February 28, 2020
🕐 12 Min Read
From ancient Greece and Rome to Australia and the American West, the beauty and meaning of opal stones continues to fascinate generations of gem lovers.
The Enigmatic Opal: The History and Meaning of the Storied Stone
Just over a century ago, a 14 year old boy stumbled upon a cache of luminous, frenzy inspiring rough opal stones. He and his father were in search of quartz and hopefully gold, running low on water, and weary from their camel propelled trek through Australia’s Great Victoria Desert.
As Jim Hutchinson later recounted to the Adelaide Chronicle, he’d left his son in charge of the camp while he and the others went out in search of water. Upon their return, Willie was nowhere to be found. “We were just about to light it [a fire] to guide him into camp when he quietly rolled into camp with a smile,” he remembered.
Young Willie Hutchinson had filled half a sugar sack with precious opal stones, and found a water source that would relieve the men “and the poor humpies” of their thirst. “He thought more of the water discovery than he did of the opal,” his father told the newspaper years later.
“I was trying my hardest to scold him for disobeying my orders,” he mused, looking back on that fateful night. But the boy had done well, and the Hutchinsons’ 1915 discovery of precious opal set off a new wave of prospecting in the Coober Peddy region - an opal rush, if you will. This was not Australia’s first run in with opal-mania, but the timing provided new stocks of the shimmering gemstone just as earlier claims at White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge were petering out.
A generation before, an opal trader named TC Wollaston struck out on a similar venture in search of an opal miner in the equally inhospitable Queensland and NSW opal fields. His memoir, Opal: The Gem of the Never Never, details a hazardous journey into the Australian bush fighting the heat, terrain, and “mosquitoes as large as bees.”
“December 27th,” Wollaston’s trip log reads. “Same old entry, ‘heat awful.’ Self and beast utterly exhausted on reaching Tanbar at 9:30 pm. The sun went down rayless in an angry murk of blood, and a hot wind came fanning over the stone floor.” He continues to describe the oppressive heat and “sinking sense of despair” his party encountered on the 700 mile journey over “long stretches where much maneuvering was necessary to keep even a camel alive.”
“It sounded a ridiculous enterprise,” he said of the expedition, “And no doubt was so described by some of my stay-at-home friends, but it succeeded and put an end to any criticism.” Wollaston and company finally reached the Kyabra Hills and secured a lot of rough opal stone to take to London for cutting and sale. His efforts were well rewarded. Europeans had been exposed to a small supply of Czech and Hungarian opals, but the enigmatic gem grew in popularity as abundant and colorful new Australian opals made their way onto the market.
Much like the impact of fresh Ethiopian stones on today’s opal jewelry industry, the influx of Australian inventory put the pricy gemstone within reach of the middle class. Previously, opals were so scarce they were only reserved for the wealthiest collectors, and the Eastern European mines offered a limited range of body color - usually milky white to periwinkle blue.
A Kaleidoscope of Color: Understanding How Opals Are Formed
Australian opals range in colors from soft pastels to sandy reds, rich greens, vibrant teals, blacks, and blues. While the base color, or body, may be static, it’s the flash of prismatic light known as play of color that gives precious opal stones their distinctive sheen.
“Of all precious stones, it is opal that presents the greatest difficulties of description,” writes Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder in Natural History. “It displaying at once the piercing fire of carbunculus (ruby), the purple brilliancy of amethystos (amethyst), and the sea-green of smaragdus (emerald), the whole blended together and refulgent with a brightness that is quite incredible.”
The appearance of common opal - meaning those without electric peacock like play of color - are easier to classify. They’re found in many hues and levels of opacity, but do not exhibit the brilliance of their flashier cousins. Even today, the array of colors in a precious opal is incredibly difficult to pin down - thanks in part to its atomic structure.
“I believe in the 60s in Australia there was research done using an electron microscope, and they determined that precious opal – all opal – is made up of little tiny spheres of silicon dioxide,” says Don Skillman, a recreational prospector and stakeholder in Nevada’s Bonanza Opal Mine. It’s the arrangement of these microscopic spheres that determines whether an opal will offer a flash of prismatic color when rotated in the light.
“In common opal, the spheres are like you poured a bunch of marbles in a fruit jar - they’re arranged haphazardly,” says Skillman. “But under certain circumstances, when the fluid that carries the silica - that forms those little balls - happens to lay them down all the same size and flat like marbles on a cookie sheet,” he continues, “Now we have a refraction grid, and we have play of color coming back from that.”
“Opal has no light of its own,” he points out. “It reflects back the light that falls upon it.” When it encounters these refraction grids sandwiched within the opal stone, light plays off the various grids and water that’s naturally contained within the gem.
“You see a glint of blue, a glint of green, a glint of red – that’s the light that’s hitting the opal, going inside the opal, and hitting the refraction grid,” says Skillman, “Which breaks it down into its prismatic content and [sends it] coming back to you.”
Just like window glass, quartz, jasper, and agate, opal is a created from silicon dioxide (SiO2). It’s the small amounts of other minerals called chromophores that influence the color of agate, jasper, and to some degree, the background color of opals, says Skillman.
