Every month has its own birthstone and some months even have two. Which gemstone makes it to the honorary title of the birthstone of the month decides the GIA, the Gemological Institute of America. Until 1912 the opal is the gemstone of October. But after that date, the National Association of Jewelers decides that on the birthstone list only transparent gemstones are allowed. The tourmaline replaces the opal. But not all people like the change and the opal is still on some lists as the birthstone of October. So the big question of today is ‘Is the opal the birthstone of October? Yes? No? Maybe?’.
Meeting my first opal.
In the 1970s, just after my graduation in the Netherlands, I got a job as a history and geography teacher in Queensland Australia. At the time when you get a job as a teacher there, you have to teach at least one week in one of the Aboriginal settlements. Most of my predecessors don’t like it there. But I love adventure and don’t mind eating a lizard now and then. Just to avoid having to eat beetles. The people are lovely and very original. Maybe they learn a lot from me, but certainly, I learned a lot from them. And at the end of my assignment, I get an opal as a present.
It is a very dear gift from people I admire. Knowing that Aboriginal have a very expressive culture and that they survive in the desert for days, give them a special place in my heart. But that opal… well… it is not my piece of cake. Anyway, not that color. It is a matter of taste, but all the same.
The Aboriginal story
The Aboriginal leader of the village near Quilpie/Queensland loves symbols and he loves the stories of his predecessors. And I tell you, there are quite a few stories that he tells sitting around a campfire. Not written down, but all oral history.
One evening he tells me the story of the opal. The creator of the universe decides to visit earth one day. And he uses a rainbow as a way to get here. He slides with his feet over the rainbow as a kind of slide. The beautiful colors of the rainbow stick on his feet. And when he lands on earth the ‘landing stones’ turn into opals. And that is why they are found mostly in Australia and have so many colors.
Does it bring luck or bad luck?
Opal is rare and very expensive in the Ancient Times. And only royalty can afford a piece of opal jewelry. In those days the symbol of fidelity and assurance is the opal. And it has the power to heal eye diseases.
The gemstone becomes very popular in the Middle Ages. Especially in Western Europe where a lot of blond ladies live. They believe that if you wear this gem it prevents your hair from graying. Even now that is THE reason to wear opal jewelry! And another practical feature is that when you wear it in a bay leave you to become invisible. Therefore this gemstone is the patron of the thieves.
Walter Scott destroys the great reputation
In 1829 Walter Scott writes a novel called ‘Anne of Geierstein’. The main character of the book (Hermoine) wears a hairpin with opal and the gem changes color when the mood of Hermoine changes. One day her granddaughter is baptized and a drop of holy water falls on the hairpin. The stone on the pin loses its color, breaks, and she died soon after.
The novel by Walter Scott becomes very popular and many people read the book. The result is that the popularity of this gem drops by 50% and stays low for more than 20 years.
Is this the only reason people avoid buying them?
About 3-21% of the weight of the opal contains water. Therefore the gemstone can dry out, crack, and break. Jewelers are not very fond of working with this gemstone. Since also here counts: you buy what you break.
The jewelers who know how to handle this ‘problem’ make only cabochons of the stone. It is too brittle to make beads. That is when you use the ‘precious’ variety. This type of opal has regular planes inside the stone and when the light comes in you get an iridescence effect. When you move the stone a bit into the light you see all the colors of the rainbow. Absolutely stunning. And sad for me, the Aboriginal chief gave me not a precious, but the common variety of opal. But all the same I love his gesture as a token of our friendship.
What to do with the ‘precious’ variety
Jewelers are clever people and when the opal is too brittle, they find a way… They invent the ‘opal doublet’. That is a dark-colored layer of the common variety or obsidian and on top, they place a thin layer of opal. The colors will look more bright and more beautiful.
You have this system also with three layers. The third one if a layer of quartz or plastic and looks a bit artificial.
The common variety is more practical
The common type has a hazy-milky sheen in the stone. It has a lot of colors and all the colors form its own variety, like resin- or wood opal. When this type of stone is faceted the light shines beautifully on the beads, but it has only one color. It is not brittle and better for making jewelry.
The uprising of the opal
After the decline of the popularity of the opal due to the novel of Walter Scott in 1877, the Australians discover a new type of opal. The black opal. An absolutely beautiful gemstone. And this opal I love. And in 2008 in the Wollo Province of Ethiopia, people find another variety. It has a lighter background and a vivid color range. Gorgeous.
I already mention it quite a few times in my blog posts. When a gemstone gets popular and is expensive there are always people who want to copy it and make money. This gem is no exception. Especially in Japan are expert that make excellent copies: Kyocera and Inamori. Sometimes the stone is partly opal combined with plastic or foiled glass. These opals don’t change colors under ultraviolet light.
How to take care of your opal?
Opal contains up to 20% of water and they are porous. So don’t leave them in the sunlight or other hot conditions since they dry out and crack. And never put them in an oily or chemical substance, since that substance will enter the opal and it will lose its beautiful color. Good maintenance is to put your opal in pure water now and then.