The Long and Glorious History of Opal

Of all the world’s precious gemstones, opal has by far the richest, most interesting and extensive history. For countless centuries, people around the world have revered opal for its wondrous beauty and mystical powers.

In the days of the Roman Empire they revered opal for its vividness of colour, beauty, and mystical powers. It was the only gem considered beautiful enough to be offered to Venus, Goddess of Love, Beauty and Sexuality. The son of Venus was Cupid; who was known as the God of Love, Desire, Affection and Attraction. Opal also became known to the Romans as “Cupid’s Gem”; because in those days the white opal was mined at Czernowitza in Slovakia and resembled the alabasteric complexion of Cupid.

Opal became an important Roman talisman for hope, beauty, and purity. As the Empire grew in power and wealth, opals became the gem of choice for the rich and powerful; who paid extraordinary sums of money for the most sought-after opals; believing that they brought great fortune. Caesar gave opals to his wife as symbols of their true love; and as good luck charms. Mark Antony so coveted a beautiful opal owned by Senator Nonius that he banished Nonius to the far-flung province of Egypt when he refused to sell it. The opal was said to be worth 2,000,000 sesterces (1,000 sesterces could buy a good horse; or pay a soldier’s annual salary) Antony was willing to offer this huge amount of money for the gem as a symbol of his love for Cleopatra.

Another Roman Emperor was said to have offered to trade one-third of his vast kingdom for a single opal. Before his death in 79 A.D., the Roman historian Pliny wrote: Opal is made up of the Glories of the colours of all gems. This most beautiful gem combines the fire of the ruby, the brilliant purple of amethyst, and the sea-green of emerald; all shining together in glorious and incredible union This ancient description of precious opal has yet to be surpassed. (Here at Opalminers.com we consider Pliny’s words nominate him as the first true “Opalholic”.)

In India, a very old Hindu legend tells the tale of the gods Vishnu, Krishna and Shiva all falling in love with the same extremely beautiful girl. Supreme Being Brahma became tired of their jealous fighting and constant arguing over this girl, so he turned her into a creature of mist. So they could see their loved one, Shiva gave her fiery red as a symbol of his love; Krishna gave her the blue of heaven; and Vishnu gave her the yellow and gold of the sun. Brahma, feeling sorry for the three heart-broken lovers, changed her into an exquisite opal. The three lovers then realised that she was beautiful beyond description, and deserved the love of all. Another Hindu legend has it that opal was born from the sacrifice of a young woman who hurled herself into the funerary pyre of her lover instead of the legitimate wife, whose death was demanded by Hindu custom. It is from Sanskrit that we get the word opal; from “Upala”, meaning “Most Precious” or, “Precious Jewel”.

Native Americans often used glorious opals from Nevada, Central & South America to stimulate their imagination on their vision quests. The Cherokees used opal on their Medicine Wheel; where it was known as the Gem of the West, and the symbol for the element of water.

In Arabia, the Arabs believed that opal was condensed lightning; and thought that the immense power of lightning inside the gem would transfer to the wearer. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians used opal as a powerful protection against diseases; and named it the “Gem of the Gods”. They believed that their Storm God, jealous of the Rainbow God, smashed the Rainbow; and it fell to earth as pieces of opal.

In Australia, the Aborigines, now known to be the oldest continuous culture in the world, have many and varied legends concerning opal. The Pitjanjatjara tribe from Central Australia believe that the world was created by a giant Rainbow Serpent; and as the Creator went about the task of creating mountains, lakes, rivers etc., scales from his rainbow-coloured skin fell onto the ground, becoming opal.

The Wangkumara tribal legend has it that a pelican, pecking at an opal rock, created sparks, causing fire; an unknown gift that was gratefully accepted as a gift from the Creator.

A similar legend from another tribe has the Rainbow Creator coming to Earth to bring a message of peace to mankind. Where his foot touched the ground, the stones became alive, and started sparkling in the colours of the rainbow. Thus was Opal born.

Some tribes believed that the Spirit of the Rainbow Serpent was encapsulated in opals; and therefore opal tools and talismans were often used in the most sacred of ceremonies. Many Aboriginal tribes have similar stories concerning the sacredness, beauty, and mystical power of opals.

Barrie O’leary, Australian geologist, well known Opalholic Emeritus, and author of  “A Field Guide to Australian Opal; describes opal this way: “The real value of opal lies in it being the only gemstone which creates genuine amazement in the human mind”. We don’t know an opalminer or opalholic anywhere that would disagree with that statement: our newly-mined opals constantly remind us of the truth of Barrie O’Leary’s observation.

In China, the ancients believed that the wearer of opal must be pure of heart to receive its mystical and spiritual power. Over the millennia, this belief has become widespread through-out Eastern Asia; where they hold opal to be the Symbol of Hope.

In Europe, writers and poets of the middle ages frequently and fervently sang opal’s praises; claiming it had curative effects on bad eyes, protected children from wild animals, banished evil; and made friendships and romances much more intense and enjoyable. Fair-haired girls in Germany and Scandinavia were encouraged to wear opal pins in their hair to add lustre to their golden locks and protect them from freezing rain, wind, and other vicissitudes of the Nordic climate. In the middle ages, Europeans believed that opal could make one invisible, hence its name of “patronus furum”; patron of thieves. Wives and girl-friends of soldiers gave their loved ones opals to protect them in battle; and on their journeys. They also believed that opal would keep them faithful in their love; and punish them if not. In Europe, opal has long been associated with Love and Passion; and bestowing good outcomes and success whilst overcoming all danger to the wearer.

