Are Opals Unlucky?

Isn’t it uncanny that a gem with such a sinister reputation should be the birthstone for the spookiest month of the year?

When it comes to the lore of magical powers and supernatural influence possessed by gemstones, you may be more of a skeptic. But oddly enough, the unusual reputation opals have for bringing bad luck is enough to draw caution from even the less supersititious.

Why are opals singled out for this shadowy role? Is it possibly true that wearing them is an invitation to bad luck?

Opal from Yowah, Queensland, Australia 2
A polished opal from Queensland, Australia.

Opals in antiquity

The opal was long regarded by ancient sources as one of the most highly prized stones. They were among the cardinal gems of Roman royalty. There is a story of a Roman senator who preferred exile when faced with selling his prized opal; the interested buyer was Marc Antony – the girlfriend was Cleopatra!

Opal szlachetny (orzechowy) - Yita Ridge, Menz Gishe District, Shewa Province, Etiopia.
An uncut Ethiopian opal.

Ancient traders closely guarded their opal merchandise as buyers’ demands for the desirable jewel increased. As late as the Renaissance, opals were mystical tokens of good fortune and hope. It found a place in Shakespearean literature as the “queen of gems.” For most of history, it seemed to embody some magical heavenly spark in earthly form. Unlike other precious substances such as gold or diamond, it has no other practical uses and is loved merely for the sake of its own beauty.

The Legend Begins

So how did this strange about-face turn the beloved opal into an object of dread?
Most scholars trace the cause to a 19th century version of a “viral video” – a popular serial drama by the famous author Sir Walter Scott (author of “Ivanhoe” and “The Lady of the Lake”). This fantasy adventure novel, “Anne of Geierstein, The Maiden of the Mist” featured an exotic cast of enchanted princesses, spells, and curses – and a mysterious opal in the wardrobe of a doomed sorceress. While the story doesn’t actually make the opal out to be cursed, it looks like the general public began to classify opal as a 19th century equivalent to kryptonite. And rumors spread, as rumors do: opals became bad news.

Coober Pedy Opal Doublet
An opal doublet from Coober Pedy in Australia.

Not everyone subscribed to the “opal boycott” that swept through the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria herself – the longest reigning British monarch – had a soft spot for opals and made a point of wearing them publicly. She even made a statement in support of the struggling opal market by giving her royal daughters opal jewelry for their weddings. It was during her reign that the discovery of fantastic opal desposits in the Australian colonies caused a surge in production, opening mining capitals that give rise to some of the world’s most stunning opals to this day.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter Family of Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria’s young family.

Gem of Many Colors

For better or worse, the opal’s flashing beauty is tinged with infamy. There are yet other theories about how the legend came to be – as a side effect of its extremely fragile & unpredictable nature, or even an underhanded backlash from the early diamond market. But whatever your belief about the power of these magical jewels, their unlikely blend of earth, air, water, and fire have a strange pull on the senses. Like any notorious beauty, the opal seems to dare you: “Give me a try!”

Lori Blagg Jewelry Design Award - Opal Pendant
Australian Black Opal Pendant, Original Design by Lori Blagg | AJA Design Award Winner

You may also like:

Opals Down Under – an excellent article about the evolution of the opal’s reputation

GIA: Definitive Guide to Opals

IJO Exclusive: Faye finds black opals “Down Under”

Birthstone of the Month: October