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The Otherworldly Allure of Opals

Opal in its many varieties is the birthstone of October. Prized for its vivid spectral displays, known as “play of color”, precious opal is a perfect choice to represent the dazzling hues of October’s autumn earth and sky. Throughout its long history as a beloved gem stone, opal has bewitched sophisticated collectors, inspired Art Nouveau jewelers, and challenged research scientists to discover the mystery of its kaleidoscopic colors.

Opal was rare and treasured in the ancient world. Pliny, a polymath of early imperial Rome, discussed the gem in Natural History, published around 77 AD. He praised opal’s rainbow colors “all shining together in incredible union”. Romans believed the stone’s powers combined and surpassed that of all other gemstones. After Rome fell, Europeans maintained the Ancients’ devotion to opals. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, opals symbolized hope and purity, bestowed the gift of prophecy, and served as talismans protecting the wearer from all misfortune.


Opal, Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University, Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder. 79. AD, The Natural History Museum, London

It’s easy to imagine that opal’s mysterious, fugitive colors seemed “otherworldly” before the era of atomic theory and electron microscopy. Mineralogically speaking, opal is a non-crystalline, hydrous polymorph of humble silica, one of earth’s more common minerals. Uncommon, however, is its intricate structure, consisting of groupings of layered stacks of mini-spheres, like a multidimensional grid. When light enters, the spacing among the spheres acts like a grating, causing diffraction, which separates light into its component spectral colors. Interference also comes into play, shifting or amplifying the wavelengths of some colors, extinguishing others. Stacked groupings of the tiniest spheres are associated with blue, while the largest - and rarest - create a red blaze. Opals composed entirely of micro-spheres of a uniform size, non-phenomenal pink and powder blue for instance, are known as “common” opal - but these too are increasingly found in jewelry by artists like JAR, among others. 

Precious white opal ring, 1883, Townshend Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, A Cabochon Emerald, Sapphire, Colored Sapphire And Fire Opal Pendant Necklace, By Louis Comfort Tiffany, Tiffany & Co., Christie's, A Peridot, Fire Opal and Carnelian Brooch, 1915, Bonhams

Precious opal has been sourced principally from Europe, United States, Mexico, and Australia. Though hydrous, opals form over millions of years in environments of extreme aridity, occurring in irregular veins, masses and nodules within sandstone layers. The most broadly distributed variety is “precious white”, which displays spectral phenomena against a translucent, pastel base. In the late 19th century, Tiffany & Co. also began experimenting with Mexican “fire” opal, an intense orange variety with play-of-color, mined in the forbidding desert mountains around Queretaro.

Tiffany Opal Pendant, Lightning Ridge Opal, Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Miners at Lightning Ridge, c. 1910, Lightning Ridge Historical society

However, at the turn of the 19th century, the jewelers’ imaginations were fired by exciting opals discovered in New South Wales, the vast east-central sector of Australia. Wildcat mining by hard-bitten prospectors in Lightning Ridge, where temperatures exceed 110F, yielded extraordinary novelties. So-called “black” opals exhibited their colors not on a pale ground, but against a deep, creamy blue base, introducing heightened drama. Evocative variety names  - broad flash, peacock tail, flagstone, harlequin, calligraphy, - effectively describe these opals' magical patterning. Meanwhile, the fields of Quilpie and Winton in Queensland, to the north, bore another important variety,  “boulder opal”. Extracted from ironstone boulders containing narrow seams of phenomenal material, these vivid opals present within a matte frame of chocolatey host rock, exhibiting chromatic and textural contrasts. Unique in shape, hue and phenomena, often with intriguing imperfections, these sensational gems spoke powerfully to Art Nouveau jewelers, inspiring a strong opal revival.

Hermione, Illustration by E.T.Parris, engraved by H.Mots., Portraits of the Principle Female Characters in the Waverley Novels, Charles Tilt, 1834.

In fact, in the 1800s, a curious mass hysteria had shaken European society’s love of opal. The gem featured in a book series by Sir Walter Scott, renowned author and inventor of a wildly popular genre - the Gothic novel. Published between 1814 and 1824, releases of Scott’s “Waverly” novels typically sold out by 10:30am. Observers reported that Londoners walked the streets engrossed and oblivious, their heads buried in Scott’s books. One of his most intriguing protagonists, Lady Hermione, wore a large, refulgent opal in her hair. The talisman changed color to reflect her fierce emotions. Ultimately, like a vampire, Hermione and her jewel turned to ashes when sprinkled with holy water.  When this plot twist became known, the opal market tanked for decades. Tiffany’s famous gemologist, George Frederick Kunz, resorted to print to tackle Sir Walter’s damage to opal’s reputation. It’s possible that, in a modern re-framing of Scott’s narrative, the opal-loving Hermione would be viewed less as a sinister enchantress and more a heroine resisting the abuse she had endured as a young woman. But by the 1910s, gorgeous opal jewelry created by René Lalique, Louis Tiffany, and George Marcus mostly dispersed the vaguely-remembered superstitions engendered by the Gothic novel craze.

Black Opal, Diamond, Colored Diamond and Multi-gem Ring, Macklowe Gallery

For collectors, a top opal displays intensity, brightness, spectrum, the presence of rare red, and distinct visual patterning. Specimen depth is vital: deep slices provide the ideal, complex backdrop for play-of-color. Connoisseurs even analyze the distance at which the patterns remain distinct. However, there is no such thing as perfection in opals, a fact that frees the gem from market conventions that negatively affect other stones. Modern grading systems and standardized manufacture rob gems - diamonds, for instance - of their romance and originality. In contrast, every opal is undeniably unique. Fashioning opals from rough material requires specialist knowledge, long experience and high sensitivity to the gem’s attributes.

Louis Tiffany and Tiffany & Co. Boulder Opal and Enamel Brooch, Macklowe Gallery

Additional, unquantifiable factors make opal appealing to collectors who value the ideals of the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movements. Opals' qualities align with the principles of these nature-loving movements that celebrated the individual, the unique, and the irregular. Unpredictable and uncanny, opal alters itself with changes in the composition of light and the angle of perspective, reflecting nature’s infinite capacity for transformation. In the hands of Lalique, Tiffany, and Marcus & Co., opals are inspiring and charismatic. They are showcased as creatures of light, while retaining humble traces of the rock in mother earth where they formed. Interacting subtly with our perceptions and memories, opals engage our minds and imaginations, elevating jewels into works of art.

Three Stone Rings

Three stone rings have long been popular as symbols and statements of love. They appear frequently in jewelry history in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. An elegant design, the three stone is mounted with ideally sized gems - none can be overly large- that gracefully share the spotlight with each other, balancing along the top of the finger.  The powerful symbolism of three touches on many meanings that symbolize the bonds that tie couples - evoking the continuity of their love in the past, present, and future, and the friendship, love and fidelity they share. As individuals successfully committed to one another, members of a couple may strive to live by principles of faith, hope and charity, qualities that are sure to make us beloved of others.  A three stone ring can be chosen to symbolize a third anniversary, or to represent a family of three children. So many good things come in threes. 

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