Opal Gemstone History and Lore

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OPAL

Writers have compared opals to volcanoes, galaxies, and fireworks. Admirers gave extraordinary opals poetic names like Pandora, Light of the World, and Empress. In ancient Rome, this gem symbolized love and hope. The Romans gave it a name—opalus—that was synonymous with “precious stone.”

In 75 AD, the Roman scholar Pliny observed, “Some opali carry such a play within them that they equal the deepest and richest colors of painters. Others…simulate the flaming fire of burning sulphur and even the bright blaze of burning oil.” He marveled that this kaleidoscopic gem encompassed the red of ruby, the green of emerald, the yellow of topaz, the blue of sapphire, and the purple of amethyst.Many cultures have credited opal with supernatural origins and powers. Arabic legends say opal falls from the heavens in flashes of lightning. The ancient Greeks believed opals gave their owners the gift of prophecy and guarded them from disease. Europeans have long considered the gem a symbol of hope, purity, and truth.Opal is considered an October birthstone. Some people think it’s unlucky for anyone born in another month to wear an opal. But that particular superstition comes from a novel written in the 1800s (Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott), and not from any ancient belief or experience. In fact, throughout most of history, opal has been regarded as the luckiest and most magical of all gems because it can show all colors. Once, it was thought to have the power to preserve the life and color of blond hair.

It is believed to have originated in India (the source of the first opals brought to the Western world), where in Sanskrit it was called upala, a “precious stone.” In ancient Rome, this became opalus. Most opals are valued for their shifting colors in rainbow hues – a phenomenon known as “play-of-color.”

The gemstone’s dramatic play-of-color has inspired writers to compare it to fireworks, galaxies, and volcanoes. Bedouins once believed opal held lightning and fell from the sky during thunderstorms. Ancient Greeks thought opals bestowed the gift of prophesy and protection from disease. Europeans long maintained opal to be a symbol of purity, hope, and truth. Hundreds of years ago, opal was believed to embody the virtues and powers of all colored stones.

Opal is also the stone given to celebrate the 14th wedding anniversary.

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WHERE IS OPAL FOUND?

Opal birthstone can be found in many places. The fields of Australia are the most productive in the world for the October birthstone. Ethiopia, Mexico, and Brazil are also important sources. Additional deposits have been found in Central Europe, Honduras, Indonesia, Madagascar, Peru, Turkey, and the United States.

Lightning Ridge, a small town in New South Wales, Australia, is famed for producing prized black opal. A dry and rocky region softened only by small trees and scrub brush, Lightning Ridge gets little rain and bakes in the scorching summer temperatures. The climate is so unforgiving that miners often live underground to find respite from the punishing heat.

Australia is also a source of other types of the October birthstone. White opal is found in the White Cliffs area of New South Wales, as well as in Mintabie, Andamooka, and Coober Pedy in South Australia. Boulder opal, which comes from only one location in the world, is mined in Queensland.

In Ethiopia, the October birthstone is found near the village of Wegel Tena, in Wollo Province. Travel 340 miles (about 550 kilometers) north of the capital Addis Ababa and up 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), where miners pry opal from shafts dug into the side of a plateau. Gems unearthed here range in body color from white, yellow, orange, and brownish red to “chocolate” brown. Some of the opals show play-of-color. Another mine, in Ethiopia’s Shewa Province, yields the coveted black opal, as well as orange, white and crystal opal. Its treasures are buried in steep cliffs that tower over the landscape. 

Querétero, a state in Mexico, is known for producing fire opal in yellow, orange and reddish orange to red, some with good play-of-color. The mines are a tourist destination, and requires taking a dirt road through dense forests of pine and oak, past scrubby plateaus of cacti and shrubs, and up winding mountain roads.

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OPAL GEMSTONE CARE & CLEANING

Opal may be treated by impregnation with oil, wax or plastic. Doublets or triplets are fine slices of opal glued to a base material and covered with a thin dome of clear quartz. The safest way to clean this October birthstone is with warm, soapy water. Other cleaning methods might damage the opal or filler material. Note that prolonged exposure to water may weaken the adhesive in opal doublets and triplets. Even natural opal can fracture if exposed to high heat or sudden temperature changes.

This October birthstone ranges from 5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness. To prevent jewelry set with harder gems from scratching opal, store it by itself. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds are just a few of the gems that can scratch the October birthstone.

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