Known for its fiery combination of colors, opal is called the “Cupid stone” because it was said to reflect the complexion of the Greek god of love. The ancient Romans believed the gem was the symbol of hope, good luck and purity. Today, it remains a symbol of hope and inspiration. With a name stemming from the Latin word for “precious stone,” opal is considered October’s birthstone and is traditionally given as a 14th anniversary gift.
Opals are luminous and iridescent stones with inclusions of many colors called "fire." It is sometimes called the "queen of gems" because it can flash patterns of color representing every hue of the rainbow. In fact, most stones are usually cut into domed cabochons to enhance the color play. The brilliance and pattern of an opal’s fire determines its value. Opals with strong flashes of red fire are generally the most prized, while stones with blue or green flashes are more common and subsequently less valuable. Stone size also helps determine price, since the gem is very rare in larger sizes.
In order to produce a stone that is less expensive than a solid opal, an opal doublet can be manufactured. It is composed of a thin layer of opal glued on top of another mineral (usually a black onyx or ironstone, which enhances the opal's color). An opal triplet can be made with a thin layer of opal sandwiched between a layer of clear quartz on top and a layer of obsidian or ironstone on the bottom. The clear quartz top layer makes the gem harder and less susceptible to scratches. Since top-quality natural opals are extremely rare and expensive, many are treated with colorless oil, wax or resin to enhance their appearance. Ranking a hardness of 5.5-6.5 on the Mohs Scale, these treatments also fill cracks in the stone to improve durability.
A species of quartz, opal is one of the few gemstones that are sedimentary in origin. Millions of years ago, after ancient seas receded, silica-laden sediment was deposited around shorelines. Erosion made much of this silica into a solution that filled cracks in rocks, clay and fossils. Layers upon layers of silica jell were added to each other over millions of years and became precious opals. The stones still contain 6 to 10 percent water, a remnant of ancient seas. Because they have high water content, opals should be protected from heat and strong light in order to prevent them from drying out and cracking.
Opal is found in a range of hues, including white opal (the most common), black opal (the most valuable), boulder opal (black opal with iron oxide), crystal or water opal (which is transparent), and fire opal (which features a bright solid color). Prices can vary from a few dollars per carat for white opal to more than $1,000 per carat for fine black opal.
White opals tend to have more diffused fire due to their light background color. Rare black opals have a black to dark gray body color that allows for the fire to be the most noticeable, making them the most valuable type of opal. Boulder opals are cut with the natural host rock left on the back. They are found with interesting hills and valleys on the surface and inclusions in the foreground, forming odd shapes that make them a designer’s delight. Crystal opal is transparent with flashes of rainbow colors, while fire opal only occasionally has this play of color.
Fire opal’s backdrop color is the main attraction. It has recently become very popular as jewelry designers are growing to appreciate its bold presence and bright color. With hot yellows, fiery oranges and juicy reds, the fire opal is a bright gemstone that is usually faceted to add sparkle and enhance the fabulous color.
The relatively rare Peruvian blue opal comes from the Andes Mountains in Peru and was cherished by the Incas. It features the translucent turquoise-blue color of tropical oceans and has soft, relaxing energies said to be good for quieting the mind during meditation. It is thought to relieve stress and bring about a tranquil, healing nature. Peruvian blue opal is also believed to increase clear thinking, spark creativity and aid in sleep.
The vast majority of the world's opal supply comes from Australia, first discovered there by gold panners in 1863. In addition to the small quantity of opal produced in Kenya and Canada, white opal is mined in Brazil, black opal is found only at Lightning Ridge in Australia, and crystal and fire opal can be found in the United States and Mexico.
Opals have been treasured for thousands of years throughout the world. A beautiful opal called the “orphanus” was featured in the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor and was said to guard the regal honor. The Aztecs mined opal in South and Central America and Archaeologist Louis Leakey found 6,000-year-old opal artifacts in a cave in Kenya. Napoleon gave Josephine a beautiful opal with brilliant red flashes called “The Burning of Troy,” making her his Helen. To this day, opals are still set in the crown jewels of France.
Shakespeare regarded opal as a symbol of shifting inconstancy, comparing its play of color to play of mind. In “Twelfth Night” he wrote, “Now the melancholy God protect thee, and the tailor make thy garments of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is opal.” In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott caused a reputation that opals were unlucky. The heroine of his popular novel had her life force caught in the opal she wore in her hair and died when its fire was extinguished.
For thousands of years, opals have been revered for their supposed mystical powers. Romans thought the stone kept the wearer safe from disease and wore it near the heart to ward off evil and protect travelers. Ancient Arabs believed that opals fell from heaven in flashes of lightning, which explained their fiery colors. During the Middle Ages, opal was called “ophthalmios,” meaning “eye stone,” due to a widespread belief that it was beneficial to eyesight. Some thought its effect on sight could render the wearer invisible, and the stone was even recommended for thieves. In medieval Scandinavia, blonde women wore opals in their hair to prevent it from going gray.
Today, opals are still believed to hold magical powers. White opals, when used in rituals on a full moon night, are said to bring the moon goddess’ powers into full effect within the practitioner. A fire opal surrounded with 10 or 12 diamonds and worn on a gold necklace is said to have excellent money-drawing power.
Opals have been said to bring good luck, grant vigor and ideally protect travelers. The stones have long been believed to develop and increase mental capacities and open the unused powers of the mind. The colorful fire in opals is said to develop a more creative imagination and help recall past lives. It is believed that the most magically powerful opals come from Lightning Ridge in Australia and that the gem loses its power once its owner dies.
