History of Opal
Opals, ‘the Queen of Gems’, and one of the most beautiful gemstones in the world has been treasured throughout all of history. The word Opal comes from a few different places, the Latin word ‘Opalus’, the Greek word ‘Opallios’ & the word ‘Upala’ meaning ‘Precious Stone’.
When Was Opal First Discovered?
Archaeological evidence suggests that Opal was first mined in Virgin Valley, North America, over 10,000 years ago and used in artefacts in Kenya 6 thousand years ago. Additionally history also suggests that the Aztecs were mining opal in South and Central America around the same time.
Opal was discovered in Australia at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales in the late 1880s and the first shaft was dug in 1901 or 1902. While it did not appear on the world market until the 1890’s, today it is the national stone of the country and 95% of the world market is supplied by Australia. Prior to the emergence of Australian opal on the market, opal was sourced primarily in Hungary and South America. Consequently, it rumoured the Hungarian Opal miners promoted the idea that Australian opal was not genuine due to the brilliant colours that Australian Opals have compared to other countries.
The Australian Aborigines have understood the opal’s unique energy and beauty since the Dreaming times. They bestowed the name of ‘Rainbow Serpent’ upon this remarkable gem and described its creation: “The Creator took the colours of the rainbow, and put them into stone to make opal”. Another story tells of the Creator travelling via a rainbow road to spread a message of peace on earth. With each step, the stones underfoot turned into tiny, tangible rainbows or Opals.
Historical Mentions of Opals
If you look back through history you will find that Opals are mentioned and worn by some of the most influential figures that lived. For example the ancient Greek Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.E.), quoted his friend Onomacritus as saying: “the delicacy of the opal reminds me of a loving and beautiful child”.
Also in Roman times , when Mark Antony (83-30 B.C.E.) wished to present an opal ring to Cleopatra, the senator Nonius fled rather than give it up to him. Lastly the famous author & natural philosopher, Pliny (23-79 C.E.), described his opal purchase: “having a refulgent fire of the carbuncle (ruby or garnet), the glorious purple of amethyst, the sea green of emerald, and all those colors glittering together mixed in an incredible way.”
Moving forward to the Middle Ages a Holy Roman Emperor included opals in his crown and Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned the opal as “a miracle” and the now famous saying the “Queen of Gems”. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) wore opals throughout her life and delighted in presenting them to her friends and to other Royal Family members.
Opal Myths & Cultural References
You will also find in history that there are a lot of myths & cultural traditions that revolve around Opals. One myth in particular involves ancient gods and opals. Zeus, the Greek king of the gods, was so happy when he defeated the Titans that he wept tears that turned into opals upon hitting the ground. Also the Indian Goddess of the Rainbow was reportedly so beautiful that many male gods sought her favour. Eventually, as a desperate act of escape from their advances, she turned herself into the rainbow-coloured opal.
The Ancient Greeks believed that Opala conferred the gifts of foresight and prophecy while assisting the wearer to lessen their inhibitions and reveal true feelings. Arabs believed that Opals fell from the heavens in flashes of lightning, which is what gave them their fiery colours, while Ancient Romans would seek out Opals more then any other gemstone due to the belief that they would bring great furtune.
Throughout the Middle Ages (5th – 14th centuries) Opal was known as ‘ophthalmios’, meaning the eye stone which was due to a widespread belief that it was beneficial to the eyes. Blond women also wore opal necklaces around this time to protect their hair from losing its colour.
However there was a period in history during the late 18th and 19th centuries that Opal fell out of favour, as it became associated with pestilence, famine and the fall of monarchies. While Europe was plagued with Black Death, it was rumoured that an opal worn by a patient was aflame with colour right up to the point of death, and then lost its brilliance after the wearer died.
Also there is a tale of a cursed Opal that existed in the 19th century, Spain. King Alfonso XII of Spain had received an opal ring from a vengeful Comtesse he had previously courted. After presenting the Opal ring to his wife, she died unexpectedly. The ring passed through the family, and each new owner also died mysteriously. Finally, the King decided to wear it himself, and he also died within a short time. Although cholera had reached epidemic status at that time killing over 100,000 people from all class levels, many still blame the deaths on the cursed opal ring. The ware bouts of the Opal ring are now not known.
Some additional articles you might be interested in are:
Historic Superstitions of Opals – Are Opals Lucky? Are they bad luck? Do they have special powers? Read about how Opals have been viewed throughout history.