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 this beautiful gemstone are still on some lists as the birthstone of October. So the 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 this gemstone. 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?
This gemstone is rare and very expensive in Ancient Times. And only royalty can afford a piece of this gem’s jewelry. In those days the symbol of fidelity and assurance is this gem. 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 this jewelry! And another practical feature is that when you wear it in bay leaves you 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?
This gemstone is unique. There are no two opals the same. So, if you are looking for a unique, one-of-a-kind, and perfect engagement ring, think about the opal. It symbolizes the special and exclusive love for each other. OK, enough advertising for this gem, because jewelers and dealers are doing that already.
If you buy this reasons, to buy an engagement ring made of this stunning gem, you might know that this amazing gemstone is very brittle and cracks fast, without the proper care. I don’t know whether it is such a good idea to give your love an engagement ring, set with an opal, knowing that it is so brittle. What does this say about your love for each other? Just saying.
The first reason why you must be very gentle with this gemstone is its hardness. It is only 5.6 to 6 on the scale of Moh. And it is commonly known that every gemstone with hardness less than 7, can be scratched by household dust. So if you wear a ring set with this gem, you should only wear it when you are sure that it cannot be damaged by other stones or even household dust. A real party ring, I would say.
Then the other reason to be careful with this beauty is water. About 3-21% of the weight contains water. That is how they are formed in the first place. Therefore the gemstone can dry out, crack, and break. But also a sudden rise or drop in temperature can be fatal for the gemstone.
Going from a warm house into the freezing cold can be enough to crack your opal. Besides that, when this gem loses its water, which is inside the stone, the gem may develop cracks and lose its color, and the play of color, which it is so famous for. Jewelers are not very fond of working with this stone. 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 this gem. 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 this gemstone is too brittle, they find a way… They invent the ‘opal doublet’. That is a dark-colored layer of the common variety of obsidian and on top, they place a thin layer of opal. The colors will look bright and more beautiful.
You have this system also with three layers. The third one is a layer of quartz or plastic and looks a bit artificial.
How to take care of your unique gemstone
First of all the chance to damage this gemstone is less when you set it in earrings, or a pendant. Just be careful with pieces of opal jewelry that can be damaged easily, like a ring or a bracelet. Or even a pendant on a longer chain that swings a lot. And as explained above you can think about purchasing a doublet or triplet of this gem, just for protection.
Then you can ask the jewelry or the silversmith (or goldsmith) to make a protective setting around the stone. When you blow it to a hard surface, it is not immediately broken. Think about a bezel setting, a cage-type setting, about solid backings and raised prongs.
There are people who wear an opal ring, that they already have for centuries, and maybe even is inherited and long in the family. You might be lucky, very careful, or just have a great gemstone. The above warnings are just to make sure that you can enjoy your opal for a very long time, without any problems.
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 is better for making jewelry.
After the decline of the popularity due to the novel of Walter Scott in 1877, the Australians discover a new type of opal. The black variety. An absolutely beautiful gemstone. And this one 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 experts 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.
Do you want to know more about the opal or the other birthstones? Ask for this free e-book, where you can find all the information you need and want to know. Just let me know where to send it to!
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