opal, jewelry, october birthstone

October Opal: the Gem of Misfortune

teardrop earringsWhile it’s not uncommon for a given month to have an alternate birthstone (September celebrates both the sapphire and the lapis), October birthdays are especially exciting as their birthstones reflect every color of the rainbow.  The multi-colored opal is the “official” October birthstone (as well as the symbol of the 14th year of marriage)  with the prismatic tourmaline serving as the alternate stone.

“Between tourmaline (whose color depends on trace elements in its chemical makeup) and opal (which diffracts light to show a play of multiple colors), October’s birthstones offer a full spectrum of gems to suit anyone’s personal tastes.” Ancient legends told that both stones came to earth via a rainbow (hence their multi-colored tones).  What makes these stones fascinating is their colorful histories that, perhaps, overshadow their varied hues.

This week, we’re looking at the brilliant opal, revered since ancient times.  Next week, we’ll be sharing the history of the varied tourmaline.

Celebrating an October birthday or anniversary or do you just love the colorful variety of opal and tourmaline? Gallery Byzantium offers select pieces set with tourmaline.

See another piece you that you love but would like set with an opal or tourmaline? Give us a call at 800-798-6173 or e-mail us at info@gallerybyzantium and we’d be happy to customize one of our pieces for you!

All About Opal

Brooch. Marcus and Co.. ca. 1900. Gold, opal, and enamel. New York. Via metmuseum.org.

The name “opal” is derived from the Greek word “opallios,” which roughly translates to “a change in color.”  The name is fitting as opals reflect a kaleidoscope of colors, ranging from opaque to semi-transparent.  Roman scholar Pliny first used the word “opalus” to describe the shades of opal.  He deemed the gemstone a talisman of good fortune as it contained the “glories of the most precious gems—the gentle fire of ruby, the rich purple of amethyst, the deep blue of sapphire, and the sea-green of emerald, all shining together in an indescribable union.”

White opals are the most common.  They have a milky-white body color speckled with rainbow pastels.  The black opal is the most revered.  Its blue, grey, or black body color better-reflects the saturated rainbow tones. There are also the crystal and fire opals whose translucent clear or yellow/red bodies flash with brilliant colors within (fire opals, more intense in their translucent tone, may not contain these inner colors).

“[O]pal is made up of water and silica (the main component in glass).”  Unlike other gemstones which are cut in faceted shapes, nearly all opals are cabochon cut (with the exception of the fire opal which is typically faceted to reflect and accentuate its brilliant color).

While this gem is desirable for jewelry, it does require some care.  Opal has a hardness of 5.5-6 on the Mohs scale making it susceptible to scratches and cracks and vulnerable to direct light, extreme temperature, and dehydration.  Australia is the world’s main supply of opal, producing 95% of opals available worldwide.

Opal Lore

Pendant. René-Jules Lalique. ca. 1901. Gold, enamel, opal, pearl, diamonds. Paris. Via metmuseum.org

Since their discovery, opals have been the subject of legends and lore.  However, their reputation has changed greatly throughout the centuries.

Initially, opals were associated with good luck and fortune:

“The Romans believed it to be a symbol of hope, like the rainbow. The Greeks believed the opal gave its owner the gift of prophecy, and the Arabians thought the stone rained from heaven in flashes of lightning. In the Middle Ages, people believed the opal was essential to good eyesight, and young women wore them in their hair to ensure their hair color would never fade.”

Opals’ popularity suffered a great blow in the 19th century, however, with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Gierestein.  In the novel, the character of an enchanted princess wears an opal that changes color with her moods (much like a 19th century version of a mood ring).  When it comes into contact with holy water, though, the colors are extinguished and the princess dies.  It was then that “[p]eople began associating opals with bad luck. Within a year after publication of Scott’s book, opal sales in Europe fell by 50 percent.”

Brooch. Marie Zimmermann. ca. 1920-28. Gold, black opal, shattuckite, green tourmalines, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and enamel. New York. Via metmuseum.org

From there, dubious legends emerged ranging from a Black Plague victim whose opal dulled after she died or a Spanish king who gave his wife an opal only for her to die (he supposedly re-gifted the stone to other relatives who all died. It’s a wonder that no one caught on and refused his gift).  The fact that these stories came from “long ago and far away” gave them a sort of mystical and mysterious air and, like any good urban legend, were taken seriously.

Many pooh-poohed these superstitions.  Most famously, Queen Victoria gifted her daughters opal jewelry when they were married.  They fared well and did not fall victim to the opal’s wicked curse.  In Asia, opals continued to be a symbol of hope.

It came to be that the only people safe from the ominous opal were those born in October.  For one reason or another, it was deemed “safe” for October babies to wear opals.  In fact, for them, “opal is a gem of positive transformation, revealing the colorful attributes of those who wear it.”

Main photo: Necklace.René-Jules Lalique. ca. 1897-99. Paris. Gold, enamel, opals, amethysts. Via metmuseum.org.
Opal – http://www.gemstone.org/education/gem-by-gem/121-opal
Why is it bad luck to wear opals if you weren’t born in October? – http://people.howstuffworks.com/why-is-it-bad-luck-to-wear-opals-if-werent-born-in-october.htm
Opal meaning, powers, and history – https://www.jewelsforme.com/opal-meaning
October birthstones – http://www.americangemsociety.org/page/octoberbirthstones


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