Opal gemstone: History and Properties

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Opal gemstone: History and Properties

“Opal…Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe it is a matter of inexpressible difficulty: there is in it the gentler fire of the Ruby, there is the brilliant purple of the Amethyst, there is the sea-green of the Emerald, all shining together in an incredible union. Some aim at rivaling in lustre the brightest azure…of the painter’s palette, others the flame of burning sulphur, or of a fire quickened by oil.” ~ Pliny the Elder

Opal Gemstone

Opal History and Lore:

The name Opal is derived from the Sanskrit word “upala”, meaning “valuable stone”. This is believed to be the root word for the Greek term “opallios”, which translates as “color change”.

Opal is thought to have been discovered as long as 4,000 years ago, and myths and lore abound in practically all cultures about this brilliant gemstone. The ancient Greeks thought opal to be the tears of Zeus and prized it as highly as diamonds. They believed opal gave the gift of foresight and prophecy, which would ensure the owner’s success in war, business and life.

The legend of the Australian aborigine tells that opal is ‘creator’s footprint that touched the earth at the base of a rainbow to bring harmony’.

The ancient Romans wore opal as a symbol of hope and purity and believed it could cure illness. In ancient India, opal was referred to as the Goddess of the Rainbow, turned to stone. Ancient Arab cultures believed opal had fallen from the sky and that the play of color was trapped lightning. According to Arab lore, opal could make the wearer invisible. The ancient Australian aborigines, however, believed in a more sinister origin. They thought opal to be half serpent and half devil, and that the brightly colored fire within the stone was an attempt to lure them into the devil’s lair.

Opal has been thought to have healing powers in many world cultures, and in the middle ages, it became known as the Opthalmius, or Eye Stone, and was thought to strengthen eyesight. Blonde maidens wore opals to protect their hair from fading or darkening.

In the Middle Ages, Opal was considered a stone that could provide great luck because it was believed to possess all the virtues of each gemstone whose color was represented in the color spectrum of the opal.

However, there has also been rumors and superstition about the Opal as being a stone of bad luck. At one point opal had became so popular and wanted that it began to rival the diamond in popularity, so the diamond merchants began spreading the rumor that opals brought bad luck to the wearer. It was quite effective, and even today, there are those who believe it is unlucky to buy or wear one unless it is your birthstone (October)

However, these superstitions of bad luck were not believed by all including the Queen Elizabeth II. She ensured that all her subjects knew that she did not believe in these rumors and superstitions. Throughout her reign, she wore opals herself and gave them to her daughters as gifts. The Queen’s efforts have been credited with helping opal shed its bad luck reputation and regain popularity with the public.

Types of Opal

Black Opal

Black opal is characterized by a dark tone causing brightness of color which is unmatched by lighter opals. Black Opals are usually mined in Southern Australia, and are the most famous, and sought-after type of opal. The term ‘black opal’ does not mean that the stone is completely black (a common mistake), it simply means the stone has a dark body tone in comparison to a white opal.

Most black opals have a beautiful array of colors and are very clear due to the dark tone of the gem. Some people expect the stone to be completely black in which case it would be of very little value. The most rare and expensive Opal in the world is a black opal.

Boulder Opal:

Boulder opal forms on ironstone boulders in Queensland. This type of opal is often cut with the ironstone left on the back, as the opal seam is usually quite thin. Leaving the ironstone on the back means that boulder opal can be very dark and beautiful in color. The opal forms within the cavities of the boulders in both vertical and horizontal cracks. Boulders vary in shape and size, from as small as a pea, to as big as a family car. Boulder Opal has a tendency to cleave; when cleaved the “split” leaves two faces of opal, with a naturally polished face.

White Opal:

This stone is also known as ‘milk’ or ‘milky’ opals. White opals are primarily found in Southern Australia. White opals are distinguished by their pale white or light color tone. As with any kind of opal, white opals can display any color of the spectrum in a beautiful play of color and depending on the quality of the opal found, they can be worth quite a bit.

White opals are much more plentiful and common than other kinds of opal like black opal and boulder opal. Often white opals will have white potch (colorless opal) left on the back of the stone, however sometimes the entire stone will consist of colorful opal.

Crystal Opal:

The term “crystal opal” refers to any kind of opal (i.e. black opal, white opal, semi-black opal) which has a transparent, translucent, or semi-translucent body. If light is able to pass through the stone, or you can see through an opal, then you are probably looking at a crystal opal.

However, boulder opals which have a layer of translucent opal are not referred to as crystal opals because of their opaque ironstone backing.

The translucence of a crystal opal often gives it a greater clarity and vibrancy of color than opaque stones. Pale colored crystal opals (white crystal opals) are generally more valuable than opaque white opals, and ‘black crystal opals’ can often have more beautiful color than opaque black opals.

Fire Opal:

Technically, the only type of opal known as ‘fire opal’ is Mexican Fire Opal, mined in Mexico, which usually has a distinct orange coloring. However, the term has also been used to describe any Australian kinds of opal (normally a black opal shows it best) which displays a significant amount of red coloring. Red is the rarest color found in Opal, so these are quite valuable.

Ethiopian Opal:

This stone is also known as the “Chocolate Opal” because of its chocolate color inside its nodule. Another Opal was discovered with very brilliant colors and mostly red and little blue (unlike those opals mined in Australia) and is called Ethiopian Fire Opal.

