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October Birthstone, Discover Rainbow Magic with Opal

October Birthstone, Discover Rainbow Magic with Opal

This is one extraordinary gemstone, part rainbow, part Mother Nature’s miracle and no other stone will leave you so transfixed. Here’s what you need to know…

24 February 2020 H.Samuel - Editor

Opals are downright mysterious. People spend their entire lives searching for them and their careers studying and staring at them… no, really. Opals exist on a huge spectrum of quality, colour and type. The main category jewellery lovers need to know about is precious opal, as this is what produces those mesmerising flashes of colour.

The ‘perfect opal’ depends on a whole load of factors like body colour, its rainbow colours, the patterns these colours make, as well as the brilliance and opacity of the stone itself. There are some things to look for when you are shopping though, like the brightness of the stone (nobody has time for a dull opal!) and the ‘dominant colour’ that dances across its surface. Generally speaking, flashes of red are best, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But here’s where it gets complicated again, because a dull red opal might not be as valuable as a brilliant violet gem.

See we told you it was tricky! The culprits for all this confusion are the tiny spheres of silica that make up an opal. As light passes through these spheres (and the spaces between them) it is diffracted and produces different rainbow shades. The order and size of these spheres changes what colours your eyes see. In some unusual cases, the way light diffracts can cause colours to appear in incredible patterns, like thick stripes, feathers and broad brushstroke-like flashes.

Opals have a bit of a murky history. The Ancient Greeks loved them as fortune-telling gemstones, while the Roman prized opal gemstone jewellery as a symbol of hopefulness. By the time the 18th and 19th centuries came along, the wealthy gemstone jewellery wearers of the day believed opal was back luck and potentially dangerous. This opal myth was so believed that Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Queen Alexandra, removed 11 perfectly precious opals from a tiara she had inherited and swapped them for rubies.

This reputation for bad luck probably stems from the physical properties of opal itself. Opals contains up to 30% water, which means they can dry out in hot conditions and crack. We can just imagine the face of an 18th century aristocrat waking up to find this irreversible damage in their precious jewellery… no wonder they thought opals were a bad omen.

Of course, today we know that opals aren’t a foreteller of doom, they’re just temperamental. Opal gemstones are a soft stone and care should be taken to avoid dropping on knocking them on hard surfaces. You also need to be careful with detergents, perfumes and shop bought jewellery cleaners as these can all damage opals.

When choosing opal gemstone jewellery start with opal earrings and opal pendants, as these jewellery pieces are less likely to be damaged when worn. If you are lusting after an opal dress ring or opal cocktail ring, just make sure to choose one with a clever setting, such as a rub-over, bezel or halo setting. These goldsmithing tricks protect the stone and its radiant rainbow flashes.

Opals are a spectacular addition to any jewellery box and not just because they are great to look at. Because of the way it is formed, each opal is entirely unique. No two will display the same rainbow flashes of colour, which means your opal is quite literally your opal. Not bad for an ‘unlucky’ gem!