“It displays at once the piercing fire of carbunculas, the purple brilliance of amethystos, and the sea-green of smaragdus, and all these glittering colors mixed together in an incredible way. Some opali carry such a play within them that they equal the deepest and richest colors of painters. Others again simulate the flaming fire of burning sulphur, yet, and even the brightest blaze of burning oil.” –Pliny the Elder on opal, Historia Naturalis, circa AD 75
Nothing has captured my affection more than opals. All of the spectral colors in just about every combination possible can be found in the play of color displayed by opals. Whether as a fine crust on a rock, iridescent veins chasing through dark brown matrix, or a solid nodule of colors dancing across a translucent background, opal has so many faces that no two are ever just alike. It’s fairly safe to say that when you purchase an opal, it can be identified as your opal.
By the 2nd Century AD, the Romans valued the opal above all other gemstones because of its rarity and outstanding beauty, which they thought was the combination of all the fine gems of the world. The etymology of the modern word “opal” is up for debate. Some insist it is of Latin derivation, via both Greek and Sanskrit; others are convinced it is a direct link to the location of the original European opal mines in the Carpathian Mountains at Opalbanya.
Regardless of where the name came from, opals were treasured by Romans; so much so that a legend exists about a Roman Senator. This Senator was named Marcus Nonius. Nonius owned an opal of unrivaled quality reportedly the size of a hazelnut set in a ring. Nonius was supposedly approached by Mark Antony, who desired to purchase the opal for Cleopatra. He offered the modern equivalent of over $360,000, and Nonius turned him down. The legend says that Mark Antony gave Nonius an ultimatum: hand over the opal or leave Rome. Nonius chose to flee rather than give up his opal.
Opals exploded onto the world scene in the 1880s when huge deposits were found in Australia in 1877. Australia has since adopted opal as its national gemstone. Rightly so: Australia produces better than 95% of the world’s gem-grade opal. Such renowned mines as Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy, Yowah, Koroit, and Andamooka produce the finest grades of opal ever seen. Even modern synthetics cannot reproduce the beauty of a top-quality black opal from Lightning Ridge. Such was the beauty and quality of the opals found in Australia that the Habsburg opal miners (the Carpathian mines of Antiquity) decried them as fakes.
When out shopping for opals, don’t be afraid to look and look and look to get a basic idea of what is available in your area. You may decide you don’t like the somewhat rugged beauty of a Yowah Nut, but you are captivated by rich flashes emanating from a Brazilian white opal. Prices can fluctuate dramatically depending on the ratio of matrix-to-opal, the absence or presence of play of color, the quality of iridescence (how many colors do you see?), and the overall size of a specimen. Outside of what is clearly defined as premium grade opal, there are so many types of opal and so many prices to consider, you are better off just snatching up what you like, since the chances of finding another opal similar to it are realistically next to nothing.
As hypnotizing and exquisite as opals are, they are fragile and sensitive. Soft by gem standards, opal is readily abraded by most other minerals commonly set in jewelry. Opal is also sensitive to pressure, chemical attack, and thermal shock. But don’t get too spooked. If you care for your opal, it will give you a lifetime of satisfaction. And we’re happy to help you clean and care for your opal, so bring it in any time.
The inherent uniqueness of each opal virtually guarantees everybody will find something they like if they look through enough material. I try to keep just that many opals in my store. I’ll go over and again with you as you decide on your perfect piece. Maybe it’s set in one of my custom designs and ready to be given as a gift for an October birthday. Maybe it’s loose in my private reserve, just waiting to be plucked up and arranged in the design tumbling around in your head. You’ll never know until you come in and check out what I have on hand. But be warned: I have a lot of opals.
Tags: Australia, colors, gemstones, Lightning Ridge, Mark Antony, opals, Roman Senator