| Tanya Gruenberg
A short history
The beauty of the opal has awed people for thousands of years and was highly prized by the Romans.
The first opals that were taken to the western world originated from India and it’s believed that their name originates from the Sanskrit name upala, meaning “precious stone”, changed by the ancient Greeks to “Opallios” meaning “to see a change of light.
Writers were inspired by the colors and compared opals to fireworks, galaxies and volcanoes. The
ancient Greeks believed that those who possessed opals were given the ability to prophesize, and were also protected from illness. Bedouins considered the opals to have captured the lighting from the sky, while Europeans, through the ages, believed it to be a symbol of purity, hope and truth.
Unfortunately, the work of one writer and his bestselling novel brought a downturn in the demand for opals which lasted almost 50 years, with prices dropping by 50%. Sir Walter Scott’s heroine in his novel “Anne of Geuerstein”, Lady Hermione, an enchanted princess, wore an opal in her hair which would flash red when she was angry. Her opal lost its abilities to change colors when a few drops of holy water were sprinkled on it, and when she died, in her bed, where only a heap of ashes was found.
The wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie refused to wear the stones. Thankfully, not everyone was as superstitious and Queen Victoria of England gave her daughters opals as wedding gifts.
Depending on the source, opals can be anything from transparent, opaque, white or black with miniature rainbow like iridescent effects. The difference with other gemstones is that opals are not crystals but minerals. Their composition of hydrated amorphous silica renders them less dense than other precious stones.
Precious opals are unique and can encompass a whole range of colors in one stone, caused by their internal structure which diffracts light creating the iridescence that opals are known for; caused by minute cracks in the stone, not visible to the naked eye.
Ethiopia is a relatively new entry in the opal market, and the first opal discovery there was in 1994.
However, important discoveries in 2008 and 2013 have ensured that it is now the second most
important supplier of some of the most striking colors and patterns.
Coming from two provinces in Ethiopian, Shewa and Wollo Provinces, the Wollo province area of Wegel Tena has some beautiful colored opals produced within an area of stratified volcanic rocks. The area is not suited to underground mining and since the seam runs along the walls of a steep valley, it is mined from short horizontal tunnels. The Wegel Tena area of Wollo Province produces opals of a gray to black color that are found in a stratified volcanic seam of mineralized ignimbrite. They are also horizontally mined. Shewa opals are not as stable but some lovely samples do come from there to.
Ethiopian opals are not only beautiful, but are also well priced ensuring that their popularity continues to grow with jewelers and buyers alike. Their variety in colors and patterns meet the expectations of discerning buyers who look for the definition of fire opal (red, orange and yellow colors) and precious opal.