’Tis that miracle and queen of gems –Shakespeare”, “Twelfth Night”

     Opal has been known as a gemstone for thousands of years and has adorned monarchs, fascinated celebrities, and been collected by wealthy magnates throughout history. The original source is thought to be from the Hungarian mines at Dubnik, and, although this opal was of lighter and lesser quality, it still produced some excellent gemstones.

     The word opal can be traced back to the Sanskrit word Upala, which means ‘jewel’, and the Roman word Opalus, which means ‘precious stone’. It first came into prominence during Roman times where it was known as a stone of passion and luck, and was one of the two most valuable gemstones in the empire besides emeralds. Soldiers would carry an opal with them into battle for good fortune and Emperors would give their wives opals to invoke desire.


     The most famous story is of Mark Antony banishing the senator Nonius because he would not sell him his prized Opal, which he wanted to present to Cleopatra. The stone was about the size of a hazelnut and was worth 20,000 sesterces (hundreds of thousands of dollars today). Nonius instead departed from Rome, leaving his wife and property behind, and the stone was later found next to him in his tomb.

     Pliny the elder wrote in his book ‘Naturalis Historia’, in which he collected much of the knowledge of his time, “The refulgent fire of the ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green color of the emerald, all shining together in incredible union. Some carry such a play within them that they equal the deepest and richest colors of painters. Others again simulate the flaming fire of burning sulphur and the bright blazing of burning oil.”

     Napoleon presented his Empress Josephine with a magnificent 700 carat red opal containing brilliant red flashes that appeared to flicker on the surface called ‘The Burning of Troy’.  After Josephine’s death in 1814 the stone unfortunately disappeared for a century until it reappeared before world war one and was sold by an anonymous seller to the city of Vienna in Austria. The city was offered 50,000 Lira after World War One for the stone but refused despite the dire affairs of the their economy. They held onto it for 20 years until the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 where the opal vanished from public eye and has been hidden from public view ever since.

     Queen Victoria was a lover and collector of Opal throughout her reign. She adorned herself with them, and presented them to all of her daughters. The Royal court of England was seen as the trendsetter of fashion throughout the world and influenced the popularity of opal heavily throughout the mid 19th century.


     As Lightning Ridge Opal was discovered in Australia and made it’s way to the global market at the beginning of the 20th century it fascinated the gemworld as until that time the world had never seen such incredible patterns on an opal with a beautiful black background.  It caused gem merchants to dramatically change the way they evaluated opals, setting an unprecedented hallmark for the gem. It also caused the mines in Hungary to cease production.

     Black Opal thus rushed through the royal court of England and the jewelers of Hattan garden. Queen Elizabeth II herself was fascinated with Australian opal personally travelled to central Australia just to view a private collection of black opal. In 1954 Elsie Jenkins, referred to as the opal queen of her time, had one of the finest collections of opal in the world in her house in Alice Springs in the center of Australia. British administration officials first visited her and offered 3,000 pounds for a necklace to present the Queen. Being of unique character she refused the offer  and instead Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip made the journey to the center of Australia just to view her collection.

Queen Victoria

     Black Opals also captivated wealthy magnates and fine jewelers in the US at turn of the 20th century. Fine black opals were on exhibition at the Chicago museum, the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, and the Museum of Natural history in New York, as well as being used by Louis Comfort Tiffany (Tiffany & Co) heavily in his designs

     John D. Rockefeller bought an opal named ‘the Fire Queen’ for $75,000 in 1949 (1.4 million today). The stone itself was mined in November 1906 in the Angledool field of Lightning Ridge by a man named Charlie Dunstan and it passed through several hands before being purchased by Rockefeller. John Rockefeller is credited as being the most privately wealthy person in history, the world’s first billionaire, and having defined the structure of modern philanthropy. He is said to have viewed his collection of rare and famous opals regularly as they gave him inspiration.

John D. Rockerfeller

Ring with 4.2 ct Black Opal

     The list goes on, from the du Pont family, to Elvis Presley, Barbara Hutton, Elizabeth Taylor, the Kennedy family, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, to name a few. However, during the later half of the 20th century 80% of production flowed into the East, mainly Japan, with huge prices per carat being paid for stones. This left a void of supply in the western world and opal began to disappear from the public conscious. However, from the beginning of the 21st century opal has seen a revival with its featured use in exhibitions by High Jewelry brands such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Boucheron, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton, and by perhaps the most famous private jeweler of recent history JAR.  Despite all this recent press, black opal from Lightning Ridge as a gemstone is only just over a century old and thus most of its history is currently being written, which makes it an exciting gemstone to be involved with leading into the future.