With Halloween just around the corner, it seems only fitting to explore the legends and lore surrounding the beautiful gemstones we use for personal adornment. Opal, October’s birthstone, is a stone deeply enshrouded in omens and legends, good and bad.
For most of ancient history, opal was revered as a symbol of purity and hope throughout cultures around the world. The Greeks attributed opals with the power of prophesy and the ability to protect them from disease, while in Middle Eastern legend, opals were said to have fallen from the sky as flashes of lightning struck the earth, trapping the electric flashes within the stone. The Romans viewed opal as the luckiest of gemstones, endowing its owner with the power of invisibility when wrapped in bay leaf and carried upon his or her person. Yet not all interpretations were as favorable.
Lightning Ridge Opal in Platinum
Opal and the Plague
In the eleventh century, Bishop Marbode of Rennes wrote of opal, “…Yet ’tis the guardian of the thievish race; it gifts the bearer with acutest sight; but clouds all other eyes with thickest night.” Many believe his words were centered around the long-standing legend that opal could make its possessor invisible, and thus made the perfect patron stone for spies and thieves.
By the time the Plague arrived in medieval Europe, opal’s dark omens were only becoming more onerous. Rumors began to circulate that opals burnt with fiery intensity when worn by those afflicted with the dreaded illness…only to lose their luster almost entirely upon the death of the ill-fated patient. One theory today is that the changes in color intensity occurred due to the conductive traits of the stone, which many say will show its color more vibrantly when warmed by body heat. If the gemstone was worn by an individual ravaged by fever, perhaps the stone appeared more vibrant…and once the skin cooled in death the color of the once fiery opal took a similar pallor in contrast to its previous fiery tone. Regardless of the reason, opal became associated with the illness and death so prevalent at the time (at varying times in history the plague killed off as much as a full 52 percent of the population).
Opal's Revival...and Subsequent Fall from Grace
By the 1800’s, opals popularity had soared once again, but fell dramatically with the publication of a popular book. In 1829, Sir Walter Scott published Anne of Geierstein. Perhaps never before or since has a novel had such an impact on the marketability of a precious gem.
Hermione, the lead character, wore an opal comb in her hair that was said to flash intensely and brilliantly with her moods and general disposition. In the novel Hermione is accused of demonic association. When the opal is splashed with holy water, Hermione meets her almost immediate demise, and the fate of opal seemed to be sealed with her death and its new association with evil. Sales plummeted, and for decades women refused to wear the damned gem.
Queen Victoria’s love for the stone helped to revive the opal market, only to see it dwindle again after the death of her beloved King Albert. Victoria no longer gave the stone as a gift associated with marriage, and its popularity once again waned as it became associated with death and mourning. In reality, more pragmatic factors may have also been at play.
Opal Reigns Again
Opal is notoriously delicate, and gem cutters often dreaded cutting the stone in fear that it might break as it was honed and polished. Diamond dealers of the day also saw the emergence of the lustrous gem as a threat, and were rumored to have actively embraced any and all superstitions that might have thwarted its sales, particularly in engagement jewelry.
Thankfully, today we have learned much more about the requirements of care for this beautifully delicate gem, and recognize these legends as what they truly are – superstitions and explanations for the phenomenon exhibited by a gorgeous gem that had special properties which were poorly understood at the time.