“You’ll find various opals in different locations,” he says, “Like Ethiopia, where presently, a lot of good opal is coming from. There’s always the old standby, which is Australia.” While not always suitable for opal rings or pendants, a very special variety of opal is found at Bonanza and other Virgin Valley, Nevada opal mines. Much like a piece of wood can become petrified by another type of material, it can also be opalized. Large chunks of opal shaped like tree limbs have been collected in the region, and an impeccable, 2,585 carat specimen is on display in the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
“It’s a beautiful, precious stone, there’s no question about that. And that’s true of all types of opal,” says Skillman, who first started hunting for opal while on a road trip through a section of high desert some have referred to as “America’s Outback.” While he and his wife had the luxury of a car instead of a camel, their trip through Nevada’s opal country set them tooling down a sketchy dirt road on the recommendation of a handmade “Black Opals” sign.
The Skillmans came up empty handed on their first opal mining adventure, but the dry spell didn’t last. “When we got to the Bonanza Opal Mine in our first season, we started finding opal, and that’s addictive,” he remembers. “Highly addictive.” Like many before them to experience opal-mania, Don Skillman and his wife were hooked. They purchased a stake in the mine and have spent the past 15 summers obsessing over, and occasionally unearthing, the curious, habit forming stone.
Many Colors, Many Cultures: The Meaning of Opal
While modern day miners and bold, turn of the century traders have been transfixed by the beauty and market value of opal, meaning extends far deeper into ancient cultures. From a byproduct of lightning and the physical embodiment of rainbows, to tears shed over lost lovers and unnecessary wars, cultural opal meaning has been created through centuries of oral storytelling and myth.
Unsurprisingly, folklore surrounding the origin, benefits, and meaning of opal is prevalent in regions where the stone can be found. Like many precious materials, however, opal stones were likely traded across great distances in antiquity. Artifacts and historical writings have given us some clues to the status and significance of the gem in early societies.
The first evidence of opal mining in Europe’s Carpathian Mountains (around 400 BC) coincides with a creative retelling of a tragic love story by the Athenian philosopher Plato. As the tale goes, a shepherd began an affair with the wife of King Gyges of Lydia. And, as in all good Greek tragedies, drama ensues. Set nearly 200 years before the Carpathian mines were productive, the story’s plot entails an act of deception and treachery aided by the “magic powers” of a mysterious stone, by some accounts an opal. Whether an oral history had been updated to include a myth about a newly popular stone, or if early Greeks were aware of opals from other regions, it’s hard to know.
Similarly, researchers take timely associations with opal meaning and origin stories tied to indigenous cultures with a grain of skepticism. “Often ‘traditions’ or ‘stories’ involving the aboriginals and opal tend to surface after the fact,” writes Allan W. Eckert in his 1997 book The World of Opals. In it, Eckert relays a story of a rainbow colored kingfisher who travels a great distance to find her ideal nesting grounds. She creates a water source and lays her magical eggs made of, you guessed it, opal. Like the concept of Dreamtime itself - a settler’s interpretation of indigenous spirituality - the story may have been distorted through time and translation.
Other hard to trace legends around the aboriginal meaning of opal stones involve crocodiles, butterflies, lost loves, and rainbows. Most can agree, however, that the name of Australia’s great opal mining region, Coober Pedy, can be accurately traced back to an aboriginal phrase. In the tongue of the area’s native Arabana tribe, kupa piti means boy’s waterhole. It’s unclear if the locals were aware of the opals before young Willie Hutchinson’s discovery. But the name, (Anglicized to Coober Pedy) indicates that the natives and the teen boy both valued water as the greater discovery.
Opal stones, which can contain up to 10% water, are often found in desert regions where the vital resource is scarce. Coupled with its prismatic quality, it’s not hard to see why the meaning of opal is so closely tied to tears, raindrops, and stormy skies. Themes of rainbow, lightning, and thunder persist across cultural and geographic boundaries in addition to time.
Eckert points out that in 290 BC, just over a century after Plato’s opal story goes viral, “The Romans are calling opal ceraunium, meaning thunderstone. The word apparently originating from the Bedouins of the Sahara,” he writes, “Who believe opals, with lightning trapped within them, fall from the sky during thunderstorms and acquire their marvelous colors in the process.”
Although researchers can only speculate about opal meaning in prehistoric societies, Eckert notes that the ongoing connection between humans and opals is undeniable. “What’s more important here is the history of mankind’s involvement with opal,” he writes, citing the presence of opals among other artifacts unearthed in an African cave. Dating back to 4000 BC, the 1939 discovery by anthropologist Louis Leakey affirms that opal-mania has been around for a very long time.
According to Bedouin folklore, opals fall from the sky during thunderstorms and get their marvelous color from lightning trapped within them.
Beauty, Color, Power: Discovering What Opal Means to You
Whether you find meaning in the gem’s origins, or simply celebrate the October birthstone’s fascinating kaleidoscope of colors, you’re joining a community of opal lovers that spans cultures, continents, and at least 6000 years.