Thursday, August 29, 2013

Opal's Bad Rap: Superstitions of the 19th and 20th Centuries

by Angela Magnotti Andrews

A brief look at the status of Opal Jewelry in 19th and 20th century Europe demonstrates the power of the written word and our human tendency to equate correlation with causation. Prior to the early 1800s, opal was reputed to be a stone of good fortune. It was widely believed that the magnificent iridescent stone strengthened eyesight, conferred virtue to its wearer, cheered the heart, and prevented infection. Some ancients even believed it could render its wearer invisible in plain sight. However, by the early 1800s the stone's stellar reputation began to tarnish. Writer's from the period cite several possible reasons for the opals' decline in popularity. Probably the most widely acclaimed assertion was that Sir Walter Scott's novel, Anne of Geierstein, published in 1829, was responsible for the downturn.

Hermione's Opal

The novel opens on Hermione, a beautiful young woman whose moods appear to be reflected in an opal hair clip she never removed, except for during the few minutes it took her young maidens to comb her hair {cited: Scott}.


 Sir Walter Scott writes: "In such moments, when her eyes sparkled, her cheeks reddened, and her whole frame became animated, it was pretended that the opal clasp amid her tresses, the ornament which she never laid aside, shot forth the little spark, or tongue of flame, which it always displayed, with an increased vivacity.... Her maidens were also heard to surmise, that when their mistress was agitated by any hasty or brief resentment, (the only weakness of temper which she was sometimes observed to display), they could observe dark-red sparks flash from the mystic brooch, as if it sympathized with the wearer's emotions." {p. 221}.

Opal's Dimming

This book, originally published in the 1820s, was reprinted in 1846, at the peak of opal's popularity in Europe. Many of the opals on the market at that time appear to have been hydrophane, which according to an 1878 definition meant they would lose their luster when touched by water, oils, or excessive heat. Additionally, during this age of plagues, in the absence of germ theory and a clear understanding of the nature of conductivity, opals slowly grew to superstitious status. In modern times, more is known about the delicate nature of the opal, and some of these early assumptions about how opal loses its luster have been amended. We also understand more about opal's conductive properties, that it flashes more when warmed in the hand or against the body and fades when cold. However, when Sir Walter Scott connected the demise of Hermione to her opal's dimming, it was easy for writers of the day to speculate that the fall of the opal came on the heels of the popularity of this compelling story.


Sir Walter Scott wrote that after a drop of holy water landed upon her opal it "shot out a brilliant spark like a falling star, and became the instant afterwards lightless and colourless as a common pebble, while the beautiful Baroness sunk on the floor of the chapel with a deep sigh of pain" {p. 225}. It is true that by the 1840s, a pall had begun to fall over the ethereal stone. This pall would take full shape in the 1870s, when women would gladly own an opal, but would rarely wear the unlucky stones. Luck was simply too valuable. No one in the Industrial Age could afford to squander it.

The Patron Stone of Thieves

In 1878, it appears that The British Quarterly Review may have been the first to widely publish that "the notion of the opal being an unlucky stone, cannot be traced farther back than the publication of [Sir Walter] Scott's novel" {cited: Quarterly Review}. The Quarterly Review, presumably in an attempt to refute the superstitions surrounding the opal, reverse this notion of the unlucky stone by citing Marbodus Gallus (Marbodei Galli), who wrote a 12th-century treatise on the virtues of precious stones, which became "one of the most popular lapidaries through the 16th century" {cited: Schuh}. According to Marbodus, opal "confers the gift of invisibility upon the wearer, so that the thief, protected by its virtue of dazzling all beholders, could carry off his plunder in open day" {cited:British Quarterly Review}. Marbodus successfully revised the common supposition of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), that the opal possessed and conferred the virtues of every gemstone whose color was represented within the opal's depths {cited: crystal-cure}, to a whole new level, ensuring it as the patron stone of thieves.

