Opals have an interesting history, influenced by mythology, literature and royal tastemakers.
They were the gift du jour for conquerers looking to impress their ladies. Marc Antony infamously hunted after the purportedly hazelnut sized stone owned by the senator Nonius for Queen Cleopatra, though found himself thwarted when Nonius refused to sell the stone even at its two million sesterces valuation. A resourceful fellow, Antony decided to simply have Nonius murdered and take the stone (a ploy that would conveniently see him not have to part with any cash at all). However the senator somehow caught wind of this plot and outfoxed him, vanishing with the stone and off the pages of history.
Another great soldier, Napoleon, gifted his Empress Josephine an allegedly 700 carat black opal shot with red streaks so firey it was dubbed, 'The Burning of Troy'. This was an fitting gift, said Napoleon, because she was his Helen (aw). It was the largest and most valuable opal of its day and Josephine was proud to wear it often as a display France's power.
Yet opals have been regarded as more than pretty trinkets for royalty throughout the centuries. In almost every culture superstitions and folklore have arisen around the gemstones, opals variously being attributed the power to grant wearers protection from bodily harm, good fortune and invisibility, the latter probably derived from the rare hydrophane variety of opal which loses its colour when immersed in water only to regain it again once removed.
The desirability the opal enjoyed for thousands of years plummeted however with the publication of The Waverly Novels by the 19th century novelist Sir Walter Scott, who possessed a J.K. Rowling like popularity in his day. In the final novel of the series, Anna of Geierstein: or The Maiden in the Mist, a character wears an opal necklace to which she is supernaturally connected that shifts colour with her moods. This comes to an end when, during the christening of her daughter, a splash of holy water wets the stone. With a crack of lightening "like a failing star" it turns black, causing the woman to gracefully fall to the floor "with a deep sigh of pain". She is laid out in her bedroom, but later when someone goes to check on her, all they find of her and the opal is a pile of ash…
Right. Well the Victorian reading public found this all very gripping and blamed the wicked opal for the beloved character’s heart wrenching demise. Fiction was blurred with reality, and it became popular opinion opals were dreadfully bad luck, and always had been. As is to be expected the market for the gems evaporated throughout Europe, a trend that retained its stranglehold for two decades.
We can thank what was considered a fairly dull jewel in the Empire’s crown at the time for the return of the opal into our good graces. Found in the mid-nineteenth century to be brimming with deposits of the gem, Australia began to unearth masses of the rock with unfortunately no one to sell them to. The gracious Queen Victoria lent her royal hand and commissioned opal jewellery for herself, her Princess daughters and a number of ladies in her favour and the rock was skyrocketed back onto the hot list.
The Oriental Circlet now in the Royal Collection was commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1853, however her daughter-in-law Queen Alexandra, holding to 'old' Waverley induced superstitions, had rubies set in the place of the original opals when it fell into her possession. Beautiful as it is now, I would have loved to see it in its original form.