All That Glitters

October 2014 Ariella McManus

The Opalescent Opal

Greetings, my fellow gem enthusiasts! As many of you know, I pen the fashion column, so it seemed like a natural jump from there into the world of gems. Everyone knows accessories make the outfit, right? And far be it from me to resist "the bling."

But in all seriousness, gemstones are used for much more than adorning my favorite baubles. From healing to magic and everything in between, the history and lore surrounding them are quite fascinating. Each month I will be highlighting a different gemstone. We will start off with the gemstone of October--the glorious opal.

Opals come in a wide variety of colors and types. The most familiar is nearly opaque or translucent white and possesses a scattering of colors reflected in the stone. The more red an opal contains, the more rare and expensive it is, with one of the most expensive being the Harlequin opal, which displays its colors in a checkerboard pattern. A good-quality opal is transparent, not milky, and since it is a porous stone, it is unwise to immerse it in any liquid other than water. The most valuable opals are mined in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia, both of which have been a main producer of the gems since the early 1870's.

The word "opal" derives from the Sanskrit upala, meaning "precious stone", and later from the Greek opallios, which translates as "to see a changing of colors." Opals have been known to humanity since approximately 250 B.C. It is said that one adorned the crown of Emperor Constantine, because he believed the stone had the ability to shine in darkness and to protect both his imperial authority and his life. Constantine loved to expound on the properties of the gemstone, and it was due to his insistence that wearing an opal would render a person invisible that made it a favored talisman of thieves everywhere. Perhaps not entirely accurate, but he wins points, I suppose, for his enthusiasm.

In ancient Rome, opals were seen as the mother of all gemstones, and Greek mythology views them as the tears of joy Zeus shed after his victory over the Titans. The Aztecs thought them to be the earthly manifestation of the waters of paradise, while the Arabs believe the gemstones are heaven sent and that the colors trapped in the opals are small rods of lightning. They were a particular favorite of Queen Victoria, who liked to present them as gifts to those she favored.

Not all stories paint the opal in a positive light, however. Thanks to Sir Walter Scott, opal has the dubious reputation of being a "bad luck" gemstone, with the superstition lingering on even to this day. In his 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein, Scott's main heroine, Lady Hermione, is falsely accused of being a demoness and dies after a drop of holy water ruins the color of her opal. The public mistook this to mean that Scott was actually warning of the bad luck opals could bring, and for a time, the market for the gem plummeted alarmingly. Although the "buying ban" eventually lifted, the taint cast on the stone would remain.

Medically, opals are believed to offer the wearer many benefits, such as in the treatment of fevers and infections, the strengthening of one's memory, the purification of the blood and kidneys, and the bolstering of the immune system. They are also used to regulate insulin, to ease childbirth, and to alleviate symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Opals are beneficial to the eyes, especially as an elixir, and are quite useful as an overall tonic. They have also been employed in the treatment of depression, and I, personally, have no trouble believing this. I know that no matter how sad I might be, the gift of an opal would cheer me up and immediately put a smile on my face!

In the magical sense, opals are believed to help in the recollection of past lives, in the intensification of intuition, and in the promotion of inspiration. Because of its nature, opal is a deceptive stone; its magical properties are as diverse as its colors. Worn on the one hand, for example, it can be a stone of sympathy and compassion, while on the other, it can induce the wearer to foolish, selfish actions. To increase its magical potential, it should be mounted in gold and silver, and those with an instability in character should avoid wearing the stone altogether. It sounds rather ominous, if you think about it, but maybe the perceived danger is part of the opal's inherent charm.

In the next issue, we will delve deeper into the world of the topaz.

Until then!