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Not Your Grandmother's Opal

You may be familiar with opals because you have an October birthday’s, since it’s the official birthstone of that month. Or maybe you inherited a white opal ring from your grandmother or great aunt and admire the petite, milky, semi-opaque stone that’s shot softly through with delicate pink and blue. Some believe that wearing opals is bad luck. But the opal is in fact one of the most popular gemstones in jewelry design today, with a rich history and a vast variety of types.

History and Folklore

Mythology and folklore about gemstones date back centuries; opals are no exception. Ancient Romans valued them highly and receiving one as a gift was considered a great honor. In the Middle Ages, many Europeans still considered the stone lucky, but negative connotations began to develop. It became associated with the black (or bubonic) plague during the 1300s, and gradually its supposed negative properties became more widely shared.

In 1829, Sir Walter Scott published the popular novel Anne of Geierstein, in which he suggested that a character’s death resulted from the opal she wore. In the late nineteenth century, after several members of Spain’s royal family died soon after receiving an opal ring as a gift, the stone’s negative reputation spread more widely. Yet Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819-1901) loved the stone and wore it throughout her reign. Sales of the stone increased in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, causing diamond merchants to fear it would replace the diamond as a popular stone, and some tried to discourage opal sales by further spreading the negative legends. Nonetheless, today the opal is a popular and treasured stone.

Opals are most famously mined in Australia—it’s the country’s official gemstone--but significant mining is done in other locations, including Ethiopia, Mexico, and the U.S. Ethiopian opals, often called “Welo opals” due to the region in which they were first mined, were discovered in 1994, and additional rich sources have been discovered in the past few decades. Ethiopian mines yield a variety of gems, including hydrophane, precious, and fire opals. These recently mined stones add even more variety to the fiery range of opals that appear in jewelry today.

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