October brings the cold weather, pumpkins and autumn leaves with it but what it also brings is is the mysterious stone; Opal. Many believe that Opals are bad luck but these curious gems were once symbols of good luck and wealth.
The name ‘opal’ is derived from the Sanskrit Upala - which means ‘precious stone’ and the Latin Opalus as well as the Greek Opallios which both mean ‘to see the colour change’. In the early days people credited Opals to have magical qualities and traditionally the stone was said to aid it’s wearer in seeing limitless possibilities. It was believed to help the wearer by amplifying and mirroring feelings, buried emotions and desires. The early Greeks believed opal bestowed powers of foresight and prophecy upon it’s owner, whilst in Arabian folklore, it is said that the stone fell from heaven in flashes of lightning, which is what gives the stone it’s colours. To the Romans, it was considered to be a token of hope and purity.
A few bits from our opal collection
It’s thanks to the Ancient Romans that opals are now on the market. With a rich and powerful empire the citizens made their money and with it came a passion for gems. Opals were hugely popular due to their colour changing properties - to the Romans they were far prettier and better to look at than diamonds. Mark Anthony, Roman politician, loved opals and it is said that he so wanted an opal which was owned by Roman Senator Nonius that he banished the Senator after he refused to sell the stone to him. It is said that he wanted the opal for his lover, Cleopatra. Legend even states that one Roman Emperor offered to trade one third of his kingdom for a single opal.
In the Middle Ages the opal was known as the ‘eye-stone’ due to the belief that it was vital for good eyesight. Blonde women would wear the opal as a necklace in order to protect their hair from losing it’s colour. Some cultures even thought that the effect of the opal on sight could render the wearer invisible! Many other cultures have credited opals with supernatural origins and powers. The ancient Greeks believed opals gave their owners the gift of prophecy and guarded from disease. It was also myth that when Zeus, the Greek King of the Gods, defeated the Titans he was so happy that he wept tears that formed opals and fell to Earth. Another myth is that the Indian Goddess of the Rainbow was reportedly so beautiful that many male gods sought her favour. Eventually as an act of desperate escape from their advances, she turned herself into the rainbow coloured opal.
Pierre Sterlé Opal and Diamond Cocktail Ring
Opals were so popular that they were set into the Crown Jewels of France and Napoleon even presented his Empress Josephine with an amazing red opal containing brilliant red flashes called ‘The Burning of Troy’. However, in the late 18th century and early 19th century opals decreased in popularity in Europe. It was wrongly labelled as bringing bad luck and was associated with famine and the fall of the monarchy. Europe was plagued with Black Death and it is rumoured that an opal worn by a patient was aflame with colour right up until the death of of the patient and then lost it’s colour and brilliance once the wearer passed. Opals were even said to plague the monarchy - the tale of the cursed opal that existed in the 19th century in Spain. King Alfonso XII of Spain had received an opal from a vengeful woman whom he had previously courted. After presenting the opal ring to his wife she unexpectedly died. The ring continued to pass through the family and each new owner also died mysteriously. Finally, the king decided to wear it himself and he also died within a short time. However, it is now known that cholera had reached epidemic status at that time and killed over 100,000 people. However many people still blame the opal ring, whose whereabouts is still unknown.
Fortunately Queen Victoria helped the name of opals by wearing the stone throughout her reign and creating a huge collection. One of her first opals was a ring that Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, gave to her in 1849. This opal ring had previously been owned by Queen Charlotte in 1810. Both Queen Victoria’s friends and five daughters were presented with opals and suddenly opals became highly sought after. Subsequently the Royal Court of Britain became the model for fashion all across the globe and not soon after fine quality opals were discovered in far off Australia.
This first discovery of common opals in Australia was made by chance. Studies written at the time suggest that the early discoveries were accidental. One account writes of a horse kicking up an opal bearing rock and the boundary rider’s wife discovering a ‘pretty pebble’ in the creek bed. Another account states that a flock of sheep were struck by lightning and ran off from the storm, uncovering opals at ‘Lightning Ridge’. When these opals came onto the world market in 1890 the Hungarian mines (the original birth place of opals) spread that these stones were not genuine as the opals were seen with fire that had never been seen before. By 1932 the Eastern Europe mines were unable to compete with the high quality stones being turned out by Australia and unfortunately ceased production. Nowadays, opals are considered to be best from Australia where 95% of opals are mined. Other opal fields can be found in Mexico and Ethiopia amongst other countries. Australian opal mining is incredibly ethical and uses positive environmental and socio-economic effects from the industry. One of the most famous opals comes from Australia, when Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1953 after her coronation, the government of South Australia (famous for it’s opal fields) presented her with a necklace that had a large opal set into it. The gem was then nicknamed the ‘Andamooka Opal’ after the town it was found in. It is believed to be the finest example of an Australian opal with 203 carats.
The Andamooka Opal worn by Queen Elizabeth II
Wondering how to wear your opal jewellery? Well as the white opals have all kinds of colour in them they really go with everything! The stone gives an effortless sophistication to any outfit. Flame orange fire opals are perfecting for adding a bit of colour to dark outfit and making you stand out. When caring for your opal jewellery avoid exposing the stone to a sudden or extreme temperature change as this can cause the stone to fracture. We recommend using warm soapy water and scrubbing gently with a soft toothbrush. When wearing or storing your opal jewellery take care not to knock or scratch it as opals aren’t very tough and can damage easily.
If you’re lucky enough to have opal as your birthstone then a Happy Birthday in the upcoming month from us!