Few gemstones capture the beautiful array of fire and color quite like the opal. Known for their rainbow swirls and mesmerizing patterns, opals have captivated us for centuries. So just what are opals, and what causes the unmistakable color patterns we see in them?
What Is an Opal?
Opals are created from silica and are closely related to quartz crystals, though are not a faceted crystal themselves. They are formed when water comes into contact with silicone dioxide and is left to solidify within porous sedimentary rock. This process means that opals actually contain up to 30% water (though most average 10% water or less), giving them the signature swirling patterns seen within them.
Where Do Opals Come From?
Opals can be found all over the world, but the bulk of what we consider the most precious opal stones today are found in Australia. The mines of Southern Australia are rich with the silica-based beauties, but opals can also be found in countries like Mexico, Czechoslovakia and Brazil.
According to gemologists, there are two basic forms of opals: common opals and precious opals. As you might guess, the common opals pose little value as they are, well, quite common and unremarkable. Common opals tend to have a very muddled or cloudy appearance and show very little additional color – usually only one or two colors can be seen within them.
Precious opals on the other hand, are the type of opals we see in retail stores today and present the full array of color. While they can be found in a variety of “main” colors (red, black, white, and even colorless), the most common of the precious opals are the white shades with radiant rainbow iridescent swirls within them.
Opals Throughout History
Opals have been around since the beginning of time and have been a part of modern history for centuries. It is actually recorded that the oldest ever mined opal was dated back 6,000 years and found in a mine in Kenya.
With a history that deep, it’s no wonder opals have played a major role with royalty, nobility, and world leaders of all kinds. There are noted stories in the history books of Marc Anthony exiling a fellow Roman who refused to sell him an opal that he loved so much, it was said to remind him of Cleopatra.
Other famous opals include the “Burning of Troy” opal given to Josephine by Napoleon at the end of the 18th century, and Queen Victoria’s collection of the beloved gem. In fact, it is said that Queen Victoria loved the gems so much, she loved giving them to her friends and family as wedding gifts. In addition, opals have also been named the official birthstone for the month of October.
According to the International Gem Society (IGS), opals have a long history associated with healing powers and closely related to vision symbolism. It has been believed that those who wore opals held the power to heal impaired vision and possessed the ability to essentially “hide” from the unwanted views of others.
Opals haven’t always been a sign of positivity and power, however. For centuries, some believed opals to represent bad luck and would bring negativity to anyone who owned them. This was thanks, in large part, to Sir Walter Scott’s character, Lady Hermione in his novel, Anne of Geierstein and her mysterious relation with an opal.
Despite the link to bad luck, opals have long been loved as a colorful and mysterious addition to any jewelry collection. If you’ve ever peered into the mesmerizing colorful swirls of an opal, then you certainly understand the overwhelming draw to their beauty.