On Opal, by Pliny the Elder, First Century A.D. --
"Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe them is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. For there is amongst them the gentler fire of the ruby, there is the rich purple of the amethyst, there is the sea-green of the emerald, and all shining together in an indescribable union. Others, by an excessive heightening of their hues equal all the colours of the painter, others the flame of burning brimstone, or of a fire quickened by oil."
Ethiopia is considered to be one of the finest sources for opal, and when you look it, you can see why. The stone has a high transparency, which means you can facet, carve, make into cabochons, or of course, beads. The color is unreal – they seem to float in the gem and project from the surface. And the number of colors in a single piece is only rarely seen in Australian opals. Color patterns are varied and unique. Just look at what some of our Etsy artisan colleagues have done with this sort of thing! To the right is the exquisite creation of Mindy Greenville of MindyG – a necklace of Ethiopian opal and purple amethyst, with a Mother of Pearl pendant. Unique and beautiful!
Color patterns of this opal are varied. Below is an exquisite sample from Gemsafari on Etsy – multicolor rondelle beads. Opals with ‘play of color’ have always been considered one of the most desired gems in the marketplace, earning it the oft-used title of “Queen of Gemstones”.
Although it has been reported that Northern African opal was used to make tools as early as 4000 BC, the first published report of gem opal from Ethiopia occurred in 1994, with the discovery of precious opal in the Menz Gishe District, North Shewa Province. The opal, found mostly in the form of nodules, was of volcanic origin and was found predominantly within weathered layers of rhyolite. This Shewa Province opal was mostly dark brown in color and had a tendency to crack. These qualities made it unpopular in the gem trade. In 2008, a new opal deposit was found near the town of Wegel Tena, in Ethiopia's Wollo Province. The Wollo Province opal was different from the previous Ethiopian opal finds in that it more closely resembled the sedimentary opals of Australia and Brazil, with a light background and often vivid play-of-color. Wollo Province opal, more commonly referred to as "Welo" or "Wello" opal, has become the dominant Ethiopian opal in the gem trade. With the discovery of this precious and stable opal, this gem is now one of the most in-demand gemstones in the 21st century.
Below is another example of some inspiring work with with this opal. Check out artisan Anjali Singh of Studio1980. The beautiful bracelet below at right is called an "Om Spiritual' bracelet -- handmade with natural Ethiopian opal and sterling silver. Love it!
Ethiopian opal is a magical gem to me -- as each one has its own delicate beauty. It is said to be a stone of great success, and is the birthstone of October (these lucky folks can also choose Tourmaline as their stone). According to legend, opal came to earth through a journey involving rainbows! Opal is thought to have been discovered as long as 4,000 years ago, and myths and lore abound in practically all cultures. The ancient Greeks thought opal to be the tears of Zeus and prised it as highly as diamonds. They believed opal gave the gift of foresight and prophecy, which would ensure the owner success in war, business and life. The ancient Romans wore opal as a symbol of hope and purity and believed it could cure illness. In ancient India, opal was referred to as the Goddess of the Rainbow, turned to stone. Ancient Arab cultures believed opal had fallen from the sky and that the play of colour was trapped lightning. According to Arab lore, opal could make the wearer invisible. The ancient Australian aborigines, however, envisaged a more sinister origin. They thought opal to be half serpent and half devil, and that the brightly coloured fire within was an attempt to lure them into the devil's lair.
Pliny the Elder in his writings tells of a Roman senator called Nonius who, in 35 BC, owned a ring set with a particularly beautiful opal the size of a hazelnut and valued at 2,000,000 sesterces. Roman General Mark Antony decided he must have Nonius' opal, but when Nonius refused to sell, the enraged Antony banished him. Nonius fled Rome, leaving behind all his possesions, save the opal ring which was the cause of his exile. Opal has been thought to have healing powers in many world cultures, and in the middle ages, it became known as the Opthalmius, or Eye Stone, and was thought to strenghten eyesight. Blonde maidens wore opals to protect their hair from fading or darkening.
So, how did opal get its reputation for bringing bad luck? There are many theories, but most historians point to the 1829 Sir Walter Scott novel, Anne of Geierstein. According to an article at Opals Down Under, "Having not read the third volume, the public jumped to the conclusion that the heroine has been bewitched, that her magic opal discolours when touched by holy water, and that she dies as a result. On carefully examining the texts, Si Frazier, writing in Lapidary Journal, found all three accusations false. 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). Even so, this single work plunged opal prices to half in just one year and crippled the European opal market for decades." Gemmologist George F. Kunz, author of The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, wrote, "There can be little doubt that much of the modern superstition regarding the supposed unlucky quality of the opal owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott's novel, 'Anne of Geierstein'. The wonderful tale... contains nothing to indicate that Scott really meant to represent opal as unlucky."
Another explanation for opal's bad luck reputation is that when Australia began producing high quality precious opal in the 1890s, opal began to rival diamond in popularity, so the diamond merchants began spreading the rumor that opals brought bad luck to the wearer. It was effective, and even today, there are those who believe it is unlucky to buy or wear one unless it is your birthstone.
However, Queen Victoria didn't buy into the notion that opals brought bad luck. She loved opals and made sure her subjects knew she placed no stock in the superstitions. Throughout her reign, she wore opals herself and gave them to her daughters as gifts. The Queen's efforts have been credited with helping opal shed its bad luck reputation and regain popularity with the public.
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Until Next Time,