For thousands of years, ruby has been considered one of the most valuable gemstones on Earth. It is called the “King of Gemstones” and known as the stone of love. The gem is the red variety of the mineral corundum, and while any other color of corundum is denominated as “sapphire,” only red corundum may be called “ruby.” Pure corundum is colorless, but slight traces of elements are responsible for ruby’s purplish bluish-red to orange-red color. In fact, the name “ruby” was derived from the Latin word “rubens,” meaning “red.”
The finest rubies are an intensely saturated pure red with no overtones of brown or blue. They are readily available in sizes up to 2.00ct and have incredible durability, ranking a 9.0 on the Mohs Scale (second only to diamonds in hardness). Rubies may show very different shades of red depending on their origin, and the range of these reds is quite considerable. The gem’s intense color was once thought to come from an undying flame inside the stone, while other legends say each stone is a piece of the planet Mars.
Some rubies distinguish themselves with a wonderful silky shine, called the “silk” of the stone, which is created by fine rutile needles within the gem. The rutile mineral is also involved within very scarce “star” rubies. As can be found in sapphires, there is a translucent variety of ruby that displays a six-point star when cut into a smooth domed cabochon. Rutile is embedded in an asterisk-shape within the ruby, causing a captivating light effect called “asterism.” Six-ray stars appear to magically glide across the surface of the stones as they are moved. Star rubies are expensive rarities and should always display the stars exactly in the center of the gem. The star stone is said to be the home of each person’s angel, who lives there in contentment with the ruby’s spirit.
Rubies are found in many countries throughout the world, each location producing rubies of specific qualities and colors. Gemstone experts agree that the Burmese ruby is the most valuable and luxurious category of the stone. The former country of Burma, now Myanmar, is situated in a mountain valley surrounded by high summits. Rubies that are mined from this “Valley of Rubies” feature an exceptionally vivid red color with a slightly bluish hue. The stones display their unique brilliance in both natural and artificial light.
Rubies from Thailand, another classical supplier of the gem, are often dark red tending towards brown. This “Siam color” is considered almost as beautiful as the Burma color. Rare rubies from Ceylon are mainly light red, like ripe raspberries, while rubies of Vietnamese origin generally display a slightly purplish hue. Rubies are also produced in India, where relatively large ruby crystals have been discovered. These particular rubies, however, have many inclusions, but are excellently suited to be cut as beads or cabochons. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia have also produced occasional top-quality rubies, but the rough terrain in these areas has made mining difficult.
Top-quality rubies are quite rare and are often considered even more valuable than colorless diamonds, particularly in sizes above 5.00ct. High prices tend to reflect their tremendous value. In 1988, a 16.00ct ruby sold at auction for $227,301 at Sotheby's in Geneva, Switzerland. A 27.37ct Burmese ruby ring sold for $4 million at Sotheby's in 1995, which was an astounding $146,145 per carat.
It is possible that no other gemstone has been as prized as the ruby. Celebrated in the Bible and in ancient Sanskrit writings as the most precious of all gemstones, rubies have adorned emperors and kings throughout history. Until improvements in chemical testing in the 1800s, most red gem-quality stones were called rubies. Thus, many of the famous “rubies” in the crown jewels of Europe, including Britain’s “Black Ruby” and the “Timur Ruby,” have since been identified as red spinels or garnets. Today, rubies continue to decorate the insignia of many Royal Houses.
In the 13th century, traveler Marco Polo wrote that Kublai Kahn, the Mongol Emperor of China, once offered an entire city for a ruby the size of a man’s finger. In ancient Hindu writings, the ruby represents the sun power. In China, the stone was given as offerings to Buddha.
Rubies were also given as offerings to Krishna in India. For a long time, India was considered the classical country of rubies. Their literature offers a rich and varied knowledge of the stone that was collected and handed down for over two thousand years. In the Sanskrit language, ruby is called “ratnaraj,” which translates as “king of gemstones.” Whenever a spectacular ruby was found, the emperor would send out his notables to welcome the precious gemstone in an appropriate style fit for a king.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a ruby could change color and grow darker to warn its owner that danger or illness was near. Thought to ward off misfortune, it was believed to chase away evil spirits and the spirits of the dead. The deep red color of rubies has been used for centuries as protection and to convey invulnerability. Soldiers wore them into battle to guard against wounds and promote healing if they received a wound. The color of blood, the stone is symbolic of courage and bravery. Warriors were said to have implanted rubies under their skin to bring them valor in battle, make them invincible against enemies and ensure victory.
Rubies have also been historically thought to bestow wisdom, wealth and love. In China and Europe during the 10th century, dragons and snakes were carved in the gems’ surfaces to increase the flow of money and power to their owners. A common belief was that dreaming of rubies meant the coming of success in business and money matters. Rubies were also used to capture a mate and light the passion of romance. The gem was believed to have the magical powers of sexual fire and success in love. It has also been said by ancient lore to be capable of reconciling lovers’ quarrels.
When combined with gold and worn on the body, it is said that rubies can cause the body to rejuvenate and absorb energy from the sun to heal all types of body sickness and skin afflictions. It is believed that it should be worn with gold to banish sadness and bring joy.
Given as a symbol of success, devotion and integrity, the ruby is July’s birthstone and the traditional gift for 15th and 40th wedding anniversaries. Rubies have symbolized passion and romance for centuries, so when placed in engagement rings, they express unbridled love and promise of the heart.