Numerous legends and tales surround this colourful gemstone, which can be traced back in its origins to a time long before our memory, to the ancient dream time of the Australian aborigines. It is reported in their legends that the creator came down to Earth on a rainbow, in order to bring the message of peace to all the humans. And at the very spot, where his foot touched the ground, the stones became alive and started sparkling in all the colours of the rainbow. That was the birth of the Opals.
The group of fine Opals includes quite a number of wonderful gemstones, which share one characteristic: they shine and sparkle in a continually changing play of colours full of fantasy, which experts describe as “opalising”. Depending on the kind, place of occurrence, and colour of the main body, we differentiate Dark or Black Opal, White or Light Opal, Milk or Crystal Opal, Boulder Opal, Opal Matrix, Yowah Nuts from Queensland – the so-called “picture stones“, and also Mexican and Fire Opal. Opal variations are practically unlimited. They all show in their own special way that unique play of colours – except for Fire Opal, which due to its transparency, however, is nevertheless also considered a Fine Opal specimen. If Opals are lacking the typical play of colours, they are simply named “Common Opal”.
Upala, opallios or Opalus – fascination created by tiny spheres
The name Opal was probably derived from Sanskrit “upala“, meaning ”valuable stone“. This was probably the root for the Greek term “opallios”, which translates as “colour change”. In the days of Roman antiquity there existed a so-called “opalus”, or a “stone from several elements”. So the ancient Romans may already have had an inkling why the Opals show such a striking play of colours. But we will come to this later …
Pliny, the famous Roman author, called Opal a gemstone which combines the best possible characteristics of the most beautiful of gemstones: the fine sparkle of Almandine, the shining purple of Amethyst, the golden yellow of Topaz, and the deep blue of Sapphire, ”so that all colours shine and sparkle together in a beautiful combination“.
Up to the first half of the 19th century, Opals were relatively rare. But then their career boomed suddenly and made them one of the most popular gemstones, and the start of this development brought them to the gemstone cutters of the gemstone centre of Idar-Oberstein. In the era of Art Deco the Opals experienced their flourishing, with contemporary gemstone artists preferring them to all other stones because of their subdued charm, which in turn was excellently suited to be combined with enamel, another very popular material of those days.
Opal’s colour play emanates a very special attraction and fascination. But what causes this phenomenon? This question was impossible to answer for a very long time. Only when in the 1960s a team of Australian scientists analysed Opals with an electron microscope, it was discovered that small spheres from silica gel caused interference and refraction manifestations, which are responsible for the fantastic play of colours. The spheres, which are arranged in more or less compact structures, succeed in dissecting the light on its passage through the gemstone and turning it into all the colours of the rainbow, always new and always different.