by Linda Heaphy March 23, 2017 2 min read

October's child is born for woe,
And life's vicissitudes must know,
But lay an opal on her breast,
And hope will lull those woes to rest.

Massive blue banded opal from Barco River, Queensland, Australia. Photograph taken at the Natural History Museum, London. Photo credit: Aramgutang

A vey much-misunderstood stone, renowned the world over for its fiery iridescence and flashes of magnificent colour, the beautiful precious opal is actually classified as a mineraloid gel, comprising tightly packed silica spheres and up to 20% water molecules. The famed opal fires are by causing the interference and diffraction of light as it passes through the silica spheres.  The word opal is derived from the Latin word opalus which simply means stone.

Opals make beautiful jewellery and are highly esteemed as semi-precious gemstones, although the quality and value of stones can vary enormously depending on their size, depth of fire and colour. Opals range in colour from clear through white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, brown and black.  Of these hues, black is the most rare and valuable, with the finest specimens valued at more per carat than diamonds.  White and green opals are the most common colours and only exceptional specimens fetch high market prices. No two opals are exactly the same, making close-matched stones all the more highly prized.

Blue-green opal veins in ferruginous (iron-rich) rock from Australia. Photograph taken at the Natural History Museum, London. Photo credit: Aramgutang

Opals are mined from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Czechoslovakia and the USA. However Australia produces 97% of stones on the market and has long been recognized as the source of the rarest and most valuable specimens.  Not surprisingly, the opal is Australia's national stone.

Historically, opals hold a special place in the heart of mankind. Cleopatra is said to have worn opals to attract Mark Anthony, Queen Victoria had a particular liking for them and an exceptionally beautiful stone called the "The Burning of Troy" was presented to Joséphine by Napoleon I of France.  Traditionally considered by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be a lucky stone with protective powers, opals were thereafter set into the crowns and necklaces of rulers the world over. In the Middle Ages opals were believed to confer the power of invisibility if wrapped in a fresh bay leaf and held in the hand and in modern times opal jewellery was believed to provide wearers with hope and good health and keep them pure in the face of adversity.  However, a novelcalled Anne of Geierstein by Walter Scott and published in 1829 featured an opal talisman with an evil history. Thereafter people began to associate opals with bad luck and death, a reputation that has only recently been overcome, restoring the opal to its place of glory amongst the gemstones of the world.

Not tonight Josephine: an exceptionally beautiful stone called
the "The Burning of Troy" was presented to her by Napoleon I of France

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

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