past & present

D*S Gem Handbook: The Opal

by Amy Azzarito

Design*Sponge / Gemstone Handbook: Opal
My birthstone is an opal, but it wasn’t until recently that I really began to appreciate the stone. I’m not sure if it had something to do with the fact that I had never really seen a truly beautiful opal, or from the stories I heard from my grandmother that opals are thought to be an unlucky stone. Luckily (for superstitious opal lovers), this fear is relatively new and unfounded. In fact, for centuries, many cultures credited the opal with supernatural origins and powers. Arabic legends say that the opal falls from the heavens in flashes of lightening. The ancient Greeks believed the opal to be the tears of Zeus and would bring its owner the gifts of foresight and prophecy. Romans loved the opal, believing it to be a symbol of hope and purity. Marc Antony was quite obsessed with it. And in medieval times, opals were thought to cure eye problems. So where did the unlucky superstition come from? It was the plot line of 19th century ghost story, Anne of Geierstein, by Sir Walter Scott that changed the perception – an opal, worn by the story’s heroine, brought her to her downfall.

The opal is a mixture of silica and varying amounts of water. It’s the water, which may form five to ten percent of the stone’s volume, that makes the opal such a beautiful gem. Those flashes of light that the opal is famous for come from a tiny silicon sphere. As one of the softer mineral gems, opals need to be cared for – for example, if you put them too close to a fire, they will crack and tarnish.  It was only recently that I discovered some of the beautiful opal varieties – like the black opal or the fire opal (I love this fire opal from Erie Basin), but the tip-top of my wish list is this opal necklace from Caitlin Mociun. It’s a bit out of my price range, but I’m keeping it firmly in my someday file. –Amy

Illustration by Max Tielman

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  • I, too, have been eyeing that opal necklace from Mociun for months now. Some day it will be mine…..oh yes, it will be mine.

  • I was told that the unlucky opal story was perpetuated by diamond merchants wishing to increase sales of diamonds as the opal was highly favoured by the Victorians as their favourite choice of gemstone…. Very unlucky for opal merchants!

  • I absolutely love opal and how ethereal and eerie it looks!
    I never knew about opals being unlucky, but I was raised in Russia, so we probably have different gem lore.

    I wonder if Gutenberg Project will see the increase in downloads of the Anne of Geierstein after this post! ^_^

  • A lot of people don’t realize that some Australian Opals are really “doublets” or “”triplets,” that is, little slivers of opal glued to a dark backing and in the case of a triplet, a covering of clear glass, quartz, or plastic on top. You have to be careful about getting these wet.

    My favorite are Boulder Opals, which have a more rugged, geode feel to them. They kind of remind me of aerial maps with the combination of brown stone mixed with sparkly blue green sections.

  • I’ve got a lovely antique enagement ring with 4 tiny blue opals arranged in a sort of cross, with a *tiny* diamond in the center and seed pearls on the outside between the opals. It also has rose gold for the band. All together, a lovely petite ring. Even more flaming when slightly damp (when I wash my hands). Gorgeous stone. Opal is my birth stone and this was my first piece of jewelry to feature it. Always admired the blue version the most.