Ah, the lustrous, sparkling mysterious opal! Few other stones can claim the distinction of being both the luckiest and the unluckiest stone known. Lauded by Shakespeare as ‘that miracle and queen of gems’, the October birthstone has fascinated its wearers since the earliest times. In fact, the oldest evidence of opals used as ornamentation dates back to nearly 4,000 B.C. – over 6,000 years ago. Those opals were found by Sir Edmund Leakey in a cave in Kenya.
Ever since those early times, the mysterious play of light and color that seems to live beneath the surface of the gem have made the opal a prized stone and contributed to its mysterious allure. Ancient peoples believed that opals were magical stones that held captured lightning, and that wearing an opal brought the luck of the gods. Because the milky stone reveals an ever-changing pattern of color and light, it was known as the ‘seer’s stone’, and was believed to enhance the powers of prophecy and intuition.
The Romans considered the opal the luckiest of gems, and often wore opals as ornaments. Rarer than diamonds or pearls, opals were the perfect show of wealth for influential Romans, and it’s said that Mark Antony once banished a Senator who refused to sell him an opal that he desired. The Roman writer Pliny, writing in 79 A.D., said that the opal contained ‘the fire of the carbuncle, the glorious purple of amethyst, the sea green of the emerald, and all those colors glittering together in an incredible way’. A token of purity and hope, one can easily understand how the muted fire of the opal became the symbol of seeing unlimited possibilities.
The opal was also called the ‘eye stone’ in the Middle Ages, when the older belief that the opal conferred the gift of second sight became a belief that it held the power to strengthen and preserve eyesight. Its magical sparkle that disappeared unless the stone was held just so also gave rise to the belief that it gave those who wore opals the power to become invisible, and lent the glorious opal the nickname of ‘thieves stone’.
But if it was the stone of thieves, opal was also the stone of royalty. One Roman emperor is rumored to have offered half his kingdom to possess a spectacular opal. Other kings and queens throughout the ages have worn opals in their crown jewels and treasured them as personal jewelry. Napoleon gifted his Josephine with an opal known as the Burning of Troy for the brilliant flashes of red and gold it held, and Queen Victoria often gave opals as gifts to her friends and daughters.
The tales of bad luck associated with opals rival those associated with the Hope diamond. In medieval France, one king is said to have cut off the hands of a jeweler who slipped while cutting an opal, ruining the precious stone. Other rumors claim that to destroy an opal meant courting death through the displeasure of the King. Their nature makes opals difficult to cut, so it’s no wonder that the lovely stone – the Queen of Gems – acquired a reputation as an unlucky queen.
The opals known to the Romans were probably mined in Hungary – but the most brilliant and highly prized opals today come from Australia. Opals were first discovered in Australia in the late 1800s, and their fire and beauty quickly made Australian opals the standard by which other opals are judged.
The opal measures a hardness of 5.5 to 6 on the Mohs scale, placing it about midway on the scale and gem quality opals contain about 6-10% water. In composition, opals are made of layers of stacked silica. The wondrous flash and fire for which they are famed is the result of light being captured and refracted among the many layers.
Mysterious and lovely, the opal has been glorified as the luckiest of stones and vilified as a bringer of bad luck. Those who love opals will tell you the only bad luck in an opal is in not owning one.
The most famous opals of today are mined in Australia, which seems to have a nearly unlimited supply of the stunning, fiery gems. Opals are a silica gem that contain about 10-20 percent water. The subtle flashes of light in the gem – referred to as play of light – are the result of light refracting and reflecting between layers of silica and water.
At one time, opals were among the rarest and most expensive of gems, but the discovery of opals in Australia as well as the mistaken superstition that opals are unlucky has brought the price down considerably. To quote one opal aficionado, ‘The only unlucky thing about an opal is in not owning one’.
Opal buying guide
Opals should be milky white (except, of course, black opals) with distinct color flashes visible when the gem is moved under light. Light opal is the least expensive because of its availability. It should be nearly transparent against a white background. Black opals are more highly valued because of their rarity. The darker the black, the higher the value of the opal is likely to be.
Some things to watch for when shopping for opals include:
Opal jewelry that is backed with gold may actually be a doublet rather than a solid opal. Solid opals are many times more valuable than doublet opals. You should be able to see the stone from both the front and the back.
Take statements like ‘opals with more red in the play of light are more valuable than those that are more blue’ with a grain of salt. The color preference tends to vary from area to area. Instead, decide what color and flash pleases your eye, and look for your best deal on those stones.
Caring for opals
Opal is a relatively soft, porous stone that’s subject to damage in a number of different ways. Because opals contain water, many of the care tips for opals involve water in one way or another. Experts offer the following advice:
If you store your opal jewelry in a safe deposit box, put it in an airtight bag with a piece of wet cloth, or put it in a small jar of water to keep it moist.
Avoid using liquid detergents and soaps around your opal. The detergent could be absorbed by the stone and dull its sparkle.
Do not oil your opal. Glycerin and other oil=based liquids can cause the opal to leech moisture.
Opal jewelry can be cleaned in warm water with a little detergent – but limit soaking time in the water to no more than five minutes. Wipe the top of the stone with a soft, dry cloth to remove residues. Never clean opal jewelry in a sonic cleaner or with harsh chemicals.
It’s important to know whether the opals in your jewelry are solid opals, or composites. Composite opals (doublets and triplets) should never be immersed in water, as it can get between the layers and damage the glue or spoil the appearance of the stone. Instead, clean the stone carefully with a moist cloth, or with toothpaste on a fine-bristled brush.
If your opal loses some of its shine, it can be recut or repolished by a jeweler.
Storing your opal jewelry
Opals are soft stones – only 5-6.5 on the Mohs gem hardness scale. They can easily be damaged by hard surfaces, including other jewelry in your jewelry box. To avoid that, always store opal jewelry wrapped in protective cloth or in its own box. If you’re going to store an opal for a long period of time, storing it in a ziplock baggie with a piece of damp cloth will help prevent crazing of the stone.