One of the most beautiful gemstones is the opal. There are two categories of opal – common opal and precious opal. The common opal does not display ‘play of colour’, that is, that gorgeous display of rainbow colours against a white, transparent/translucent or dark background. The fire opal, a lovely orange, yellow or red translucent stone mainly from Mexico, is considered a common opal. Other common opals include white, pink and green opaque stones. The precious opal will show ‘play of colour’ and includes black opal, white opal, crystal opal, boulder opal and matrix opal. To confuse the issue, though, recently fire opals displaying play of colour are being mined in Ethiopia.

Boxed ribbon pendant 1MG_2668r
Antique 18ct pendant and chain with crystal opals and central emerald, boxed (in Navette on Ruby Lane)

The name  is derived from the Latin word ‘opalus’ which translates as ‘precious stone’, although Sanskrit and Greek words are also cited as sources. The opals were either white opals or crystal (or water) opals. White opals  have a white or creamy background with play of colour. A crystal or water opal refers to any kind of opal which has a transparent, translucent, or semi-translucent body.

Historically, opals were mined at Czernewitza in Hungary (in what is now Slovakia)’. Romans in particular used a lot of opals in their jewellery. White and crystal opals are the main opals found in antique jewellery until the commercial production of black opals started in Australia the early 20th century.

3 stone opal ring 1
Antique three white opal and diamond ring

Despite being a treasured stone for many centuries, opals became associated with bad luck in the late 17th century until the late 19th century. Apparently this superstition emerged from the Teutonic races but it was reinforced in a book by Sir Walter Scott called ‘Anne of Geierstein’ published in 1829 in which an opal talisman bought death to a character. Prince Albert, however, preferred opals and gave some to Victoria. She in turn gave gifts of opal set jewellery. Queen Alexandra had a number of Victoria’s pieces reset to remove the opals as she obviously believed them to be unlucky. Despite Queen Alexandra, opals began to regain their popularity in the Edwardian and Belle Epoque periods, just at a time that the Australian opal fields were been opened up.