Gemstones & Birthstones: Smokin’ Opal, Just the Facts

Opal, with its flashes of color that can change hue as the stone moves, has to be one of the most fascinating gemstones. They’ve been known and treasured as far back as the Romans, who called them “the child as beautiful as love.” In his Natural History, the Roman writer, Pliny, described opals: “There is in them a softer fire than in the carbuncle, there is the brilliant purple of the amethyst; there is the sea-green of the emerald—all shining together in incredible union. Some by their refulgent splendor rival the colors of the painters, others the flame of burning sulphur or of fire quickened by oil.”

That about sums it up.

ABOVE: Sarah Bernhardt would have loved this 18k yellow gold bracelet titled “Queen Tiye’s Amulet” by Paula Crevoshay. Set with sculpted fire opals, accented with Cambodian blue zircons and tsavorites. Courtesy Paula Crevoshay.

Gemstones & Birthstones: Smokin' Opal, Just the Facts

Sarah Bernhardt was considered one of the greatest tragic actresses of all time. She began on the French stage at the age of 18, in 1862, and was rehearsing for a new play at the time of her death in 1923 at age 79. PHOTO: FRANCE – circa 1880: The French Actress Sarah Bernhardt Pictured At The Height Of Her Fame. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In the 1800s, however, opals developed a reputation for being unlucky to wear. A variation of that belief has it that opals are only unlucky if it is not your birthstone. (Some people still believe this. I’ve had retail customers dismiss a piece of opal jewelry because they believed the stones were bad luck.) However, even in the 1800s, not everyone believed that myth. Queen Victoria gave her daughters opals. The French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose birthstone was opal, wore them constantly. But then Bernhardt also kept her coffin in her salon and was reputed to sleep in it occasionally. Talk about no fear of flouting custom.

Gemstones & Birthstones: Smokin' Opal, Just the Facts

Paula Crevoshay writes that she thought of the Portuguese Man o’ War’s shifting body color as soon as she saw the beautiful colors in the opal she features in this spectacular pendant. The 32.48 carat opal is accented with chrysocolla, pink sapphires, and coral. “Portuguese Man o’ War” pendant. Courtesy Paula Crevoshay.

Like Bernhardt, if opals are your birthstone you may love them and wear them. (Though you might want to give the coffin a pass.) As there are no two opals alike, you could have a wide wardrobe of them, too.

Opals take some care, however. Although made up of spheres of silica—the same chemical composition as quartz—opals are also composed of between 5 and 10 percent water—sometimes as high as 20%. That water content is vital to opal’s appearance, yet over time in drying conditions or heat, the opal can lose the water and lose its play-of-color. So don’t leave your opals in a hot car or on a sunny window sill.

Gemstones & Birthstones: Smokin' Opal, Just the Facts

Opals are endlessly evocative, with this 3.03 carat Ethiopian black opal calling to mind the Aurora Borealis on a dark summer night. Photo by Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

Although they are silica, they are softer than quartz with a hardness of 5 to 6.5. This lower hardness means that an opal should not necessarily be worn every day in a ring or bracelet. If worn or scratched, opals cannot generally be recut. Play-of-color is an elusive thing and during cutting many a cutter has lost everything trying to get just a little more color.

If you’re working with opal, don’t use the steamer on them—the heat shock will break them. The force of the steam can also drive water impurities into cracks in the surface, staining the stone. Using an ultrasonic to clean opal-set jewelry is also a risky idea.

With love and respect, opal jewelry should give you a lifetime of magic.

Note that the quote from Pliny, above, was taken from The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, by George Frederick Kunz, originally published in 1913 and a delightful source of gemstone lore.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing on gemstone and jewelry topics for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of Birthstone Romances under the name Liz Hartley.

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