art by Rachel Anderson
October's birthstone treats the eye to an explosion of shimmering colors, not unlike those of a magnificent rainbow following a summer rain. The Opal derives its name from the Latin word "opalus," meaning precious jewel. Prized for its unique ability to refract and reflect specific wavelengths of light, the Opal was called "Cupid Paederos" by the Romans, meaning a child beautiful as love. One legendary explanation for this gemstone's origin is that it fell from heaven in a flash of fiery lightning.
Ancient monarchs treasured Opals, both for their beauty and for their presumed protective powers. They were set into crowns and worn in necklaces to ward off evil and to protect the eyesight. These gemstones were also ground and ingested for their healing properties and to ward off nightmares.
The Opal dates back to prehistoric times. It is a non-crystallized silica, which is a mineral found near the earth's surface in areas where ancient geothermal hot springs once existed. As the hot springs dried up, layers of the silica, combined with water, were deposited into the cracks and cavities of the bedrock, forming Opal. This gemstone actually contains up to 30% water, so it must be protected from heat or harsh chemicals, both of which will cause drying and may lead to cracking and loss of iridescence. Opal must also be guarded from blows, since it is relatively soft and breaks easily.
In the fourteenth century the Opal was known as the Ophthalmius, or Eye Stone, because it was believed to sharpen and strengthen the eyesight. It was also believed that its flashes of coloured fire were especially helpful in arresting the glance of envy. In India, the passing of an Opal across the brow is believed to clear the brain and strengthen the memory.
The idea of opals being unlucky stones had its origin in the misfortunes that befell Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist (1829) in Sir Walter Scott's novel, her principal jewel consisting of a large Opal. In the East opals are regarded as a sacred stone which contains the Spirit of Truth.
In Ancient Greece the Opal was supposed to possess the power of giving foresight and the light of prophecy to its owner, provided it was not used for selfish ends. Any misuse brought ill-luck in love (which probably accounts for its being unlucky when used in an engagement ring) and disappointment and misfortune in all enterprises.
According to the Roman author Pliny, as an illustration of the high value of the topaz, Nonnius, a Roman Senator, endured outlawry and exile at the hands of Marcus Antonius rather than part with an Opal he possessed.