Chris has always been a rockhound (my wedding present to him was a geological hammer!), so when I asked what he’d like me to bring him back from Australia as a souvenir, he said he’d love a small piece rough opal, if that were possible.
Australia is the world’s leading supplier of opals, way ahead of any of the other countries where they are to be found, which include Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru, the USA and Czech Republic. (Oh, and Mars, but that’s a planet.) So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that opal is the national gemstone of Down Under.
Opal is a form of amorphous silica and is classified as a mineraloid. Deposits can be found in the fissures of many different kinds of rock, but the most common ones include sandstone and basalt. It’s famous for the play of colours you see when you look at it, which is apparently due to Bragg’s law of diffraction at work. They really are beautiful gemstones.
So Caiti and I spent some time tracking down a nice present for Chris. We went to several opal shops and also an opal museum, but the only opals for sale were polished ones set in jewellery and way beyond our budget. The museum was fascinating, with lots of opalised fossils on display, including this skeleton of a plesiosaur.
We finally found Opal Minded, a shop in The Rocks district of Sydney. Beyond the display cases of polished opals were three boxes of offcuts of rock with rough opals in them, starting at a few dollars each. Bingo! Caiti and I squatted down as tidily as we could – this was a very posh shop, after all – and happily rummaged through. One of the assistants, Fiona, chatted with us and gave us advice about which were good bits and which weren’t, and she also brought out a few more samples from a secret cupboard. One of these was fossilised wood with some opal deposit on it. Caiti swooped on that one! I settled for two lumps of boulder opal from Queensland, and a small piece of rough black opal from New South Wales.
Fiona carefully wrapped our frugal purchases up with the care and attention I’m sure she’d give to the most expensive piece of jewellery in the shop. She was lovely. We came out with our treasures in fancy carrier bags feeling very swish
Opals have something of a chequered history. They’ve had bouts of popularity – the Romans loved them and Shakespeare described them as “the queen of gems”. However, they have equally often been thought of as unlucky. I’d heard that was because they were prone to falling out of their settings, but that’s just an old wives’ tale. Or middle-aged wife’s tale, in my case. They are a relatively soft gem, much less durable than diamonds, and so can break of dropped or mishandled. That would certainly seem unlucky if it was your opal. They’ve even been considered as downright evil, due to an imagined resemblance to The Evil Eye (whatever that actually is). Some of this blame falls on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Anne of Geierstein, in which an opal appears to be linked to misfortune, although it turns out that isn’t the case in the end. However, it caused panic and the price of opals fell by half in just one year and it took decades for the European trade in opals to recover. It’s suspected that producers of other gemstones enthusiastically encouraged the rumours about opals being cursed in order to dampen demand for it.
But that’s in the past. Opals have shaken off most of their undeserved bad press but what’s most important is that Chris was delighted with his mementos of Australia.
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