There is also Wello Opal which is mined in the high desert of Ethiopia. This is actually a combination of various kinds of opal which are mined in Wello, Ethiopia.

Good Ethiopian opals have diverse play of colors from Neon reds, oranges, green, blue, white, yellow, brown and a fire color. There are even colors that are not present in Australian opals like turquoise and indigos. Ethiopian fire opals are popular as they have striking pattern formations which make each opal so unique.

Australian Blue Opal:

This stone ranges in color from blue-white to deep blue. It is said that this stone enhances communication skills, providing the user with the courage and freedom to speak at the right time and it helps stimulate connections between people.

Sources of Opal:

95% of the world’s precious Opal is mined out of Australia. Some of the most precious and famous Opals have come from this part of the world including the Olympic Australis, Andamooka Opal, Flame Queen Opal and the Halley’s Comet Opal.

Opals are also mined in different parts of the United States, Brazil, Ethiopia and Mexico (where the famous ‘Fire Opal’ is mined).

Folklore and superstions about opal

In the Middle Ages, opal was considered a stone that could provide great luck because it was believed to possess all the virtues of each gemstone whose color was represented in the color spectrum of the opal.

Famous Opals in History

Olympic Australis

This is the world’s largest and most valuable opal yet found. It is currently valued at AUD $2,500,000. The Olympic Australis opal was named in honor of the Olympic Games, which were being held in Melbourne at the time. It consists of 99% gem opal with an even color throughout the stone, and has been left in a natural organic state, unpolished and uncut with blemishes. Olympic Australis weighs 17,000 carats (3450 grams). Currently the opal is kept in Melbourne.

Andamooka Opal

The Andamooka Opal is a famous opal which was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s on the occasion of her first visit to Australia. It was discovered in Andamooka, South Australia, an historic opal mining town.

The opal was cut and polished by John Altmann to a weight of 203 carats (41 g). It displays a magnificent array of reds, blues, and greens and was set with diamonds into an 18 carat (75%) palladium necklet.

Burning of Troy

This was also known as Napoleon’s Black Opal. Emperor Napoleon gave his wife and Empress Josephine de Beauharnais this magnificent Black Opal. Due to the flashing crimson fire in its dark depths, it was named the ‘Burning of Troy’.

This gem was at the time undoubtedly the largest Black Opal in the world at the time at 700 carats in cut form. Its beauty and value attracted much attention and Josephine wore it often.

The Burning of Troy Black Opal disappeared after Josephine’s death in 1814 and remained hidden for 100 years.The Opal resurfaced was later purchased by the city of Vienna in Austria
and at the time of World War One was valued at over $50,000.

The Opal vanished once more at the outbreak of World War II and has not been seen in public since.

Flame Queen Opal

The Flame Queen Opal is perhaps the most famous of all Opals in the world. It is the best known example of “eye-of-opal”, an eye-like effect created when opal fills a cavity.

The stone looks like that of a “Poached Egg” a nickname which has been given to the Flame Queen Opal.

The center of the opal looks like a dome with vibrant red or gold colors depending on the angle in which you look at it and is centered in a high emerald green band.

The Aurora Australis

The “Aurora Australis” is considered the world’s most valuable Black Opal. It was found in 1938 and dug up in an old sea bed at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales.

The stone was bought by Altmann & Cherny’s as a semi rough Opal which they cut and polished into an oval shape. Apart from the distinctive impression of a starfish on the back on the stone the full rarity and value comes from its size and strong vibrant colors. Its harlequin pattern with dominant blue, green and red colors on a black background resembles the bright southern lights which is how they came up with the name the “Aurora Australis”.

The stone is currently worth an estimated $1,000,000 AUD, weighing 180 carats and is 3inches by 1.8 inches.

The Butterfly Stone/The Red Admiral

This is a famous Opal found during World War I. This famous opal gets its name due to it’s resemblance to a British butterfly – The Red Admiral. Its vibrant red colors are visible from all angles and if turned on its side is also said to change from butterfly to a full-length picture of a Spanish dancer in traditional broad ruffled dress.

Halley’s Comet

This stone is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest uncut black opal. The massive stone was found by a group of opal miners in Australia about the time that Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky, where it name came from.

Fire Queen Opal

The Fire Queen has an interesting and somewhat sad history. It was found roughly around 1906. The Fire Queen was originally named ‘Dunstans’s Stone’ after its finder Charlie Dunstan. It was full of color and considered to be too beautiful for words and a very unique piece.

The stone weighed 6.5 oz. nearly 900 carats. However unfortunately in that time, Opals didn’t have much of a market so all Charlie could manage to sell it for was the tiny sum of approximately $150 to an unknown buyer. After this sale and ‘losing’ two other stones of decent value Charlie was found with a gunshot wound to his head in November 1910 – the verdict, suicide.

The Fire Queen continued to get passed around from buyer to buyer with each seller having trouble finding a buyer due to the uneducated market for Opals. It wasn’t until 18 years later in 1928 that it ended up in the Chicago museum with a valuation of approx $60,000. It was renamed ‘The Fire Queen’ with good reason and then in the 1940’s it was resold to none other than J.D. Rockefeller for approx $110,000 who then donated The Fire Queen to his family collection.

Every gemstone collector should own an opal. There are many varieties that are still affordable. This magnificent stone brings joy just at the sight of it!

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