Opal – A Phenomenal Gem
Renowned for its color-flashing phenomenon known as “play-of-color,” most types of opal display a vivid pattern of spectral colors that dance in the light.
Opal is formed from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. Play-of-color occurs because this gel forms microscopic spheres stacked in a grid-like pattern – like layers of ping-pong balls in a box. This structure breaks up light into spectral colors.
Opal is the October birthstone as well as the gemstone for the 14th anniversary. Opal has symbolized hope, purity and truth through the ages. Once it was thought to have the power to preserve the life and color of blond hair.
Ninety-five percent of all fine opals come from the dry and remote outback deserts of Australia. The rest are mined in Mexico, Brazil, and also in the US states of Idaho and Nevada.
Because opals can contain up to 30% water they are fairly brittle, delicate stones that rank only 5-6 on Mohs hardness scale. They are easily broken, cracked and abraded. If you are hard on your jewelry an opal ring is not the right piece of jewelry for you, instead a pendant worn safely around the neck would be a better match.
Black opal has a blue-black to gray body color, Its dark background serves to highlight the play-of-color.
Crystal opal tends to be transparent with bright color flashes suspended in its midst.
White opal, with its lighter to whitish body color, gives the full color array of colors in a more opaque background than crystal opal and is the most common opal variety in the jewelry industry.
Boulder opal is a solid opal still attached to the parent rock in which the opal was formed. The photographs show a boulder opal from the front, back, and side.
The veins of opal displaying the play-of-color are often quite thin, and this has given rise to unusual methods of preparing the stone as a gem. An opal doublet is a thin layer of colorful material, backed by a black mineral, such as ironstone, basalt or obsidian that enhances its natural colors.
You may be surprised to learn that not all opals have play-of-color. Fire opal has gained popularity with its yellow, orange, and red body color, and is generally presented as a faceted stone. This material is also known as “Mexican opal,” “gold opal,” or “sun opal.”
Myths and Superstitions
It’s unlucky to wear an opal if it’s not your birthstone.
This superstition comes not from ancient belief or experiences, but from a fiction book written in the 1800s! In fact, throughout most of history, opal has been regarded as the luckiest and most magical of all gems because it can show all colors.
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In 1829 Sir Walter Scott published his novel Anne of Geierstein, a book which irrevocably linked opal to the misfortune of the heroin. Having not read the third volume, the public jumped to the conclusion that the heroine has been bewitched, that her magic opal discolors when touched by holy water, and that she dies as a result. This book plunged opal prices in half in just one year and crippled the European opal market for decades. Even to this day opals are thought of as bad luck…yet most people don’t know why they believe this.
The book was misread but the superstition stuck. After careful examination of the texts, the opal, which actually belonged to Anne’s exotic grandmother, turns out to have turned pale as a warning to its owner against poisoning (which was the actual cause of her grandmother’s death). Opals later regained their favor when Queen Victoria, and opal devotee, presented her daughters with opals as a wedding gift.
Hopefully we can convince you to not believe the ill-founded myth that opals are bad luck, and enjoy opals as much as we do.
*Loose opal photos from www.opalsdownunder.com.au