Explore opal's hidden
myths and mysteries
by Bethany Waldrop Keiper
"October's child is born for woe, And life's vicissitudes must know, But
lay an opal on her breast, And hope will lull those woes to rest." --
Gregorian Birthstone Poems
October's birthstone, the delicate, shimmering opal, is as rich in legends
and mysteries as it is in ever-changing colors. The very appearance of an
opal is mysterious -- it is solid, but shattered inside into tiny sparkles.
What keeps these colors changing? How can they seem to float inside a
The answers can be found years ago -- about 50 to 65 million -- when
ancient hot springs in the bedrock of the earth began to dry up, and the
resulting decomposing rock and water mix formed a gel of silica, which
settled into cracks and underground cavities in stone. The result, so many
years later, is the always-changing opal. Because this gem does contain a
certain percentage of moisture, it should be protected from harsh chemicals
-- but opals do not readily absorb outside moisture, as is often believed.
That's the scientific story. But a much better, and more interesting
version of the creation of opals comes from Australia, where about 95
percent of all fine opals are found. In the legends of the Australian
Aborigines, the Creator came down on a rainbow to bring a message of peace.
At the spot where His foot touched the Earth, the stones came to life with
sparkles in all the rainbow colors, giving birth to the opals.
Fine opals all share the constantly changing play of color inside. Experts
call this magical sparkle opalising. Although the typical picture of a
birthstone opal is a soft white stone with tiny pastel sparkles, fine opals
are found in many different colors and varieties. These are classified
depending on their kind, their place of origin, and
their color. Varieties include black opal, white opal, milk or crystal
opal, boulder opal, opal matrix, and fire opal. Two varieties based on
location are yowah nuts, from Queensland, which are called picture stones,
and Mexican opal. If an opal lacks the dramatic play of colors needed to
set if off from the rest of the gemstone world, it is simply
called common opal.
High-quality opals are expensive, and are made even more so by the care and
skill needed to properly cut and polish them. Opals are soft, coming in at
5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale. As mentioned, most opals are found in the
deserts of Australia. But there are other places to find them,
including Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Japan, and Nevada, USA.
The opal is thought to get its name from the Latin "opalus," which means
precious jewel. The Romans treasured opals and took them to heart, calling
them Cupid Paederos, which means a child as beautiful as love. The
name opal also could have come from the Sanskrit “upala,“ meaning ”valuable
stone.“ There is also the Greek word "opallios" which translates to the
phrase "color change." Ancient Greeks believed opals could bring powers of
prophecy to their owners. So the name, and the
gemstone's properties, can be found in many cultures.
Romans treasured opals, believing that they were symbols of hope and
purity, and talismans preventing disease. The famed Roman scholar Pliny
described the stone as one would a true love -- having the fire of a deep
garnet, the brilliance of an amethyst, and the richness of an emerald's
green. More modern scholars have found well-documented evidence that
Caesars gave their wives opals for good luck. As Rome's empire spread, a
Roman senator named Nonius so loved his opal that he chose the punishment
of exile rather than selling it to Marc Antony, who
wanted it for his love, Cleopatra.
Many ancient kings and leaders valued opals -- not only for their beauty,
but also for the powers they attributed to the stones. Opals set into
crowns and necklaces weren't just for decoration; they were
believed to keep evil away and help enhance eyesight.
There were those who did not share this love of opals. Many superstitions
linked this gemstone with invisibility for the wearer, making it a friend
to thieves and spies. In the eleventh century, Bishop Marbode of Rennes
wrote of opal, "...Yet 'tis the guardian of the thievish race; It gifts the
bearer with acutest sight; But clouds all other eyes with thickest night."
Yet these legends did not dampen the fervor of those with a love for the
mysterious stone. Beliefs in its power of protection and purity endured.
The belief that it could cause invisibility spread through many cultures,
and was soon considered an attribute rather than a curse. This stone of
hope, with its multihued sparkle, is still believed to help
those who work with the chakras – it works with them all, because of all of
its different colors. With such fire and color available, each opal is as
unique as the person who chooses to wear it.
Gem by Gem
October Birthstone: Opal
Opals Down Under
Opal Facts, Information and Description
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