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 rainbow colors could simulate shades of any gemstone.
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 to wear.
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.
Discoveries of opal deposits in Australia revived opal’s image after 1850 and began producing 95 percent of the world’s opal gemstone supply, and many of its finest opal specimens.
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 gemstone 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 create synthetic opal in 1974.
Since then, opal gemstones have 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. Deposits in the Wollo Province, discovered in 2008, brought vivid play-of-color displays to the opal market.
Australia’s depleting supplies of classic opal have impacted the price of this uniquely kaleidoscopic gemstone. Because its flashing play-of-color can suit many changing moods and tastes, the opal stays in high demand.