Opal in Myths and Legends
Among all gemstones, opals have held a unique fascination throughout the ages. They have a magnetic warmth to their wonderful glowing colors that is not found in any other stone, and their beauty has stirred the hearts and passions of artistic souls for centuries.
Its history goes back to the dawn of time, though it has not always been clearly recorded. The first recorded name given to the stone was by the Romans when they named it 'Opalus', which means ‘precious stone’. The Greeks had called it 'Opallos', a verb that means “to see a color change.” It was adored by the ancient Romans some 200 years before Christ. Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, once described the opal in a glowing, romanticized way saying: "...for in them you shall see the living fire of the ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea green of the emerald, all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light."
According to further writings by Pliny, the Roman senator Nonius once owned a grand opal, the most beautiful in Rome, said to be the size of a hazelnut, that Mark Antony dearly wished to buy as a gift for his lover, Cleopatra. Antony offered the modern day equivalent of a quarter million dollars for the gemstone. Nonius, liking neither Antony nor the deal, however, refused, and a furious Antony ordered Nonius’s execution as revenge. Nonius fled Rome before that command could be carried out, leaving all of his possessions behind, with the sole exception of the opal that had caused him such strife.
The superstitions surrounding opals, like many things in the ancient world, were many and varied. The Arabians believed they were magical stones that had fallen from the heavens, while in Asia they were believed to be a precious healing stones, dubbed 'anchor stones of hope'. Some medieval Europeans attributed them strange powers, such as making the wearer invisible and giving great insight.
In the long centuries since its discovery, this prized stone has been mined in many countries, famously in the mines of Hungary and eastern Czechoslovakia. Where it is most well-known today, however, is Australia. Australia is home to arguably the largest and finest supply of opals in the world.There are no official records of Australia’s first commercial mines, but it is likely that the industry began in Queensland, in 1872, when the first opal was discovered on Listowl Downs. There was, however, never a mine constructed at that location, only surface prospecting.
Most of the world’s opal supply comes from Australia, and Australia has the accompanying variety of opal types that implies. Black opal is the rarest and most valuable, with the vast majority (well over 95%) of the famous gems coming from Australia’s Lightning Ridge. Boulder opal is found in crevices and cracks throughout ironstone boulders and comes in many varieties, such as black and crystal. Due to the thinness of most seams, tons of the exquisite gems are cut from the boulders, leaving a natural backing of ironstone on the opal. Light opal, the most abundant type in Australia, is found mainly at the town of Coober Pedy in southern Australia, the source of perhaps 90% of all production.
By 1875 there were many wonderful opal finds, especially throughout the Kyabra Hills of southwest Queensland, but there was no steady market for the newfound treasure. Herbert Bond of Toowoomba, Queensland is credited with the first attempt to establish an industry when, in 1879, he began supplying a company in London with opals from famous mines across Australia, such as the Aladdin, Scotsman and Coonavilla.
His failure was due to many factors, not the least being that the gem merchants found it hard to accept the fact that this brilliant new gem from Australian was not man-made. The problem was that the world had never seen an opal so beautiful and colorful before. All they had known for centuries was the milky type of opals from Hungary. Though his efforts to begin the industry failed, he was not unrewarded. Bond drew the attention of Queen Victoria, an ardent opal lover herself, who gifted him a 40 acre freehold title over the Aladdin Mine, the only such title in that part of Queensland to this day.
Ten years passed before another attempt was made to establish the industry. In 1889, Tully Wollaston, a young entrepreneur from Adelaide, stamped his name across the pages of Australian opal history with his visit to the Kyabra Field. There were only a few miners in the hills at the time; Charlie White, working at Breakfast Creek, was the first miner to sell him opals, 61 small pieces for twenty seven pounds ten shillings ($55.00 in today's money). To use Wollaston's own words, "It was small stuff, but very brilliant and the dancing lights pricked my hand in a delicious way."
It was Charles Whitehead's and Joe Bridles' opals from Stoney Creek that Wollaston took to London in July of 1889 that formed the basis of the industry we have today. He was instrumental in marketing all Australia's major finds: the beautiful crystal from Queensland in 1889, the soft, delicate light opal from White Cliffs in 1890, the breathtaking black gems of Lightning Ridge in 1903 and the world's largest supplier of light opal, Coober Pedy in 1915. Wollaston’s efforts almost single-handedly kickstarted the industry that has endured to this day, and shared the beauty of the opal with the world at large.
There are several myths surrounding the opal that should be addressed, as they can bring unneeded negative connotations or are just plain misinformation. For the more superstitious types, some believe that opal brings only bad luck, unless it is your birthstone. Strangely, before the 1890s, the opal was considered a good luck stone across the world, particularly in Australia, where they had a saying: “The only bad luck about opal is not owning one!” In London, the opal began making a serious dent in the diamond market’s monopoly in the 1890s, and soon after the rumors of its bad luck began circulating. It is likely this rumor was begun by diamond merchants looking to protect their markets. Despite this veil of negativity, the opal still remains popular; it is commonly used as an engagement ring stone in Japan.
Another common misconception is that opal is too fragile to be safely worn. This is demonstrably false; opal is as hard as jade or amethyst, and tougher than turquoise. True, opals can crack, as can all gems, including diamonds. In general, a cracked opal is caused by an incorrect setting in jewelry. If set by a skilled jeweller and well cared for, an opal can provide a lifetime of beauty safely.
Soaking an opal in water to brighten it is a myth that has been floating around for years, and is distinctly untrue. Most opals come from Australia, and are not hydrophane gems. Hydrophane gems do change color when wet, it is true, but more often than not, this will not be the case with your opal. It is, however, always useful to know where your opal comes from.
The brightness of the fiery color an opal produces is one of the most important contributors to its beauty and value. It is also the most difficult characteristic to judge consistently. It is difficult to keep the brightness of a stone accurately in mind over time, which is one factor that contributes to the difficulty in comparisons. There is also a tendency to elevate the brightness of the stone currently being examined relative to others seen previously. The other reason is that brilliance is adversely affected by the light the opal is viewed under. This is why some opal sellers use high power lamps; they make an opal appear brighter than it would appear in natural sunlight, thus giving the impression that the stone is of greater brightness. Obviously, this implies a greater market value than may be accurate. Remember, brightness is the amount of light coming back from the opal. Moving the opal away from the light gives an idea of how well the brightness holds as lighting changes.
Coober Pedy, Australia.
Opal in its early stages.
Underground Austrailian opal mines
A collection of our dark opals.