For numerous years, the beautiful opal has been the victim of unflattering rumours and old tales about the stone bringing bad luck. Further perpetuated by folklore tales, mistaken identity, superstitions, family tales and disgruntled diamond traders; opals have been poorly judged. As our knowledge grows and we enter the age of reason and science, these old belief systems have somewhat fallen by the wayside, though a glimmer of old superstitions still survive today. It certainly seems unlikely for such a gem to be anything but good, however, you may make up your own mind after reading some interesting facts about this rare gemstone.
Ancient times to present day – Gems for protection and reverence.
There is a lot of ancient folklore connected with crystals, gems, and precious stones. Much of this tradition and mythology dates back to the very beginning of civilisation, to a time when jewellery was worn not only as adornment but also as protection against the occult and dark forces. Black Tourmaline, known historically as Schorl, is still used today and revered as a premier talisman of protection, a psychic shield deflecting and dispelling negative energies, it guards against radiation and environmental pollutants. Black tourmaline is highly useful in purifying and neutralising one’s own negative thoughts and internal conflicts, and turning them into positive, usable energy.
Throughout history the special virtues of Amethyst have been highly regarded. It was believed Amethyst could be used as an aid to prevent the wearer from drunkenness and overindulgence. The ancient Greeks and Romans would drink wine from goblets made with Amethyst believing that wine drunk from an Amethyst cup deemed them exempt from intoxication. It also served to prevent overzealousness during times of passion. Pearls were thought to bring good health and long life while warding off evil. Rubies provided the wearer peace of mind, courage and insight.
Opals on the other hand have had a mixed history. While other gemstones were prized for their positive magical qualities, Opals were originally seen as an evil and bad luck gemstone, a brief list of the different positive and negative opal beliefs are as follows;
• White Opals are unlucky unless worn by someone born in October or with Diamonds.
• Opals will lose its shine if the owner dies.
• Renders the wearer invisible Improves eyesight.
• Will help blondes keep their hair colour longer.
• Will turn pale if in the presence of poison.
• Black Opals are lucky.
• Useless as a charm to someone who is selfish.
• If used for good, give the power of prophecy.
Ancient Opal superstitions
Opals have had evil superstitions attached to them, often based on unfounded or misconstrued half truths with plenty of speculation. Witches and sorcerers supposedly used black opals to increase their own magical powers or to focus them like laser beams on people they wanted to harm. Medieval Europeans dreaded the opal because of its resemblance to “the Evil Eye,” and its superficial likeness to the optical organs of cats, toads, snakes, and other creatures with supernatural or mystical affiliations.
During the time that the Hungarian mines supplied Europe with Opals, including a stone for the crown of a Roman Emperor, superstitions circulated attributing evil powers and maladies to the colourful stone. These stories could have been based on mining practises of the time and deaths occurring in the extraction of opals from the earth. One only need look into the history of Diamond mining to really comprehend which mining process has contributed to the most incidents and fatalities.
In was in the eleventh century, Bishop Marbode of Rennes wrote of Opal,
“…Yet ’tis the guardian of the thievish race; It gifts the bearer with acutest sight; But clouds all other eyes with thickest night.”
His ideology seems to be based on the idea that opal granted its bearer with the gift of invisibility. Opal, therefore, became a talisman for thieves, spies and robbers around this time.
The fear and loathing of opal did not discourage the development of a counter folklore which positively cast the stone as a symbol of hope, innocence and purity. European writers and poets of the Middle Ages also sang the praises of opals, claiming it had a curative effect on eye issues, protected children from predatory animals, banished evil, encouraged friendships and made romances more intensely enjoyable. Fair-haired girls in Germany and Scandinavia were encouraged to wear opal pins in their hair, as they were thought to add magical lustre to their golden locks and protect them from freezing rain and winds of the Nordic climate.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, opal fell out of favour yet again, as it was associated with pestilence, famine and the fall of monarchies. Opal was also tied to the Black Plague, an affliction that struck in the middle of the 14th Century, ultimately eradicating more than a third of Europe’s population and much more in neighbouring territories. During the decimation of Europe by the Black Death, it was rumoured that an opal worn by a patient was aflame with colour right up to the point of death, and then lost its brilliance after the wearer died. The superstition that opals lose their vibrancy on the death of the wearer can easily be dispelled today; as some of the greatest opal jewellery pieces created for Sarah Bernhardt (1844 -1923) can attest. Alphonse Mucha and Georges Fouquet created the serpent bracelet for Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in Cleopatra in 1899. Her death certainly did not diminish the fire within the opals and the opals look as beautiful as ever.
