October's Birthstones are Opal and Tourmaline
Happy Birthday to all those October babies out there!
As we head into the tenth month of the year, we get to celebrate the birthstones of October, which are non other than the beautiful Opal & Tourmaline.
In this blog, we look into this beautiful stone, Opal – how it is formed and where, the different types of Opal, what an Opal symbolises, how the superstitions surrounding the stone is quite unjustified and its supposed healing properties.
Opals are also the stone used to celebrate a 14th Wedding Anniversary.
The Opal gemstone has a wonderful mix of colours within the one stone and are quite mesmerising to look at.
But there are also some silly superstitious beliefs about Opals which can put people off wearing them, which is such a shame. In fact, you could say that this beautiful gemstone has had the worse rap of all the gemstones and most unfairly, as I think you will agree.
What is an Opal Made Of?
Opal is made of silicon dioxide and water.
An Opal forms when a combination of Silica and water flows into cracks and spaces in the ground. This gradually hardens and solidifies to form Opal.
As this gemstone contains water (up to 20%!) it makes it very sensitive to heat.
Where are Opals Formed and Found?
It is mined in Australia, Ethiopia, Mexico and the U.S.
The stone is formed in dry regions, such as Australia’s semi-desert conditions. Australia supplies approximately 80% of the worlds opals, centred around a town called Coober Peby some 430 miles south of Alice Springs.
Opal is actually the national gemstone for Australia.
How is Opal Formed?
Opals are formed in very dry, hot areas. When the rains come the rainwater soaks into the deep underground rock through the cracks in the ground, carrying silica, which has been dissolved in the rain, downward.
The drier periods arrive and the water evaporates leaving behind deposits of silica in the cracks of the rocks and it is these deposits that form Opal.
The Five Main Opal Colours
The Opal can be found in different varieties of colours. The five most common colours are White, Black, Fire, Boulder and Crystal.
The most common is the “White Opal” or Light Opal, which isn’t just white. This fabulous stone has a white or translucent to semi-translucent body colour and contains hints of pastel rainbow colours.
Another popular Opal is the “Black Opal”, this can vary in body colour from either black, blue, or grey. Translucent or opaque with a play-of-colour against a black or dark background.
Fire Opal has a translucent with red, orange, brown or yellow colourings and sometimes called Mexican Opal.
Boulder Opal is translucent with a variety of colours with the surrounding rock becoming part of the gemstone.
Crystal or Water Opal is transparent with a clear background and an exceptional play of colour.
The History of Opal
In ancient Arabia, they believed it that Opals fell from the heavens in flashes of lightning.
Shakespeare said of Opal, “that miracle and queen of gems”.
In England Opals were called “Ophals”, short for ophthalmos, referring to the human eye.
But the name Opal originates from the Latin “Opalus” from the Sanskrit Upala meaning “precious stone”.
The Word ‘Opal’ also means to see a change in colour.
Every Opal is unique and this marvellous precious stone contains many colours.
Two Classes of Opal
There are two main classes of Opal – Precious Opal and Common Opal.
The thing that differentiates the two is something called ‘Play-of-Light’ which basically means iridescence. Precious Opal has iridescence – meaning it displays many colours as if diffuses light.
Common Opal does not have any play-of-light.
The Play-of-Light of in Precious Opals
The spheres that make up the gemstone to produce Opal means the light bends as it travels through the stone. It is this that gives the rainbow-like colours, called spectral colours.
The different-sized spheres determine what colour you will see – red is produced with spheres which are 0.2 microns in size; violet is produced by spheres 0.1 microns in size.
Positive Meanings Associated with Opals
As early as man has used gemstones they have attached meanings to the stones. There are many positive assertions about this beautiful gemstone.
Gemstones were carried as talismans and later incorporated into costumes and jewellery. In earlier times they were adorned to sheaths of weapons (for instance, in going into battle), often because of the meanings and the power they were believed to hold.
Early people credited Opal with magical powers and they said they would bestow the wearer with luck and many possibilities.
Roman Emperors gave their wives Opals for good luck. They believed that the myriad of colours was like a rainbow and would bring its wearer good luck and prosperity.
The Romans prized the gemstone second only to emerald. They believed it to have a beneficial effect on peoples eyesight, to banish evil and brought hope and purity to the wearer.
The Opal symbolises faithfulness, loyalty, happiness and purity, the list goes on and on. If the more esoteric qualities of stones attract your attention, the Opal can be beneficial for the eyesight, hair, nails and skin.
Many years ago that necklaces would be worn to repel evil spirits and protect the eyesight.
Mothers would hang Opal jewellery around their children or have an Opal stone somewhere in the house to give them protection.
Napoleon gave Josephine a large red opal called “The Burning of Troy”.
Queen Victoria loved Opals and did a lot to rid the gemstone of its bad press, which we will talk about next. She wore them throughout her reign
Superstition About Opal
Is it true that opals bring bad luck? Just what are the superstitions surrounding Opal?
Sadly this gemstone seems to have had its fair share of negative press associated with it. This was particularly so around Europe and the Middle East (and we will explain why later).
There has perhaps been no other gemstone that has had such a level of superstitious ignorance railed against it.
