All about Opals
by Sasha t on Oct 03, 2023
All About Opals: A Gemstone of Mystique and Elegance
When you step into the world of estate jewelry, it’s not just about the craftsmanship of the piece but also the stories, myths, and history associated with each gemstone. Opals, with their dazzling display of colors and mesmerizing patterns, are among the most intriguing gemstones in the world. Today we’re going to take a peek into the October birthstone and its enchanted universe full of significance and stories.
First things first - what is an Opal?
The name opal is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word upala, which means 'jewel', and later the Greek derivative opállios. The ancient Greeks believed opals gave their owners the gift of prophecy and guarded them from disease. Europeans have long considered the gem a symbol of hope, purity, and truth.
Opal is a form of silica, similar to quartz, but the stone is not made up of crystal, instead it’s made up of tiny transparent spheres. When discussing Opal, there are two broad classifications: precious and common. Common opals are found all around us, precious opals are what we will be discussing - the opals found in fine jewelry today.
There are two broad types of opal: precious and common. Precious opal displays a play-of-color, commonly known as an iridescence, caused by its internal structure which diffracts light, while common opal does not.
Like all other stones, the four C’s of Precious Opals are important when assessing them -
Precious Opals come in many colors like white, blue, black, and water (a transparent or colorless opal), or fire (a red, yellow, orange, or brown opa)l. Black is traditionally the most valuable color, but like everything else - it’s important to find a color that speaks to you!
A unique attribute to consider when thinking about the color of an opal is play of color. Play of color occurs because light entering an opal passes through the gaps between the silica spheres.When it comes to defining the type of color play they exude, there are two descriptors used frequently - Pinpoint: small patches, close together or Harlequin: larger, more angular patches that Flash: Flashes, or sheets of color that appear and disappear when the gem is moved. Transparent opals can be faceted; some faceted opals have play of color, others do not.
Unlike other stones, opals are not usually faceted. They are cut into an oval dome that allows light to travel around and through the stone - if an opal is not cut properly, it will be more susceptible to damage.
Saturation, hue, and tone determine an opal’s clarity. Transparency is also a factor. A brighter, more saturated colored gem will be of higher value than the same-colored opal possessing a lighter hue.
Like most gemstones, opals are cut and measured by carats, which of course will have an influence on its value!
While opals are found in various parts of the world, Australia is by far the largest producer, accounting for 90% of the world's precious opal supply. Famous regions within Australia include Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy, and Andamooka. Each of these regions produces opals with unique color spectrums and patterns. Other countries, including Ethiopia, Mexico, and Brazil, also produce beautiful opals. Ethiopian opals, for instance, have become more popular in recent years due to their striking patterns and vivid colors.
The History of Opals
Opals have been admired for their beauty for millennia, with ancient civilizations weaving tales around them. The ancient Romans, for instance, believed opals to be the most powerful and precious of all gemstones since they encapsulated the beauty of all other gems. They named the stone "opalus," meaning "precious stone."
The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, thought opals bestowed the gift of foresight and prophecy upon their owners. Meanwhile, indigenous Australian legends describe opals as "creator’s footprints on Earth," relating the gemstone's origin to a mythical time when gods walked the earth.
Queen Victoria - An Opal Advocate
Across various cultures, opals have been symbols of purity, hope, and good fortune. In Europe during the Renaissance period, opals were believed to provide great luck since it was believed they possessed the virtues of each gemstone whose color was represented in the opal's unique color spectrum.
However, during the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott's novel "Anne of Geierstein" depicted the opal as a harbinger of bad luck and misfortune. In the story, the heroine owns a magical opal that changes colors with her moods. After a drop of holy water falls on the opal, it loses its color, and she soon withers away and dies. The story was hugely popular, and sales of opals reportedly plummeted in Europe after its publication.
Queen Victoria played a significant role in popularizing the opal and countering its reputation of bad luck, at least in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria's decision to wear opals and gift them to her loved ones was in direct defiance of the superstitions surrounding the gemstone. Her actions helped diminish the belief in the so-called "curse" of the opal in England and its colonies. She had a notable collection of opals and wore them regularly. Her fondness for the gem was evident, and, as with many things she endorsed or adopted, it set a trend among the British aristocracy and the general public. This act further endorsed opals as a gemstone of choice and associated them with the royal family's prestige. From an economic perspective, Queen Victoria's fondness for opals provided a boost to the Australian opal market, which was at the time, operating in earnest. Her patronage helped establish Australia as a leading source of high-quality opals.
Queen Victoria's reign had a significant influence on fashion, culture, and societal norms. Her choice to embrace opals, a gem once shrouded in superstition, reshaped its image during the Victorian era. Her influence made opals a popular choice for jewelry among the women of her era and for many eras to come.
A fun fact is that Queen Victoria wasn’t the only royal who loved opals - another Royal who had quite a love of opals was the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Presley had an impressive collection of jewelry and loved opal rings. He wore them himself and gifted them to the women he loved.
Significant Opals Over Time
Over the eras, various opals have gained prominence for their size, beauty, or tales attached to them.
The Olympic Australis Opal: Extracted from the famous opal region of Coober Pedy in South Australia in 1956, this remains the largest and most valuable gem opal ever found. Weighing 17,000 carats, it's a testament to the magnificent treasures hidden beneath the earth.
The Flame Queen Opal: Hailing from Lightning Ridge, this opal is unique due to its stunning harlequin pattern. Unlike many opals that have a scattered play of color, the Flame Queen showcases a beautiful, symmetrical pattern.
The Aurora Australis: Discovered in New South Wales by miner Charlie Dunstan, the Aurora Australius is a 180 carat black opal. This opal is considered the most valuable black opal and got its name because of its symmetrical pattern that resembles the southern lights.
The Andamooka Opal: Presented to Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s during her first visit to Australia, this opal weighs 203 carats. It's set into a pendant and remains one of the most historically significant opals to this day.
Opals, with their fiery play of colors, aren’t just gemstones. They are a universe of stories, history, and mystery waiting to be adorned and adored. Whether it's a large piece of estate jewelry or a simple opal pendant, the stone's enchanting allure remains timeless. At Jack Weir & Sons, we recognize and celebrate the magnificence of opals, offering pieces that pay homage to this gemstone's unparalleled beauty.
We’d love to talk to you if you are looking for a particular opal piece - please feel free to reach out to us to chat!
At Jack Weir & Sons, we’ve spent the last 40 years traveling to Europe and all over the world, curating extraordinary estate jewels. JWS is where the old world meets the new world. Celebrate life, preserve history, and discover your own priceless heirloom jewel. We are extremely grateful for our clients and the ability to help people to celebrate their special moments through one-of-a-kind jewelry. To share that gratitude and our strong family values, we chose to partner with Baby2Baby. So far, we've donated $125,000. A portion of every sale goes towards children living in poverty to provide them with diapers, clothing, and all the basic necessities that every child deserves.
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