Queen Victoria helped to reverse the bad press surrounding Opals as she became a great lover of Opal and was known to wear Opals throughout her reign from 1837 – 1901. Spanish king Alfonzo XII would, unfortunately, sully the growing reputation of opals again after a series of misfortunate events. In the late 19th Century, Alfonzo XII fell madly in love with a beautiful aristocrat named the Countess de Castiglione. The countess had initially reciprocated the King’s affection but months before the pair were to wed the faithless Alfonzo married another woman, the Princess Mercedes. The distraught countess vowed to get even and sent the couple a wedding gift, a magnificent opal set in the purest gold. The princess was immediately enamoured by the gift and insisted that her husband slip it on her finger. He willingly obliged and two months later the princess had mysteriously died.
After the funeral, Alfonzo gave the ring to his grandmother, Queen Christina, who almost immediately thereafter also died. After the latest sudden death, the ring passed to Alfonzo’s sister, the Infanta Maria del Pilar. Unfortunately, Maria died as well, apparently victim to the same weird illness that had taken the other two women. The ring was again available and when Alfonzo’s sister-in-law expressed an interest, he presented it to her with the same fatal result.
Deeply saddened by the tragic end to so many loved ones and feeling somewhat depressed the King decided to end it all by slipping the ring on his own finger; reminiscent of Cleopatra embracing the asp to end her own misery. In little over a month, the ring seemed to do to Alfonzo what the snake had done to the Egyptian Queen. The ring was finally attached to a golden chain and hung around the neck of a statue and the patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin of Alumdena. This put an end to the incredible chain of tragic circumstances but could the gem really be responsible for the tragic circumstances besetting this royal family? According to Kozminsky, it would be unlikely,
“At this time it must be remembered that cholera was raging through Spain,” he wrote in ‘The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones’. “Over 100,000 people died of it during the summer and autumn of 1885. It attacked all classes from the palace of the king to the hut of the peasant, some accounts giving the death estimate at 50 percent of the population. It would be as obviously ridiculous to hold the opal responsible for this scourge as it was to do so in the previously noted plague at Venice. All that may be said is that in this case the opal was not a talisman of good for King Alfonzo XII of Spain and to those who received it from his hand and that in the philosophy of sympathetic attraction and repulsion man, stones, metals and all natural objects come under the same law.”
A change of perception for opals
The Romans believed that Opals were a combination of the beauty of all the precious stones, it is well documented in Roman history that Caesars gave their wives Opal for good luck. The Romans ranked Opal second only to emeralds and carried the precious gem around with them as a good luck charm or talisman. During Roman times it was believed that the gem, like a rainbow, brought its owner good fortune. As Pliny the elder wrote in the inaugural Natural History of the World, first published in 77AD that opals are the most highly prized and rare gemstone of all the gemstones in the Empire. In Pliny’s own words,
“For in them you shall see the living fire of ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green of the emerald, all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light”.
To the Romans, Opals were considered to be a token of hope and purity. It was also referred to as the “Cupid Stone” because it suggested the clear complexion of the god of love. Mark Antony loved opals. Mark Anthony coveted an opal owned by Roman Senator Nonius, he banished the Senator after he refused to sell the almond-sized opal, reputed to be worth 2,000,000 sesterces. (Approx. AUD $120,000) Mark Antony is said to have coveted the opal for his lover, Cleopatra. Legend states that one Roman Emperor offered to trade one-third of his vast kingdom for a single Opal.
The Romans ranked Opal second only to emeralds and carried the precious gem around with them as a good luck charm or talisman.
Misinterpretation of Sir Walter Scotts most famous novel, Anne of Geierstein
The saddest opal saga is the frequent misconception in the last of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Anne of Geierstein (1829), which irrevocably linked opal to misfortune. As George F. Kunz, author of ‘The Curious Lore of Precious Stones’, wrote,
“There can be little doubt that much of the modern superstition regarding the supposed unlucky quality of the opal owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, ‘Anne of Geierstein’.
