Oh, October. How did you get to be so lucky? You have as your birthstone what some call the gem of all gemstones: the opal. Opals, which are also used to celebrate the 14th year of marriage, are really just a pile of hydrated amorphous silica. Ok, we’ll explain what that means.
Opal: Is It Really The Thunder From Down Under?
Just like many other gemstones (rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and the like), opals are formed over millennia in the earth’s crust. Opals are a little different in that they are typically found in very hot, dry areas. Over centuries, water, carrying with it all kinds of stone and mineral like deposits, seeps into the cracks in the hot, dry earth and the silica layers accumulate and produce opals just waiting for miners to discover them. They are a little different than our other gemstone friends in another way, as well. Opals are 5% – 20% water (hence the term “hydrated”). That technically makes them mineraloids instead of minerals, like their other silica based cousins.
Like some of those other cousins, 95% of the worlds opals today are found in Australia (the other 5% are from Ethiopia, Mexico, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, Honduras (more precisely in Erandique), Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua, as well as Idaho and Nevada, here in the US. In late 2008, NASA announced it had discovered opal deposits on Mars (which gives us jewelry lovers some hope for intelligent life on another planet).
Gem Opals (as opposed to common opals) are broken down into many categories. The five most common are:
- White or light opals: Translucent to semitranslucent, with play-of-color against a white or light gray background color, called bodycolor.
- Black opals: Translucent to opaque, with play-of-color against a black or other dark background.
- Fire opals: Transparent to translucent, with brown, yellow, orange, or red bodycolor. This material—which often doesn’t show play-of-color—is also known as “Mexican opal.”
- Boulder opals: Translucent to opaque, with play-of-color against a light to dark background. Fragments of the surrounding rock, called matrix, become part of the finished gem.
- Crystal or water opals: Transparent to semitransparent, with a clear background. This type shows exceptional play-of-color.
All Of The Colors Of The Rainbow
Each location provides its own unique type and color of opals. Since Australia is the number one producer (and opal is also their national gemstone), we’ll start there. Precious opals range from clear through white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black. Of these hues, the black opals are the most rare, whereas white and greens are the most common. Australian opals are often extremely colorful with their plays of green, blue, orange, red and yellow. And the rare and precious black opals are most likely to originate there, also.
Ethiopian opals were originally more brown in color (and therefore not as desirable) but a second mine was found in 2008, producing opals that more closely resembled the sedimentary opals of Australia and Brazil, with a light background and often vivid play-of-color. Mexican opal, or fire opal, as it’s often called, tends to show up as brighter oranges and almost solid vivid yellows, while the mines found in The Virgin Valley opal fields of Humboldt County in northern Nevada produce a wide variety of precious black, crystal, white, fire, and lemon opals (the black fire opal is the official gemstone of Nevada).
Mystery and Folklore
As with all of the other gemstones, there is much lore and mystery around the opal. The modern name of the gem opal is derived from ancient sources: the Sanskrit Upala – which means “precious stone”; the Latin Opalus; and the Greek Opallios which both mean”to see a color change”. Ancient peoples believed that opal possessed magical qualities – it was believed to aid its wearer in seeing limitless possibilities. The opal was considered powerful by amplifying and mirroring feelings, buried emotions and desires. It was also thought to reduce inhibitions and promote spontaneity. The early Greeks believed that opals granted powers of foresight and prophecy upon its owner, while in Arabian folklore, it is said that the stone fell from heaven in flashes of lightning. To the Romans, it was considered to be a token of hope and purity.
The stone was very popular for decades in modern times, until one man nearly single-handedly tanked the opal’s lure in 1829. In the novel Anne of Geierstein, Sir Walter Scott wrote of his heroine, the beguiling princess Lady Hermione, wearing a dazzling opal in her hair. Apparently, the beautiful iridescent stone sparkled spectacularly when she was happy, but flashed red when was not. To “cure” the stone (and maybe the princess, one would assume), the gem is sprinkled with Holy Water, causing it to lose its luster. Hermione becomes ill and faints (as many an enchanted princesses has done), and is carried to her bedroom. The next day nothing but a small heap of grey ash is found on her bed. We’ll never know if Scott meant to portray opals as unlucky to its wearer, but his novel most certainly was unlucky for the gem in the in the early 1800s.
Luckily, who was to come to the opal’s rescue but our own jewelry lover extraordinary, the lovely Queen Victoria. The Queen paid no mind to the legend and instead gave opals to all of her daughters on their wedding day and offered the jewels as gifts to many of her friends. Maybe she bought into the reported mystical powers the opal was said to posses (like helping to keep a lady’s blonde tresses from turning grey). Maybe she just loved them for their fiery play of color (they are quite mesmerizing in candlelight, after all). Alas, we’ll never know and there’s still a wives’ tale that exists to this day about running into bad luck if you wear opals and you weren’t born in the month of October (we say hogwash and good riddance to Sir Walter’s curse).
If you want to know more about opals, we suggest Opals, Third Edition. It pretty much covers all you would want to know and more. Are you an October baby? Or just a love of the mysterious stone. Share your opal stories with us in the comments!