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Opal History

Parle Gems
Parlé Gems

According to Arabic legend, opals fell from the sky in bolts of lightning. Australian aborigines, meanwhile, believed that the creator came to earth on a rainbow, leaving these colorful stones where his feet touched the ground.

In 75 AD, the Roman scholar Pliny compared opals to volcanoes and vibrant paintings, noting that their dancing “play” of color could simulate shades of any gems.

During the Middle Ages, people believed that the opal possessed the powers of each gemstone whose color appeared in its sheen, making it a very lucky stone.

But Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 book, “Anne of Geierstein,” transformed opal’s lucky perception. The story featured an enchanted princess who wore an opal that changed colors with her moods. A few drops of holy water extinguished the stone’s magic fire, though, and the woman soon died.

People began associating opals with bad luck. Within a year after publication of Scott’s book, opal sales in Europe fell by 50 percent.

Lika Behar Collection
Lika Behar Collection

Discoveries of opal deposits in Australia revived opal’s image after 1850. The outback began producing 95 percent of the world’s supply, and many of its finest opals.

The world’s largest and most valuable opal, “Olympic Australis,” came from Coober Pedy, Australia in 1956, during the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Valued at $2.5 million in 2005, this gem measures 11 inches long and weighs 17,000 carats (7.6 pounds).

After scientists discovered the spherical silica structure of opal in the 1960s, they figured out how to synthesize it in 1974.

Since then, opal has gained more popularity through recent discoveries in Ethiopia. Material mined in the Shewa Province in 1994 wasn’t desirable because it was dark and tended to crack easily. But deposits in the Wollo Province, discovered in 2008, brought vivid play-of-color displays to the market. 

Australia’s depleting supplies of classic opal impact the price of this uniquely kaleidoscopic gem. Because its flashing play-of-color can suit many changing moods and tastes, the opal stays in high demand.

Learn how to purchase opal or explore other birthstones.