The Opal Birthstone For October

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precious opal gem

        It seems very appropriate that the opal with vivid play of color should have been selected as October’s birthstone, for in this beautiful gem the fire of autumn foliage, the blue of autumn skies, wood-smoke, and sparkling sunshine are found in happy union.

       The opal is the most unique of the gemstones, differing from the rest not only in color aspect but in formation as well. It is not of a crystalline structure although it is related in many ways to the quartz gems. It is, in reality, a solidified jelly, its color display being due to the existence of thin films (probably of a slightly different density), filling what once were cracks in the mass. The rainbow colors are the result of interference of light, the varying thickness of the films causing the different colors.

       While opals of different varieties are found in many parts of the world, the best gemstones come from the mines of Hungary and New South Wales. The New South Wales deposits were discovered quite by accident. In 1889 a hunter, when tracking a wounded kangaroo in the arid and forbidding White Cliffs district, picked up an attractively colored opal. But for such a chance the Australian deposits might still remain hidden.

       Very beautiful fire-opals and cherry-opals are found in Mexico but these stones are not of great value, being somewhat softer, more porous, and more apt to lose their color than the Hungarian and Australian gems. In Mexico the practice of immersing the gems in hot oil to improve their color is quite current, a dubious improvement, for gems that have been so treated soon go back to their original state.

       By popular preference the black-opal of New South Wales finds the readiest market, probably because it has been untouched by the stigma of totally unfounded bad luck‚ superstitions which have been associated with the opal in the past.


       The opal or opallus was known in Roman days although it was then a very rare gem and ranked next to the emerald in value.

       In all probability the Romans did not have access to the mines of Hungary, and it is generally believed that the opals obtained by them came from deposits in India or Arabia although those sources (if they everexisted), have long since been exhausted.

       The opal alone among the gemstones was developed to its full beauty in the hands of the Romans, for as it was quite soft and invariably cut en cahochon (dome shape), its cutting and polishing were a matter of time and care alone.

       The keen admiration excited by the opalin those days is evidenced by Pliny’s enthusiastic description of the stone: ”Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe it is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. In it is the burning fire of the Carbuncle, the brilliant purple of the Amethyst, the sea-green of the Emerald, all shining together in incredible union. Some aim at rivalling in lustre the brightest azure of the painter’s palette, others the flame of burning sulphur, or of a fire quickened by


rough cut opal


       The opal was regarded as a stone possessing the united virtues of every gem whose color it contained, being especially potent in warding sickness and infirmities of the eyes from the wearer.
It was also believed to have the power of rendering its wearer invisible and for this reason was especially favored by thieves.
       That the beauty of the opal was fully appreciated in the sixteenth century was shown by one writer of that period who states that he once bought one of these stones for fifteen gold crowns and found as much pleasure in its possession as he did in that of a diamond that had cost him five hundred crowns. Although superstitions were the rule rather than the exception at that time, none of the silly fancies regarding the ominous qualities of the opal were then current.


       It is probable that the mid 1800s superstition connecting the opal with misfortune owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott’s novel ”Anne of Geierstein” wherein an ill-fated princess always wore a dazzling opal in her hair. The story contains nothing to indicate that Scott meant to represent the stone as unlucky, but without question the impression created by the book, coupled with the fact that opals, on rare occasions, have been known to lose their color or break because of climatic conditions, have served to prevent many from owning and enjoying this most beautiful gem. Another factor in fostering this superstition has undoubtedly been the fact that because of its fragility the opal has always been disliked by the gem-cutters (who are sometimes held responsible to the owners for breakage.)


       An amusing incident relating to the superstitious belief in the malign influence of the opal, is found in the experience of a little Parisian shop-girl, who, while awaiting an opportunity to cross a traffic-crowded street, was confronted by a well-dressed woman. Suddenly removing a beautiful opal from her own hand the woman placed it on that of the girl, who, being of a practical nature, went to the nearest jeweler for the purpose of selling it. There, however, she was arrested on suspicion of having stolen the gem, but upon being taken before a magistrate her story was given some credence. Personal advertisements in widely read newspapers soon brought the original owner who explained that her superstitious dread of the stone had led her to resort to the means which we have related for getting rid of it.


       The late Queen Victoria of England, scoffing at superstition, was a great admirer of the opal and wore the stone on every occasion. Her patronage undoubtedly did more to restore the beautiful gem to its present and rightful popularity than any other influence.


       In Turkey it was once believed that the opal was not a mineral of the earth, but was a heavenly gem, a promise of the glories of the hereafter, which descended to the earth in the lightning flashes.


       Among the famous opals, the one most deserving of first place was the Opal of Nonius” a gem the size of a hazel-nut (the largest of its kind up to that time), then valued at a quarter of a million dollars in our money today. Its possessor. Nonius, a Roman senator, was proscribed by Mark Anthony purely for the sake of the gem, but he made his escape carrying the ring with him. About the middle of the eighteenth century a peasant found an opal as large as a hazel-nut, set in a ring, in some old ruins at Alexandria. Popular fancy identified this as the ”Opal of Nonius” but facts render this identification extremely doubtful. An opal probably would not hold its color over a period of nearly twenty-one centuries.


       In medieval times a splendid opal was set in the crown of the Holy Roman Empire (to preserve the regal honor). There was a tradition that this gem once shone in the night time.
       The Empress Josephine owned one of the finest opals of modern times. This stone was known as the ”Burning of Troy.” Its present owner is not known.
       A gigantic opal was exhibited in the Imperial Cabinet at Vienna, for which, it is said, the incredible sum of $250,000 was offered and refused.


       We are more than justified in returning to the old belief in the manifold virtues of the opal, only remembering that the gem is a little more fragile than others and should be handled a little more carefully. Its wonderful play of color will be a never- ceasing source of pleasure to its owner, and in that respect, the stone will be a true bringer of good fortune. Wood

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