Undue Neglect

Twenty years later, speculation continued among the literati that a well-written novel had the power to drastically effect the economy of a society. And who can really blame them? Even this writer fantasizes about the power of the written word to affect the world. Though it is really just an afterthought in a treatise against the dominion of the diamond, in 1894, Charles Dickens contributed to the discussion in an article which not only affirms that the opal had by then fallen into disrepute, but also presents a subtle bid for a more favorable view. He wrote, "the opal is said to show, in its diminished lustre and fire, the approaching illness or death of its wearer. And this imaginary property has had the effect of causing a beautiful gem to be unduly neglected, especially since Sir Walter Scott diffused the notion in his novel Anne of Geierstein" {All the Year Round p. 127}.


 In the same article, he briefly cites the second most popular assumption regarding Opal's bad rap, again calling for at least a more balanced view. Apparently, the Empress Josephine's 'Burning of Troy' opal appears to have been associated, quite illogically, with her divorce from Napoleon I. Of the famed opal, Mr. Dickens wrote that it "might be held to justify the current superstition as to opals, as Josephine's divorce speedily followed its acquisition" {p. 127}.

An Absolute Phobia of Opals

Like the connection to Hermione's opal, the belief that Empress Josephine's opal deserved blame for the superstitions was propagated by several writers throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since she wore them often, it is hard to imagine that Empress Josephine would have believed such a preposterous notion. Other writers speculated that it was actually her granddaughter-in-law, Empress Eugenie de Montijo (of Spanish descent) who propagated such a notion. Since it was widely known that Empress Eugenie was terrified to wear an opal, it was surmised that her fear of the gemstones lay in Empress Josephine's misfortunes. However, this bears very little credence, as Empress Josephine, despite her divorce, led a very happy and fulfilled life. Furthermore, such a distant connection is very small in comparison to Empress Eugenie's absolute phobia of opals. We may never understand the origins of her fear, but it is possible that it grew in the same soil as the Black Plague.

An Ominous Notoriety

Apparently, despite Dickens' feeble attempt to shift public opinion on the matter, the opal continued to bear the burden of an ominous notoriety. Isidore Kozminsky, in her 1922 book, The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones, discusses in great detail the superstitions surrounding the beautiful stone, many of which relate to opal's conductivity--that it flashed when a person fell ill and lost its luster upon their death. Ms. Kozminsky writes: Perhaps against no other gem has the bigotry of superstitious ignorance so prevailed as against the wonderful opal. The reason for it dates no further back apparently than the 14th century. It was at this time that the dreaded "Black Death" was carrying off thousands of people in Europe. The year 1348..saw Venice assailed by destructive earthquakes, tidal waves and the Plague. The epidemic in a few months carried off two-fifths of the population of the city, sparing neither rich nor poor, young nor old. It is said at this time the opal was a favourite with Italian jewelers, being much used in their work. It is further said that opals worn by those stricken became suddenly brilliant and that the lustre entirely departed with the death of the wearer {p. 293}.

The Grand Opal of Spain

Unsurprisingly, this was not the only story of opal's mystic tendencies in the face of fever and death, and the conditions in Italy were repeated throughout Europe in the decades leading up to the 19th century. The conclusion that the opal was to blame for sickness, in the absence of an understanding of germ theory and conductivity, is not at all unsubstantiated.


 Ms. Komzinsky cites several other possible reasons for the stone's stigma, none as compelling as The Grand Opal of Spain. Although Empress Eugenie came from Spain, this tragic story would not have been to blame for her fear of the stone, as it happened long after her aversion developed. The story opens in Madrid in the winter of 1877. King Alfonzo XII has stilted his lover, the Comtesse of Castiglione, to marry his cousin, Princess Maria de las Mercedes. The Comtesse, burning with anger, sent a Trojan horse of sorts to her former lover. This "magnificent opal set in a filigree ring of gold" attracted the affections of the new Queen of Spain {Kozminsky, p. 296}.

Opals Caused Disease

She adopted it as her own, and within six short months she was dead from "a mysterious illness." Following Queen Mercedes's death in June of 1878, King Alfonso reportedly gave the ring to his grandmother, Queen Cristina. Her demise came less than one month later. According to legend, the ring was then given to the King's sister, Infanta Maria de la Paz, who is said to have also perished from a mysterious illness shortly afterward. After so much tragedy, it is said that the King dared to don the ring himself, and he died from tuberculosis. It is supposed that the opal was blamed for these deaths, and the rumor was widely circulated that opals caused disease.

