Opals in Culture: Lucky or Unlucky?
Like most gemstones, humans of all cultures have been fascinated by opals for centuries and there are a lot of legends and lore associated with it. Early Bedouins believed that opal had fallen from the sky and contained trapped lightning; they also thought that wearing opal could make one invisible. The Romans called the opal "The Queen of Gems" because it seemed to be composed of all beautiful gemstones at once. Caesars were so infatuated with the resemblance of opals to rainbows that they traditionally gave their wives opals as talismans of good luck. And in the far east, Asians called opal "the anchor of hope". Australian Aborigines have many stories about the birth of opal, mainly referring to a sky god who came to visit earth as a pelican. During medieval times, blonde women often wore opals because the stone was believed to keep their hair from darkening as they aged.
Although opals are very beautiful and have been referred to in many cultures as a stone of good fortune and hope, there is still the old wives' tale that states, "Unless opal is your birthstone, it is bad luck"! (I hear this often, from customers.) Several reasons contribute to this myth. Opal is relatively fragile and can break if it is treated improperly, therefore early jewelers would often break or fracture a stone during a final, custom setting process, and often the stone was not theirs. One such tale tells of a goldsmith who broke a special opal that he had been commissioned to set by King Louis XI. The king was so upset with the mishap that he ordered the jeweler's hands to be cut off!
Another story, adding to the belief of opals being bad luck, goes back to King Alfonzo XII of Spain, who had chosen a beautiful aristocrat for his bride. Unfortunately, he married someone else and the scorned woman sent a magnificent opal ring to the new bride, Princess Mercedes, as a wedding gift. Just months later, the queen died of unknown causes. King Alfonzo then gave the ring to his grandmother, who also died shortly after, then his sister, his sister-in-law, and finally the king himself, all with the same results. Finally the ring was made into a pendant, hung upon a statue, and no longer was attached to any unexplained deaths. Now, this all happened during the time that cholera had plagued Spain, could there have been a connection with wearing the piece against the skin? We may never know.
Probably the main reason why so many people today still think that an opal is bad luck comes down to us from as recent as the 19th century. During this time, the popularity of opals began to rival diamonds and when the diamond market went down, rumors began to spread. Not helping at all, in 1829 Sir Walter Scott wrote the novel Anne of Geierstein that became very popular. Within the plot, a character, Lady Hermione, wears an enchanted opal in her hair. Unfortunately, she is wrongly accused of being a demoness and when holy water splashes onto her opal, the fire in the stone disappears, and the Lady is later found as a pile of ashes. Europeans took this story to heart and began to believe that opals were bad luck, impacting the opal market for several years.