In England, Shakespeare was 100% right when referred to opal as the “Queen of Gems”.

Sir Walter Scott’s fictional “Anne of Geierstein” of 1829 told the tale of Lady Hermione, who is falsely accused of being a witch; and dies after her beautiful opal was touched by drops of holy water and lost all it’s colour. For some reason many people believed this fantastical and fictional story to be true; and for a time opal was believed to bring bad luck.

In Australia, we believe the only bad luck associated with our national gem is when you are not fortunate enough to own  (or find!) any. Most opal-miners will readily admit that being continually amazed and enchanted by opal’s beauty is the major reason why they persevere year after year in trying to find our elusive gem. As a miner once poemed:

“Us miners who dig for opal,
Are Opalholics through and through,
Who love the Outback lifestyle,
Whilst finding these gems for you”

Queen Victoria of England allowed no bad luck superstitions to quash her love of opals. When the magnificent black and boulder gem opals from Australia first appeared in England, she started a much-famed collection. She presented her 5 daughters with opal jewellery; and gave other opals to her favourite associates & visiting dignataries (we reckon Queen Victoria was the first famous female Opalholic.)

Here is Petrus Ariensis, in 1610 AD: “One opal in particular came into my hand, in which such beauty, loveliness and grace shone forth, that it could truly boast that it forcibly drew all other gems to itself; while it surprised, astonished, and held captive, without escape or intermission, the hearts of all who beheld it. It was the size of a filbert, and clasped with the claws of a golden eagle wrought with wonderful art, and had such vivid and various colours that all the beauty of the heavens might be viewed within it. Grace went out from it, and Majesty shot forth from its almost Divine Splendour”.  (Was this bloke an opalholic, or not???!!!).

In France, magnificent opals were set in the crown jewels. Napoleon presented Empress Josephine with a brilliant fiery red opal named “The Burning of Troy” (or sometimes, “Trojan Fire”).

In Greece they were well-known lovers of opal, which they named “Opallios”, meaning “To see colour”. They often used opal to help with divination and prophecy. Their philosopher /poet  Onomacritus (6th century BC) said of opal: “…the delicate colours and tenderness of the Opal reminds one of a loving and beautiful child. They also thought opals were the tears of their King of Gods, Zeus; who is reputed to have been so happy to defeat the Titans that he wept: and when his tears hit the ground they turned to opals.

Many ancients believed that opals were sacred “Mirrors of Life”; fragile, and beautiful beyond description. They believed that opals reflected the beauty within a person; and shone light upon their soul.

In Central America, the Aztecs were known to revere opal, which they named “quetzalitzlepyoliiti” which means “stone having many changing colours” They also called it “vitziziltecpatl” or “hummingbird stone” They used it extensively in their jewellery, figurines and artworks; and as burial gifts to keep their loved ones happy in the afterlife.

The Mayans and the Incas were also known to have treasured opals; and to have used them for many purposes similar to the Aztecs, including magnificent carvings.

In today’s scary world of terrorism and nuclear weapons, opal has become a symbol “Of Peace And Love. Many Spiritual healers use opal to bring peace, tranquillity and harmony to people and their environments. Dreaming of being given an opal is believed to mean that you will discover the secret of success and a hidden Love.

Gemstone therapists throughout the ages have used beautifully-coloured opals as alternatives to the healing attributes and colours provided by other healing stones. What other gem exhibits the whole beautiful spectrum that opal does?? Even the most sceptical of us has to admit that the scintillatingly wondrous beauty of gem opal does “something” to us as we absorb its exquisitely unique beauty….which reinforces Barrie O’Leary’s statement that: “The real value of opal lies in it being the only gemstone which creates genuine amazement in the human mind”. We don’t know an opalminer or an Opalholic anywhere who would disagree witht that statement…we just love these majestic works of art from Mother Nature.
As the famous American gemmologist George F Kunz said in 1908: “Man’s first and instinctive appreciation was the truest, and it has required centuries of enlightenment to bring us back to this love of precious stones for their esthetic beauty alone”.

As opal miners, cutters, and jewellery-makers, we understand perfectly why most people love the amazing, exquisite and indescribable beauty of opals. Many of our fellow miners and friends freely admit that they are primarily “Opalholics”; which is a term we use to indicate that we are helplessly enchanted by the unique and wondrous beauty of opals. It is no wonder to us that opals are the most accepted symbol of Love itself; for they are the most joyous, wondrous, beautiful, exhilarating, amazing and inspiring of all gems. Opals, like Love itself, are, in every single case, different from all others.

As the poet says:

“Once you’ve gazed into an Opal,
And its wondrous beauty known;
You’ll forever be enchanted,
By Mother Nature’s unique stone.

Is it any no wonder thay Mystics throughout the ages have adored our beautiful gem??

You can peruse our offerings of jewellery here.

Some poems about opals are here.

And: last but not least, some advice: the only cures for opalholicism are either extreme poverty; or a wonderful opal collection.