Arts & Crafts / Be Curious!

Opals: Fires and Rainbows

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but there are some things you never forget. My 16th birthday was memorable for two reasons. First, it marked the long-awaited start of driving lessons, and more than a few of you remember that joy. Of course, as an adult, I think it’s the apex of insanity to let 16 year olds drive car, but it sure meant the world to me back then. 

Australian white fire opal, a gift from my parents on my 16th birthday.

The second reason was a gift from my parents: a lovely opal ring. 

My birthstone, set in white gold, was the first piece of precious jewelry I ever owned. I felt like a princess when I wore it, and I wore it all the time. I’d stare at it under every kind of light, looking for new colors or changes in hue. Now, each time I see it in the box on my dresser, I’m still truly touched by how much my parents wanted to honor this special year by giving me something truly special.

A task for the Jeweler badge asks scouts to learn a little something about a stone or mineral used in jewelry, so in honor of October, my upcoming birthday, and my parents’ gift so long ago, I’d like to celebrate the opal, in all its brilliance. 

What, exactly is an opal?

Simple answer: a combination of silica and water. 

Silica is a pretty common mineral, it certainly can crystallize, and we see it in nature most often as quartz or sand. But silica, combined with some water and left alone to age in the crevices of sedimentary rock, form opals. The stones contain anywhere between 2 and 30 percent water, averaging around 10 percent. 

Halley’s Comet Opal: Biggest uncut opal (per Guinness Book of World Records), it weighs over 1900 carats.

As a consequence, opals are much softer than other gem stones and can even lose their luster if kept in an arid environment. In fact, opals want to be worn–they benefit from the skin’s moisture. But I don’t recommend wearing your opals on your next trip to the desert.

This extraordinary combination of silica and water creates a brilliant rainbow of color as light is refracted off of the silica, but this wasn’t actually confirmed until opals were viewed under an electron microscope in the mid-60s. The clarity and depth of color depends on the conditions under which the opal was formed. Red hues are prized and not as common as green and blue. Indeed, if you have red in your opal, you’ll find every other color in the rainbow as well. 

Where are opals found?

Opals were quite — no, incredibly — rare until the world’s largest deposits of opals were discovered in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, and the continent’s southern cattle country became the source for over 95 percent of the world’s quality, mined opals. You can also find them in Mexico, northern Brazil, parts of Africa, Idaho, and Nevada. 

The Flame Queen Opal: Perhaps the most famous opal, it features a (rare) red center.

Any legend, lore, or myth surrounding the opal?

Hell yes. Seriously, there’s nothing else on the planet quite like an opal. It only stands to reason that there’s some extraordinary mythology associated with it. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits I found in my research:

Etymology: From the Latin “opulus” and Sanskrit “upala,” opal means “precious stone.” The Romans called it “cupid paederos,” meaning “child as beautiful as love.” Ain’t that sweet?

Meaning: October’s gemstone has historically stood for hope, purity, and loyalty. 

Aboriginal Legend: Since almost all of the world’s opals now come from Australia, it should be no surprise that there is some indigenous legend from Down Under. Opals represent rainbows–the method of transport for the Creator to visit earth. And upon touching ground, opals appeared under the footsteps of the Creator. Isn’t that beautiful?

Protective Powers: Because opals include all the colors of the spectrum, they were been considered particularly powerful in Western countries through the ages. For instance, opals:

    • Frequently adorned crowns and regal jewelry to ward off the evil eye.
    • Were considered an aid to clairvoyance more powerful than a crystal ball.
    • Were believed to heal the body so well that they were even eaten.  
    • Prevented depression and sinister thoughts.
    • Cured shaky nerves, soothed eyes.
    • Protected a wearer from getting hit by lightning (!)
    • Inspired creativity and made wishes come true.

But then…

Bad Luck: Everything changed when Sir Walter Scott’s popular novel Anne of Geierstein was published in 1829. Damned if the book doesn’t feature an opal necklace with magical powers. It’s rendered colorless after encountering a bit of holy water, and its wearer dies. The result? Opal sales across Europe dropped by 50 percent, and this once-prized gemstone took on the stench of bad luck. Once a protectant, opals were now the evil eye.

Of course, none of us believe any of this stuff now, do we?

Believe what you will. As for me, I’m just sort of stunned by the unique beauty of this mineral, nature’s own Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” laser light show, in miniature.

 

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