Any Way You Look At It, the Fiery Opal Is Certainly a Thing of Beauty
This large and spectacular vintage opal ring is finely crafted in solid 14K yellow gold. The center opal measures 7mm x 5mm, and surrounding gems are 6mm x 4mm each. The total weight for these colorful gems is about 2.71 carats.
If you were born in the month of October, then in all probability you know that your birthstone is Opal. Its brilliant, flashing, fiery colors, giving off intense rainbow effects, make it unique among the gems. Opals have been used in jewelry since the beginning of recorded history, and the collectible market in antique opal items is strong.
In ancient times opal was included among the noble gems and was ranked second only to the emerald by the Romans, and was considered a symbol of fidelity and assurance. A story exists that a Roman Senator named Nommius chose exile rather than part with a large opal that Marc Anthony coveted. In later history, the precious opal became strongly associated with religious emotion and prayer. It was believed to have a strong therapeutic value for diseases and of the eye, and worn as an amulet it, would make the wearer immune from all such diseases, as well as increase the powers of the eyes and mind. The black opal was prized as the “luck stone.”
But by the time the 19th century rolled around, the perception of the opal had shifted 180 degrees, suffering from an unfortunate reputation as being a “bad luck stone.” The superstitions surrounding this beautiful stone sprang from several sources, one of the most popular being Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Anne of Geirstein,” in which the heroine, who loves opals, burns to death in a terrible fire.
Despite these superstitions, Queen Victoria loved opals, and promoted them well within her own family, friends and circle. It is, of course, possible that she was influenced in that the world’s richest opal mines were discovered in Australia—part of the British Empire, in 1889. And certainly the later Art Nouveau movement, with its love of iridescent glass by Tiffany and his contemporaries, helped many women overcome their fears and superstitions. For weren’t opals a delight to look at? Take for example the black opal—the Rolls Royce of opals. Although it may not be your particular choice, among the many varieties of opals, black opals are both rare and highly prized. This particular type is distinguished with a very dark grey to slate or dark peacock blue to black body color with flashes of yellows, reds and greens.
A pretty leaf-adorned pin/pendant with opals and faceted amethyst-color stones. Cleverly styled, this piece, circa 1950, is lovely worn at any angle.
Opals contain water—a hydrated form of silicon oxide, a necessary factor in producing the changing colors as the stone is viewed from different angles. These color flashes are caused by interference of light along minute cracks. If opals become dry, they in effect “die”—they lose their ability to flash and fire. To prevent this happening, opals should occasionally be wiped with olive oil, being sure to remove all excess. This will give the opals a revitalized appearance.
John Parrish, writing in the summer edition of Voyageur, interviewed James Costello, a third-generation jeweler, on opals. “Natures fireworks,” Costello called them.
“Costello’s advice for those planning to buy (opals) is to look for depth, play and variety of color. Depth, he explained means an opal that is iridescent, not matte. ‘Play’ refers to pattern, the rarest being harlequin—a knitted quilt effect. Starburst and rolling flash, which resembles a wave through the stone, are also sought after. The most prized of the various colors is black with red in it. These are found only in Australia.”
Although this clear explanation was given for new opals, obviously this is applicable to vintage and antique opals, as well.
A stunning Victorian black opal ring in a heart and bow setting of 18K yellow gold and silver.
One slight drawback and cautionary note concerning opals in general is the stone’s soft texture. Without due care, opals scratch easily. They also react negatively to extremes of temperature. It is advised never to wear them to wash dishes in hot water or handle food from the freezer.
The finest opals have been found in Australia, Hungary and Mexico; they are found as nodules or incrustations in volcanic rocks.
Nature treasures and the creative talents of man combine when they take these unknown mineral substances and turn them into exquisite gems of beauty. A truly remarkable occurrence.
For those with an October birthday, this is a wonderful gem to call your own. Fortunately, a birthstone is not an exclusive right; we can all share and own gems according to our desires. But any way you look at it, the fiery opal is certainly a thing of beauty.
— by Barbara Sutton-Smith
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