The History of Why: A Love Letter to the Unlucky Opal
The opal has always been known for its exquisite beauty, admired by many throughout time. Its rarity is based on the magnificent play of colors on its surface, with a kaleidoscopic display that is entirely unique to each piece of opal. This is just one of the reasons why it is so cherished. Working with this precious material (which, by the way, is not a gemstone, but a mineral) is not for the faint-hearted. Because of its temperamental nature, its sensitivity and fickleness, it takes a master to transform it from its rough rugged form into a polished beauty. And yet plenty have mastered this skill, for the opal has adorned many kings and queens. What is it about this extraordinary mineral that has captured the imagination of people for centuries? What is it about its magnetic energy that captivates us? This magnetic energy isn’t solely based on its physical properties but also its spiritual.
Superstition and jewelry go hand in hand. Stones and minerals have always been rumored to have magical properties, but there is a duality at play when it comes to the opal. For most of its existence, the opal was considered to be a good luck charm, rumored to lend its wearer invisible power. (And was therefore known as the patron of thieves.) And yet the myth around the opal has changed…Nowadays the opal has a reputation of being unlucky. Legend has it wearing an opal will bring you a great deal of misfortune. How did the meaning of this mineral change so drastically? In this article I will trace its history in search of the answer.
Lucky, Lucky, Lucky
It is thought that the name opal is derived from the Latin word Opalus, which means precious stone. The Romans considered the opal to be a bearer of good fortune. Because of all the colors within an opal, they believed that the mineral possessed the virtues of all other stones. Pliny the Elder wrote about it in his Naturalis Historia, describing all the wonders of the mineral: “For in them you shall see the living fire of the ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green of the emerald, all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light.”
Legend has it that a Roman senator named Nonius was nearly executed because of his magnificent opal ring. It was reported to be a wonderful specimen the size of a hazelnut. This charm wasn’t lost on Marcus Antonius, who at the time was seducing Cleopatra and was in need of a jewel that could match her beauty. He demanded to buy the ring from Nonius, who was unwilling to part with his beloved opal, even with the threat of execution. He preferred to be exiled, to lose all of his earthly possessions over his cherished ring––so one can only imagine what a stunner it would have been.
The opal’s popularity grew steadily over the centuries, and the belief that the opal possessed all the virtues of other stones endured. During the middle ages the mineral was called ophthalmios, a.k.a. the eye stone, for it was said that the opal could cure any eye disease. But fast forward to the 19th century and the story of the opal changes drastically.
The gem known as a good luck charm fell out of favor, in large part due to the publication of the novel Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott in 1829. In the book, the main character wears a magical opal in her hair, which seems to change depending on her mood. After the opal comes in contact with holy water, the character is reduced to a pile of ashes and the opal, with its mixture of colors, is rendered colorless. These days, this obscure novel is only known for being at the root of this modern superstition, but at the time sales of opals plummeted, and it is from that point on that the opal, once adored by many, became feared by some. (It is also said that disgruntled diamond miners who felt snubbed by the popularity of the opal helped sustain the myth.)
More stories fueled the superstition in the second part of the 19th century. Spanish King Alfonso XII received an opal ring from his mistress Comtesse de Castiglione as a wedding present. They say hell has no fury like a woman scorned, and she felt truly scorned. The ring contained a stunning opal with rare coloring, and after seeing this magnificent specimen, the King’s wife Mercedes of Orleans slipped the ring on her finger. Shortly after, she died mysteriously. Grief-stricken, he gave the ring to his grandmother Queen Christiana, who also died a few months later. The next pair of hands the fatal ring fell into was his sister-in-law, who, you guessed it, died too. After all these fatalities, the King chose to wear the ring that was first meant for him. Oblivious to the chain of events, he slipped the ring on his finger, and not long after, he too succumbed to a mysterious illness…
During her reign (1837-1901) Queen Victoria did her part to reverse the opal’s bad reputation. She owned various pieces of jewelry set with opals, which are still part of the royal trust. Her love for the mineral stemmed from her love for her husband; it was said that the opal was the favorite gem of her beloved Prince Albert, who himself owned numerous badges set with opals. She was rumored to gift opal jewelry to her friends and family. This surely helped the sales of the opal, but the gem never regained its popularity. Maybe it just fell out of fashion, or maybe people really believed that the opal would curse the wearer with a great deal of misfortune. Nonetheless, this extraordinary mineral has a rich history filled with rumors, intrigue, and mystery.
To conclude, I’ll share a recent personal anecdote…For my graduation project at Sint Lucas Antwerp, I examined the opal’s relationship with luck. One of the things I created was a set of unique color collages. These self-created opals were then used in a ring to evoke good or bad luck. Lo and behold, just a couple of days before the exhibition the rings mysteriously disappeared. So you tell me, what do you think, is the opal really unlucky? I’ll let you be the judge of that…
Kaouter Zair is a visual storyteller and jeweler exploring the forgotten and lost stories about jewellery. She holds a BA and MA (Jewellery context) from Sint Lucas, Antwerp Belgium.
Naturally curious, she is driven by uncovering the reason behind things. This insatiable need to seek the obscure, has led her down many rabbit holes. She is captivated by stories that are a strange combination of facts and fiction because they tell us about our willingness to believe.
In her project: The History of Why, she delves into these wonderful stories and their rich history. She researches their forgotten origin and reintroduces these to a contemporary audience. Her work is multi-disciplinary, using the internet as her main archive.
Written by Kaouter Zair; Image credits as noted, provided by Kaouter Zair. Headshot by Saskia Van der Gucht. Feature edited, compiled, and formatted by Future Heirloom Editor Jackie Andrews in collaboration with Karen Davidov of The Jewelry Library.