Although opals have been greatly admired and widely traded throughout history, they have also been blamed for famine, pestilence, and the fall of empires. The popularity of one of our loveliest gemstones has long been overshadowed by rumor and superstition.
Where, when, or how the idea first arose that the possession of an opal brought ill luck, and to the wearer certain disaster, cannot now be decided; but the fact remains that today many people cannot be persuaded to wear one, however beautiful or costly it might be. Of course, educated people would laugh at the idea, and consider themselves above popular superstitions, yet it is well known that the opal trade has suffered severely from the effect of this superstition.
~Henry G. Smith
Gems and Precious Stones
During the 19th century, opal’s reputation for bad luck and misfortune reached its pinnacle. In his book Delle Gemme (1870), the famous jeweler Augusto Castellani said that it was considered bad luck to receive an opal. According to Kunz (1915), the Parisian clairvoyant Baroness d’Orchamps asserted that an unlucky opal would be “robbed of all power to harm if it be associated with diamonds and rubies.” It is difficult to determine just how opal got its reputation for malevolence, although many have attempted to do so. No one seems to know why or when the dark rumors got started, although there are many theories.
Perhaps against no other gem has the bigotry of superstitious ignorance so prevailed as against the wonderful opal. The reason for it dates no further back apparently than the 14th century. It was at this time that the dreaded ‘Black Death’ was carrying off thousands of people in Europe…It was said that at this time the opal was a favourite gem with Italian jewelers, being much used in their work. It is further said that opals worn by those stricken became suddenly brilliant and that the luster entirely departed with the death of the wearer. Story further tells that the opal then became an object of dread and was associated with the death of the victim.
The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones (1922)
While most literature describes opals in glowing terms, in 1875 there was still enough speculation about its unlucky associations to prompt Sir Henry F. Ponsonby–keeper of the Privy Purse and private secretary to Queen Victoria–to publish an inquiry in Notes and Queries:
“THE OPAL.—An opal is considered an unlucky stone. From whence does the superstition come, and what is it founded upon? Does the opal bring bad luck to the finder, the giver, the receiver, or the wearer? Henry F. Ponsonby.”
Sir Ponsonby received a variety of responses to his inquiry, although none provided him with a definitive answer. Sir Ponsonby himself offered a follow-up comment in a later edition of the same journal: “I have been assured that the luck depends upon the colour. In these days a white opal is considered to be unlucky, while a black opal, I am told, is held to be extremely lucky.”
Several authorities claim it was Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel Anne of Geierstein that damaged opal’s reputation. According to Ekert (1997), the novel so successfully poisoned public opinion against the gemstone that “within a year the sales of opal [fell] by nearly 50%, throughout all of Europe—a slump that last[ed] for 22 years!”
However, other authorities claim that an 1831 opera called Robert le Diable was responsible for opal’s sullied reputation. King (1867) quoted the gemologist Charles Barbot: “Certain groundless stories, founded, doubtless, upon the legend of Robert the Devil, have in our day discouraged the use of this gem as an ornament. People accuse it (and this in the nineteenth century!) of bringing ill-luck upon the wearer. It were useless to point out the absurdity of this supposed malignant influence, which is manifested, as they say, by the fading of its colours: a change really due to the atmospheric and accidental causes already pointed out.”
Barbot was referring to opal’s well-known tendency to craze, or fracture, when it loses moisture. When this happens, an opal may become cloudy and its play-of-color may diminish. Crazing can be caused by heat, intense light, or dry conditions. These changes were once interpreted to signal danger or death. Some believed they revealed the state of a lover’s affections, with the stone growing dull and cloudy as ardor faded.
The Christmas 1874 edition of Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round was called “The Opal Ring.” The tale involves an opal with a history of visiting misfortune upon its owners. The story built on well-known superstitions of the day, including the notions that only those with birthdays in October could safely wear opal and that opal was dangerous for betrothed lovers but harmless for long-established couples.
Perhaps Sir Ponsonby had ulterior motives for publishing his questions in Notes and Queries. His boss, Queen Victoria, was said to adore opals. She helped to restore their reputation by owning several and gifting others to friends and family. This did not stop her daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra, from removing the unlucky opals from the diamond tiara that her predecessor commissioned. Queen Alexandra replaced the opals in the Oriental Circlet Tiara (or Indian Tiara) with rubies, which remain in place to this day.
- Explaining Opal’s Play-of-Color
- The Topaz of Pablo Neruda