Alarmingly, Diamond traders may have contributed to some of these superstitions as the beautiful Opal gained in popularity and competed with their diamond market. This was particularly when the high-quality Australian opals began to appear on the market in the 1890’s.
Opals Bad Press
Witches and sorcerers supposedly used black opals to turn on people they wanted to harm and to increase their powers.
In Europe, the gemstone reminded people of the ‘Evil Eye’ symbol and like the eyes of cats, snakes and toads – all creatures which people feared. Opal was believed to make the wearer invisible to his enemies, adding to the fear factor.
It was said that an opal would lose its lustre if the owner of the gemstone died.
The Black Death
During he Black Plague, people believed that the stone, when worn by a person inflicted with the Black Death, would be fiery red right up to the point of the wearer’s death when it would turn dull.
Remember that during the 18th and 19th centuries there was much famine, disease and the Black Plague. During times like this, people often attach both negative and positive beliefs to events.
One story illustrates this point perfectly.
King Alfonso of Spain and the ‘Cursed’ Opal Ring
Alfonso XII, a King in the 19th Century, fell in love with the Comtesse de Castiglione who he planned on marrying. But he jolted her just months before their wedding, instead, marrying another Princess. The jilted Comtesse sent a wedding present of an elaborate gold Opal ring to the King and his new Queen. The Queen fell in love with the ring and demanded that her husband put it on her finger. Two months later, she died. He then gave the jewel to his grandmother, Queen Christina, who also mysteriously expired. The ring then went to the King’s sister, then his sister-in-law – both of whom died of the same mysterious illness. The King, distraught, then decided to commit suicide by wearing the ring himself, believing that the ring had some evil curse on it. Sure enough, within a short space of time (24-hours, so the story goes!) the King also died. The King’s mother wasn’t in the least bit suspicious and insisted she would wear it, but those around her begged her not to. It was placed on a chain and hung around the neck of a statue in Spain (which was later destroyed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s!). The story is relayed here as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1898.
This story, of course, sounds alarming – even today – and I think most of us would think twice before wearing that ring. But it is important to remember what was going on at the time.
Cholera was sweeping through Europe, including Spain, with devastating consequences. During 1885 over 100,000 people (estimated to be almost 50% of the population) died in Spain from cholera.
Anne of Geierstein
But the most damaging of stories associated with opals was the damage inflicted by a novel by Sir Walter Scott called ‘Anne of Geierstein’ printed in 1829.
The story made the reader believe that the heroine was bewitched and died after her magical opal stone discoloured when touched by holy water.
Sadly, a further novel in the series, which the readers didn’t take into account, showed that the Opal had discoloured and turned pale as a warning to its owner against being poisoned!
As many of the readers hadn’t read the third volume of the story and became alarmed at the story, the real-life demand in opal gemstones plummeted.
Shockingly opal prices dropped by half in just one year after the release of the book and the opal market in Europe stayed very low for decades afterwards.
Which we think is incredibly sad.
Opal is a Soft Gemstone
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for Opal, it does.
Opal is a fairly soft stone – it measures 5 to 6.5 on the Moh’s Hardness Scale.
This means that it is not an easy stone to cut and set as it is easily fractured when worked with in this way.
The gem-setters were often left in the unenviable position of having to explain to their masters that the stone had been ruined whilst attempting to cut and set it.
Louis XI was so angry with his goldsmith when one of his opals was damaged that he had the poor goldsmith’s hands cut off!
Not surprisingly, gem-setters also began to dread the stone being brought to them and avoided working with it.
As I’m sure you will agree, this beautiful gemstone has had such a bad rap and been incredibly misunderstood, if a gemstone can be misunderstood!
The Fortune of Opal Today
The fortune of Opal is on the turn again, though and there is a “booming demand for opals” as documented by this BBC business report.
Global prices of opals have doubled in the last few years, as there has been an increased demand from China, India and a revival of interest in the West.
A few years ago Vogue featured young jewellery designers who were using opals in their designs and Dior featured a jewellery collection with Opal as the central gemstone in the collection.
Traditionally you rarely find Opal set in silver, it is mainly set in gold, however we do have some pieces of silver jewellery set with Opal.
Synthetic Opals and Simulant Opals
Synthetic opal, which has the same chemical composition of natural opal, is man-made. The difference (which can be spotted with a jewellers loupe) is that the synthetic opal which have a more regular pattern to the structure. As they are grown in the lab they will build layers on top of each other and so regular columns are formed.
Opal Auctions, in Australia, who have a wealth of information about opals, produced this fascinating video which demonstrate how to spot a synthetic and simulant opal.
Real opal has an irregular pattern – hence the wonderful flashes of light.
Just because it is synthetic, it doesn’t mean that this man-made opal will be cheap. You can find many pieces of jewellery set with synthetic opal and they can still look stunning and demand a good price.
Simulant opals can be made of anything, for instance glass, but are just made to look like opal. These are called Opalite. This is flawless, but you won’t get the play of colour and it is in no way natural.
Opalite is a man-made glass stone used in jewellery making – these stones also seem to take on a luminous, blue glow as does a genuine opal and they look fabulous in silver jewellery, creating lovely flashes of light when worn, although you won’t get the play-of-colour that a natural, real opal gives.
Main Image: Deposit Photos