October Birthstone - Opal

October’s stone is the opal. The most common type is a white opal with pastel flashes, but other kinds include the black, fire, boulder and crystal versions. These gems symbolize hope, fidelity and purity.

The name opal stems from several languages: the Sanskrit word “upala” meaning “precious stone”, the Latin word “opalus” and the Greek word “opallios” which both mean “to see a color change”.

Vintage opal rings.
Vintage opal rings.

An Early History of Opals

The earliest known opal artifacts were discovered in a Kenyan cave and date back to 4,000 BC. While these opals probably came from Ethiopia, Hungary was originally famous for supplying Europe and the Middle East with opals, while Mexico, Peru, and Honduras supplied their own empires, and eventually the Spanish, with the stone.

While this artifacts are the earliest known to us, evidence of the mining of opal dates all the way back to 8,000 BC in the Virgin Valley of North America (northern Nevada).

Ancient Australian Aborigines believed that the creator of all things came down to earth on a rainbow to bring the message of peace of all humans. When his feet touched the ground, the stones were created with all of the colors of the rainbow.

A Greek History of Opals

In Ancient Greece, opals were believed to have the ability to grant the power of foresight to the wearer. Misuse of the opal was said to bring misfortune in love and other endeavors.

It was believed that Zeus, King of the Gods, was so happy when he defeated the Titans, that he wept tears that turned into opals upon hitting the ground.

Greek author, Theophrastus, who prepared the oldest known book on precious stones, wrote, “The delicacy of the opal reminded me of a loving a beautiful child.”

A Roman History of Opals

Famed Roman leader, Mark Antony, had such a passion for opals that he banished the Roman Senator, Nonius, for refusing to sell his almond sized opal. It is rumored that Mark Antony wanted the opal to be a gift to his lover Cleopatra.

Roman historian Pliny describes the opal as “Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe it is a matter of inexpressible difficulty: there is the refulgent fire of carbuncle (ruby or garnet), the glorious purple of amethyst, the sea green of emerald, and all those colors glittering together mixed in an incredible union. Some aim at rivalling in lustre the brightest azure…of the painter’s palette, others the flame of burning sulfur, or of a fire quickened by oil.”

Black opal and diamond custom ring.
Black opal and diamond custom ring.

The Opal’s Fall From Grace in Europe

Long popular in Europe, opals began to fall out of favor with the British nobility in the late 18th and early 19th century (Georgian Period) due to the belief that the stone was bad luck. This belief is significantly attributed to Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Anne of Geierstein, in which the main character, Lady Hermione, wore an enchanted opal in her hair. Scott described the opal as shining beautifully when she was happy, and burning with fiery red flashes when she was angry. After being sprinkled with holy water, the gemstone lost both its shine and fire, and Lady Hermione became very ill. The next morning, the stone had turned to ash.

Another possible source for this rumor came from the Spanish Royal Family. King Alfonso XII of Spain, received an opal from a vengeful Countess he had courted. After gifting the opal ring to his wife, she died unexpectedly. Each member of the family who the ring was passed to died unexpectedly, before the king decided to test fate and wear the ring himself; he died shortly thereafter. Although there was a significant cholera epidemic at the time, many people blamed the deaths on the gemstone in the ring.

It is recorded that Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, refused to wear the stone for fear that it would bring bad luck to her and her family.

A British Revival of Opals: Queen Victoria’s Favorite Stone

Despite a downturn in its popularity, Queen Victoria loved opals and brought the stone back to popularity with her large personal collection. Adorning her daughters and other family members in the gemstone, the British Royal Court set the fashion standard for the rest of the modern world. Queen Victoria’s passion for opals was further fueled by the discovery of the finest quality of opals ever seen in the British colony of Australia.

The Discovery of the Australian Opal

Started as a prison colony, the British Empire began investigating the natural resources of Australia and discovered the common opal in 1849. It was not until the 1880’s that the Queensland Boulder Opal and Lighting Ridge Opal were discovered, sparking a frenzy amongst Australian miners.

When the gemstones were first discovered in Australia, Hungarian miners spread the rumor that the stones were not genuine (due to the fact that stones of this quality had never been seen before). By 1932, the unique fire of the newly discovered gemstones diminished the demand for Hungarian opal, until Australian mines were the main suppliers of high quality opal.

Today, opal is the national stone of Australia, and the island nation supplies 95% of the world’s demand.

opal ring
Opal ring

Different Types of Opals

  • Black Opal– Black opals are characterized by a dark tone (not necessarily black, just darker than white opal) that brings out the brightness of color. The black opals of Southern Australia are the most highly prized opals in the world.
  • Boulder Opal– Boulder opals are found in Queensland, Australia, forming on ironstone boulders. Ironstone is usually left on the back of the stone to bring out more of the color in the stone.
  • White Opal– White opals, also commonly found in Southern Australia, are known for their milky tone. White opals are capable of displaying any color in the color spectrum. White opals are much more common than black opals or boulder opals.
  • Crystal Opal– The term crystal opal refers to any opal (black, white, etc) that has a transparent or semi-translucent body. Boulder opals, even transparent ones, are not considered crystal opals as long as they have ironstone on the back. Crystal opals are generally more valuable than opaque opals of both black and white.
  • Fire Opal– Mined in Mexico, the fire opal has a distinct orange tint. Even though not technically accurate, many red opals from Australia are also referred to as fire opals. Red is the rarest color found in opal, making these stones quite valuable.
  • Ethiopian Opal– Also known as the Chocolate Opal displays a unique brown color.
  • Ethiopian Fire Opal– The Ethiopian Fire Opal display a brilliant combination of red and blue that is unlike any Australian stone. Good Ethiopian opals have colors such as, turquoise and indigo, which are not found in any Australian opals.
  • Australian Blue Opal– Ranging from blue-white to deep blue in color, these stones are said to enhance communication skills.

Mystical and Healing Properties of Opals

Because of its unique ability to display many colors intermingling, the opal has always been seen as a stone of strong mystical significance. It was believed to bring out a person’s innermost feelings and desires.

Blonde women commonly wore an opal amulet around their necks to prevent their hair from losing its color, and it was known as the “eye stone” for its important role in maintaining good eyesight. It was believed that if colors such as red and green were prominent in the stone, that it would attain the same healing properties of the ruby or emerald.

Synthetic Opals

Synthetic opals were first successfully produced in France by Pierre Gilson, in 1974. These stones became widely popular due to their affordability and the fact that they are harder and more durable than a natural opal.

Synthetic opal is difficult to spot without magnification. Synthetic stones typically have isolated patches of color, rather than intermingling colorful crystal structure. A certified gemologist can determine whether or not an opal is natural or synthetic.

Levys on Instagram