The Legend Breaks Down

As far as history goes, this legend holds little factual credence. It is true that Queen Mercedes died from typhoid fever just six short months after her marriage to Spain's King. It is also true that King Alfonso's grandmother, Queen Cristina, perished one month later. However, although her cause of death is not readily known, it is noted that the Queen and her grandchildren did not get along {19}. One must wonder, then, why King Alfonso would have given her the opal ring. It further breaks down when we discover that Alfonso's sister died in 1946 after falling down the stairs, not from a mysterious illness in the late 1800s. It is possible that King Alfonso's role in the cursed opal's story might bear a bit more weight. Though he died seven years after his first wife's death, he did die from dysentery while suffering from typhoid fever, and in all likelihood he did still possess the dread opal.

A Stigma of Mourning and Sadness

This may have been a compelling story in the late 1800s, but it is quite possible that the downfall of the opal lay within the court of another 19th-century queen, one who would not be so readily cited by writers of the day. As one of the century's most influential icons, Queen Victoria, an extremely superstitious woman, wore opals and diamonds at her wedding in 1840, and enjoyed them immensely. She often presented opals as gifts, the most elaborate opal and diamond jewels reserved for her daughters on their wedding days. Given her avoidance of all things that would bring ill fortune, it is safe to assume that throughout the mid-1800s, even for a time following the death of her dear husband, opals maintained their positive mystical attributes. However, sometime after her husband's death in 1861, and after her daughter's marriage in 1862, the Queen is reported to have stopped promoting the use of opals for weddings. She may have continued to wear them, but they would soon take on the stigma of mourning and sadness. An article in an 1875 copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal advises, “opals, on account of their signification being ‘sorrow’ are not fashionable for engagement rings” {1}.

The Russians are to Blame

While this association with grief and mourning must have played a part in the turn of the opal's fortunes, at the dawning of the 20th century, seemingly oblivious to the immense power Queen Victoria held over the world's jewelry market, writers began to adopt Mr. Dickens's theories from the 1840s, taking liberty to add some of their own, as well. In 1900, Anna Cosgrave, in the magazine, Common Sense, wrote that "the belief that opal is unlucky seems to be comparatively modern. [Edwin] Streeter says that in ancient times it was considered especially lucky, and, in the middle ages, it was even thought to possess the united virtue of all the gems with whose distinctive hues it emblazoned" {p. 188}. She purports that it was the Russians who are to blame for the opal's shady reputation. She writes, "...[the Russians] consider it the evil eye, and will give up any enterprise if they see one; if goods are being submitted for purchase, and they seen an opal, they will buy nothing that day" {p. 188}. She goes on to mention that "it is unlucky to wear but lucky to keep," unless you were born in October. Those whose birthstone is opal are allowed to wear them "on their persons" without concern {p. 188}.

Reasons Far More Practical

In 1913, legendary gemstone expert George Frederick Kunz added to the discussion. Like Dickens, it appears that Mr. Kunz was attempting to use logic to dispel superstition. His rational theory, though hinted at in earlier hypotheses, had not yet been cited as a reason for the decline: "A possible explanation for the superstitious dread of 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. This was frequently due to no fault on the part of the cutters or setters, but was owing to the natural brittleness of the opal. As such workmen are responsible to the owners for any injury to the gems, they would soon acquire a prejudice against opals, and would come to regard them as unlucky stones" {p. 150}. To read the accounts of the 1890s and 1910s, opals appear to have risen and fallen in favor nearly as often as the European empires rose and fell. Superstition plays its part, as we have seen with Sir Walter Scott's novel and The Grand Opal of Spain, but as Mr. Kunz suggests, the reasons may be far more practical. According to Allan Eckert (writing in 1997), right around 1800 the open pit opal mines in the Carpathian Mountains began to run dry.

