Many Ancient Cultures used stones and crystals, and several believed that opals were the result of a fiery conflict between the Storm God and the Rainbow God. Upon their clash, the rainbow was said to have broken and then rained upon the earth to give opals their iridescence and captivating hues…Wherever these beauties hailed from, despite the various myths surrounding them, they are becoming one of the most sought out stones once again, much as they were for countless centuries prior to the 1800s.
Ladies in Medieval times would wear opals to preserve their natural hair color and prevent fading and graying. Many in this era believed it to be a stone of invisibility which could be used for good or nefarious purposes (more on that later). Across the world, they were typically considered stones of hope, good fortune, virtue, loyalty, happiness, and were called upon by ancients to improve eyesight and dispel fevers and infections. So, how did this stone become a symbol of mourning, sorrow, death, and bad luck? Some of the purported reasons have ranged from just plain bizarre to superstitions based on circumstantial incidents.
Did One Book Take Down the Opal Industry?
The most common theory circulating over the last two centuries points the finger at Sir Walter Scott’s 1929 penning of Anne of Geierstein for setting the scene for the decline of opals. This classic novel surged in popularity after an 1846 reprinting during the height of the opal market, which happened to coincide with the market’s decline shortly thereafter. This tale features the lovely Baroness Hermione who was widely known for constantly wearing an opal hair clip, which was said to shoot sparks and grow a dark fiery red when her temper flared.
One day her opal shot out a brilliant flame of light and then ‘dimmed’ to translucent after a drop of holy water landed upon it, and Hermione lifelessly fell to the floor. While her falling to her death at the dimming of her opal, certainly rendered the stones a bit ominous to readers, today’s modern knowledge of the true hydrophane nature of opals and their conductive properties explains both the ‘flashes’ and ‘dimming’ effect.
Is Queen Victoria to Blame for Opal’s Reputation as a Mourning Stone?
They were prized by Queen Victoria — known to be highly superstitious — yet she wore them at her wedding in 1840 and throughout her life, even gifting lavish opal jewelry to her daughters for their weddings. This indicates that opals were still viewed as stones of good will and blessings in many circles in this era. However, she stopped bestowing them as gifts after her last daughter’s wedding and her husband’s passing in the early 1860s.
Some viewed this as a sign of her being in a state of sorrow and mourning, and in the next decade publications such as one in Young Ladies’ Journal proposed that these stones of ‘sorrow’ were no longer fashionable or acceptable as engagement rings. Was she simply out of daughters to gift, did she see these as stones of sadness, or did she finally read Sir Walter Scott’s novel and attribute the character’s misfortune on opals? While no one knows for certain, the fact that she personally continued to wear these stones seems to debunk the notion she had negative thoughts about them at all.
Opals: The Patron of Thieves
It might be that the cloud hanging over opals began long before the 19th century, but such lore was likely long forgotten by all but scholars and lapidaries. However, an 1878 article in The British Quarterly Review may have served as a reminder by bringing up its reputation as ‘the patron stone of thieves’ and as a stone bringing the user the ability to ‘see all.’ Between the 11th and 12th centuries the world’s most respected lapidary, Marbodus Gallus, wrote multiple manuscripts about opals stating, “It gifts the bearer with acutest sight but clouds all other eyes with thickest night; so that the plunderers bold in open day, secure from harm can bear their spoil away.”
Essentially, he purports that opals offer a cloak of invisibility, or what we might call today ‘the Yoda effect’ allowing one to fade into the background, so to speak. While plunderers may have found this appealing, most citizens had no desire to be robbed, and many thought that owning opals would shield such derelicts, so they avoided them. Even today, metaphysical practitioners still call upon opals for this very purpose; however, it’s unlikely that thieves do – at least the smart ones don’t.
The Russian Connection Theory
Often referred to as the ‘eye stone’ after Marbodus Gallus’ writings, opals purportedly have had a negative reputation with the citizens of Russia. According to an article by Anna Cosgrove in a 1900s edition of ‘Common Sense’ magazine, the author purports that a long-held Russian taboo played a role in the downturn in opal’s popularity. As an all-seeing ‘eye stone’ citizens across the country considered seeing one to be the equivalent of the ‘evil eye’ and refused to wear them or even participate in any form of enterprise on days when they encountered an opal. Seemingly limited to Russian lore, it’s unlikely this had much impact on the stone’s global decline, but it’s a great story.
The Resurgence of Opal’s Reputation for Causing Disease and Death
When the Bubonic plague swept Europe in the late 1340s, opals were in fashion and prized adornments. The Black Death didn’t discriminate, killing 2/5th of the population by the thousands amid all classes and ages. However, deaths of royalty and the wealthy were probably best documented – those who would be most likely to wear opals. As with other accounts, observers noted the loss of luster and brilliance of the stones after the passing of the possessor, making many believe the opal held some kind of power sourcing the widespread disease and deaths. Let’s explain why this color change occurs in greater depth using what we now scientifically know and separate facts from superstition.
Science Versus Superstition that Opals Are Bad Luck
It is well documented that as the Carpathian Mountain opal mines started ‘running dry’ in the early 1800s, yet in efforts to keep the stones — and the cash — flowing, vested parties decided to dig even deeper. Indeed, they found the treasures, but the opals deep in the mine were soon found to be of a lesser quality with less luster and greater fragility. This made a lapidary’s job much more tedious, as these lesser-quality stones often cracked during the cutting process, leaving owners angry and stone cutters being held responsible. Naturally, they became resistant to dealing with opals, considering them ‘unlucky.’ It wasn’t until years later that it was discovered that the depth of opal mines affected their fragility and beauty.
Conductivity & Hydrophane Qualities
By the 1878 definition Hydrophane opals would lose luster when touched by oil, water, or exposed to excessive heat. As science advanced, the definition of hydrophane came to be understood as ‘water-loving’ opals, because the rainbow hues will return upon drying, something that seemed to go unrealized or often noted. According to a recent article in the GIA journal Gem and Gemology, hydrophane opals “are highly resistant to heat, crazing, and display remarkably durability.”
However, oils can often discolor these stones. Aromatic oils were widely used around the world, and became very popular in Europe by the 1600s, making them a likely culprit for so many coincidental dimming of opals associated with deaths. It’s likely that many opals were discolored by contacting these oils when used for healing terminal illnesses, promoting their negative reputation as stones of death and illness.
Furthermore, the loss of color upon one’s death and their extra brilliance when worn by the living breaks down to the conductive nature of opals. Similar to the fashion that heat treatments are used to create different colors of rubies, amethysts and other stones, one’s natural body heat can cause the stone to ‘brighten’ and appear to shoot flashes of ‘light’ such as in Sir Walter Scott’s novel. However, when removed or cooled, opals can appear to ‘fade.’
Never Fear, Keep Opals Near
Don’t miss out on these lovely healing stones due to old lore and misguided science. They aren’t bad luck, they needn’t be a gift to bring prosperity, nor do they need to be your birthstone – opals are for everyone seeking a boost in their mind, body, spirit journey! Learn more about hydrophane opals here, and don’t forget to take a look at our remarkable Welo Ethiopian opal healing jewelry collection at QuantumStones.com.
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