There is nothing to indicate that Scott really meant to represent opal as unlucky. The wonderful tale of Lady Hermione, a sort of enchanted princess, who wore a dazzling fiery opal in her hair, that sparkles spectacularly when she is happy but fades and discolours after contact with holy water whereupon the heroine becomes ill and faints. She is carried to her chamber, the next day where she lay all that is left is a pile of grey ashes. Opals were deemed unlucky and this single work managed to plunge opal prices to half in just one year and crippled the European opal market for decades. All that can have determined the selection of the opal rather than any other precious stone is the fact of its wonderful play of colour. There is in fact little evidence that the superstition was common before the 1850s. A popular gift book of the 1840s was entitled ‘The Opal’, which would seem an unlikely title if the notion of the opal’s unluckiness were well established.
A further contributing factor to opal’s bad reputation may be the fact that opals can be fragile if not looked after properly. Opals are soft in comparison to diamonds and can be broken if mistreated or treated roughly. This may have contributed to an overall negative perception of opals since anybody would be heartbroken to lose a precious beautiful opal or family heirloom. As George F. Kunz rightly states,
“A possible explanation of the superstitious dread that opal used to excite some time ago may be found in the fact that lapidaries and gem-setters to whom opals were entrusted were sometimes so unfortunate as to fracture them in the process of cutting or setting,”
As such jewellers are responsible to the owners for any injury to the gems, they would soon acquire a prejudice against opals due to the care required in handling and would come to regard them as unlucky stones. Very widespread superstitions have no more foundation than this, for the original cause, mostly a rational one, is soon lost sight of and popular myths and fables suggest something entirely different and more appealing to the imagination.
One terrible tale of a royal opal did bring terrible misfortune to the hapless goldsmith who broke the magnificent opal during setting. The unforgiving Louis XI ordered his jewellers hands be cut off. It comes as no surprise that few of his colleagues thereafter had anything good to tell buyers about opal, therefore some blame opal’s maligned reputation on the difficulty that lapidaries had with cutting and setting them.
Resentful Diamond traders or clever marketing
Some maintain that diamond merchants of the mid 19th and early 20th centuries saw the amazing attributes of opal and realised it was going to be a serious threat to their livelihood. When high quality Australian opals appeared on the market in the 1890’s, it has been suggested that diamond cartels actively spread false rumours that opal was unlucky to seriously damage the reputation of opals.
Opal, one of the rarest gemstones in the world with its stunning play of colour, was increasing in popularity and could represent a threat to the controlled lucrative diamond trade now that it was being mined commercially. The story goes that jealous diamond traders spread the belief that opals are bad luck to protect themselves and give opals a bad reputation. Some of the rumours stuck and these misconceptions became the ‘old wives’ tales which are occasionally repeated today.
Opal is a lucky stone full of positivity
Really the burning question remains how can a beautiful stone born from the earth, all the colours of a rainbow and more, possibly be unlucky. Often opals have been used in crystal healing to promote positivity in the wearer and provide protection. In his book, ‘The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones’ Kozminsky writes,
“perhaps against no other gem has the bigotry of superstitious ignorance so prevailed as against the wonderful opal.”
There are so many reports of opal bringing people luck, including the many opal miners who have made their fortunes and have lived long and prosperous lives.
In conclusion, whether you believe Opal brings you good luck or bad, we have to agree with the fact that Opal is one of the most beautiful, mysterious and alluring gemstones in the world. They are glorious gems and can stand alone or have the ability to mix in with any gemstone to create some of the most creative and challenging jewellery designs in the world.
If you’re looking to add a beautiful piece of opal jewellery to your collection then take a look at our online shop for some handmade opal jewellery including:
George F. Kunz. The curious lore of precious stones.
J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1913. pp. 143-4. Notes and Queries. Sixth series, no. 6. 8 July 1882. p. 32.
Fred Ward, ‘Opals’ Gem Book Publishers, 1997.
Kozminsky The magic and science of jewels and stones.