Decreased Demand

The Slovakian government, in an effort to maintain their substantial market share, began to dig down beneath the earth in search of deeper deposits. At first, there was cause for great celebration as they hauled large quantities of opal to the surface. It appears that Mr. Kunz's "superstitious" gem setters were the first to call the parties to a halt. They recognized a significant difference between this new cache of opals and the ones found closer to the surface. The new opals were far less stable, prone to craze after being on the surface for a short time. Those which did not fracture on the cutting wheel, cracked apart some weeks or months after being purchased. Angry customers and wary stone cutters decreased the demand significantly. Mr. Kunz, well aware of this information, states, "Very widespread superstitions have no better foundation than this, for the original cause, sometimes a quite rational one, is soon lost sight of and popular fantasy suggests something entirely different and better calculated to appeal to the imagination" {cited, p. 150}. And what of the wonder of imagination? Should we abandon altogether the notion that opals just might have the power to bestow upon us the virtues of all the gemstones whose colors dance within the beautiful stone? Perhaps by simply beholding in wonder such a beautiful, beautiful stone, we might enjoy some of these grand benefits. Certainly, we will enjoy the delighted exclamations of those who notice our opal pendant or brooch.


  1. Andrews, Angela Magnotti. "The History of All-White Wedding Jewelry (Part 2). Jewelry History, January 24, 2013.
  2. Cosgrave, Anna. “The Stone of the Month: October—Opal.” Common Sense, October 1900.
  3. Dickens, Charles. All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal, Third Series, Volume XII, from July 7, 1894, to December 29, 1894. London: Published at 12, St. Bride Street, E.C., 1894.
  4. Eckert, Allan W. The World of Opals. USA: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
  5. Emily Gems. "Opal gemstone: History and Properties." Accessed June 10, 2013.
  6. “Gems: The Pearl.” The Mentor, Volume 4, Issues 21-25, 1917.
  7. Howard, Joseph. “Opals.” Journal of Chemical Education, December 1936, 13 (12), p. 533.
  8. Jewels for Me. "History and Lore of Opal." Accessed June 10, 2013.
  9. Kozminsky, Isidore. The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones. New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1922.
  10. Kunz, George Frederick. The Curious Lore of Precious Stones: Being a Description of Their Sentiments.
  11. Opal Auctions. "What is Opal?" Accessed June 10, 2013.
  12. “Precious Stones.” The British Quarterly Review, Volume 67. London: Hodder and Stoughton, January and April, 1878.
  13. Scott, Sir Walter. Anne of Geierstein. Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1846.*
  14. Schuh, Curtis. "Marbode, Bishop of Rennes (1035-1123). Accessed August 20, 2013.
  15. Shimmerlings Jewelry. "Opal." Accessed August 20, 2013.
  16. Wikipedia. "Alfonso XII of Spain." Accessed August 27, 2013.
  17. Wikipedia. "Anne of Geierstein." Accessed June 10, 2013.
  18. Wikipedia. "Infanta Maria de la Paz." Accessed August 27, 2013.
  19. Wikipedia. "Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies." Accessed August 27, 2013.
*The first publication of Anne of Geierstein was in 1829.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chalama Black Opal takes the fine jewelry industry by storm

Black opals are great for showing off the colors of the gem!A new variety of Ethiopian Opal has been developed by Jewelry Television (JTV), which is the world’s largest retailer of loose gemstones for fine jewelry. The gem's name, the Chalama Black Opal, comes from the Amharic (Ethiopia’s native language) word that means “to darken.” According to, Ethiopian Opal was discovered in 2008 and is known for its vibrant colors and unique patterns. The colors of the Chalama Black Opal are even more striking, as the stones are treated with smoke to deposit carbon into the gem, making the background appear black.
JTV described the smoke treatment process on their website. "In the smoke treatment process, the opals are wrapped in silver foil paper and heated. The smoke penetrates the opal and darkens the background color. This process results in a brighter play-of-colors in contrast to the darkened background color."


Although other black opals are on the market, there are few with the dazzling range of colors that come with Chalama Black Opals. If you're a fan of opal jewelry, you may want to check out a couple of vintage jewelry items that might strike your fancy.