a wide range of colors, combining the vibrant shades of pretty much all other gemstones in one, the Romans thought they were the most valuable of all precious stones.
The array of shades in these gemstones has also earned them the title of the ‘Queen of all Gemstones’.
Fires Change in Opals
An opal’s color is also referred to as its fire. Opals often appear to shift between the different colors within them; this characteristic is sometimes referred to as a ‘play of color’.
Opals naturally form in a wide range of vibrant shades, from reds, oranges and yellows to purples, blues and greens.
Ironically, opals’ stunning appearance goes hand in hand with a key structural weakness. Their array of color comes from minute cracks within the gems. And normally, those cracks aren’t visible to the human eye without specialist magnifying equipment.
As we’ll see later, over the years this integral fragility has contributed to the stones’ association with bad luck.
Black opals are regarded as highly valuable, as they’re some of the most rare types of opals. Plus, they’re often thought of as some of the most mysterious of these gemstones.
Funnily enough, although opals show off a whole firework display of color, it’s a black and white variety that’s often prized for its rarity. These types of opals are known as Harlequin opals, because of their monochrome, checkered look.
Modern Opal Meanings
Nowadays, opals are known as one of the birthstones for the month of October, alongside the pink-colored gemstone tourmaline.
Opals are still linked to a whole variety of meanings…
- Amplifies the wearer’s personality, whether their characteristics are positive or negative
- Enhances confidence in a person’s own abilities as well as their feelings of self-worth
- Enables the wearer to work and live to their fullest potential
- Creates a light-hearted mood for the wearer, filling them with spontaneity
- Associated with artistic inspiration, as well as with an enhanced understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings
- As the stone is reflective, it can protect the wearer from the incoming emotions of others
- Provides a protective force for the wearer in difficult situations
- Symbolizes harmonious existence
- Encapsulates feelings of passion and love, at the same time as helping to balance the wearer’s emotions
Opals have also been linked to multiple health benefits, some more extreme than others:
- Helping to reduce symptoms of fever
- Helping to purify blood flow throughout the body
- Easing menstrual pains
- Boosting eye health (we know where this one stems from…)
- Improving the body’s ability to fight against infection
- Generally reinforcing the immune system’s capabilities
- Helping those fighting addiction to regain control over their bodies
Whatever you choose to believe, there’s no doubt that opals are incredibly impressive-looking stones. What’s more, they can be extra-terrestrial: opals have actually been discovered all the way out on Mars!
Opals and evil
Opals were originally associated with so many positive attributes, but then their reputation suddenly took a real nosedive. The gemstones quickly became associated with bad luck, rather than anything else.
Interestingly, the roots of this dark reputation pretty much be traced back to just one man: the famous Sir Walter Scott.
While these mysterious gemstones have inspired great thinkers and artists over the centuries, Scott made perhaps the greatest impact of all when he wrote about these gemstones.
Anne of Geierstein (Walter Scott, 1829)
Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish writer who dreamt up the plots of many famous historical novels.
One of his most well known works is the novel Anne of Geierstein, also known as The Lady of the Mist. Scott set the novel in Switzerland and the beguiling protagonist is a woman of great status: Lady Hermione, the enchanted grandmother of Anne of Geierstein.
Lady Hermione is famous for always placing a gorgeous opal in her hair. Scott played on the characteristic color-changing properties of opals, linking these with Lady Hermione’s changeable moods.
The opal in her hair reflected her emotions, changing from glistening beautifully to blazing with darker tones.
One day, Lady Hermione’s opal mistakenly gets sprinkled with Holy Water. Tampering with her trademark opal soon goes from bad to worse: Lady Hermione becomes sick, then all that is left of her the next day is a small pile of dull-colored dust.
Unsurprisingly, this imagery created a strong link between opals and bad fortune for those who wore them.
Scott couldn’t have predicted the huge impact his plotline would have on the opal trade, but the popularity of these changeable gemstones dropped dramatically.
Opals and superstition
Scott’s novel influenced a lot of people, including some real famous names.
Because of the dark superstition linked with these gemstones, Napoleon’s bride Empress Eugenie steered well clear of opals, refusing to wear them in any jewelry.
But, Queen Victoria wasn’t so easy intimated by the superstitious stories surrounding opals.
She was so convinced that the stones wouldn’t bring bad luck that she gave them to her daughters as wedding gifts.
Where Do Opals Come from?
A huge 95% of natural opals come from the Australian outback, meaning the country just about has a monopoly on global opal supply.
An area called Coober Pedy produces most of these Australian opals, which are primarily white gemstones. Such high levels of opal formation have to do with the seasonal rains in the country.
Over the years, these downpours carried stones down to the Australian outback where they created deposits rich in silica. Compressed over millions of years, this silica material solidified into opals.
The remaining 5% of opals come a variety of locations across the globe: Mexico, Ethiopia, the USA, Brazil, Canada, Eastern Europe and Peru.
Needless to day, the Australians are pretty proud of what some consider their national gem.
Opals are also tightly woven into Australian history: native Aborigine legend tells that opals are actually the footsteps of the ancient ancestors of Australia, who came into contact with the earth at the end of a beautiful rainbow.
The country’s mines began extracting opals in commercial operations at the end of the 1800s, quickly becoming the major global source for the gemstones.
The decline and re-popularization of opals
So, Sir Walter Scott was largely responsible for ruining opals’ international reputation. Then, around half a decade after Scott’s novel was published, a large, high quality black opal was uncovered in Australia.
This gemstone had a significant global impact, re-invigorating the popularity of opals. Unfortunately, Australian opal miners then hit hard times as the stones struggled to compete with the likes of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies… all those famous beauties that trip off the tongue.
But, back in 2004, Australian opal miners collaborated to form Opal Producers Australia Limited (OPAL – see what they did there?).
This organization brings together opal miners into an interconnected group, to promote effective management and use of Australia’s opal resources.
OPAL also implemented a Gemological Digital Analyzer (GDA) system to accurately grade the quality of opals. Much like the system used to grade diamonds, this GDA rates the cut, color and clarity of opal gemstones.
Opal jewelry is still popular today, although it’s incredibly tricky to make.
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Because of their mineral make-up, opals are incredibly easy to break. Opals rank just 5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale, the scale used to measure the hardness of materials. For reference, diamonds rank all the way up at 10 on the Mohs scale.
Opals are made of silica and contain a considerable amount of water within the gemstones’ silica formations. The high water content in opals means it isn’t advisable to leave them in dry places for a long period of time. Even bank vaults are a no-go, as they use strong dehumidifying equipment to keep their contents in good condition over the years.
Sure, that’s good news for bank notes, important documents and some precious stones, but it’s terrible news for opals. The drying process dries out the water content in the opals, making them more likely to crack and lose much of their value.
The fragility of these gemstones mean you’ll need to take good care of your opal jewelry, to make sure those stones don’t crack or chip.
It’s advised to leave them to soak in water for a few hours every so often, to make sure the gemstones don’t dry out too much. But, the reason submerging them in water works is because opals are porous: they easily let the water back into their structure.
So, make sure you don’t soak your opals in any other substance, as it could damage both the exterior and the interior of the gem.
Interestingly, the fragile nature of opals may have contributed to their reputation for bringing the wearer bad fortune. Frequent breakages seemed to have reinforced the idea that opals weren’t a lucky possession to have.
Imitation opals are also frequently created in labs, using glass varieties that interact with light in a similar way to produce an opal-like ‘play of color’.
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