StarStone is a monthly glimpse into the fabulous world of birthstones and the stories which have accompanied them for thousands of years into the modern day.
Each month and every zodiac sign is celebrated with several gemstones, varying by period, context and culture. While these designations are far from an exact science, exploring the historical context of your birthstones can serve as a window into revealing self-knowledge. And, yet another reason to buy yourself an amazing piece of jewelry.
Opal, traditional birthstone for October and Libra, scatters a spectrum of colors that shift with every movement and change of angle. Libra, you’re the cardinal Air sign, meaning that you epitomize the weightless qualities of your element: breezy, quick-moving, and often in need of grounding. Your symbol, the scales, may be misleading, because you’re no more inherently balanced than any of the other zodiac signs. In fact, your central challenge is to keep your equilibrium in a volatile space.
Like fellow Air-signs Aquarius and Gemini, Libra tends to be spacey. And speaking of space, new studies reveal that traces of fire opal have been found on Mars, based on the analysis of fallen Martian meteors, as well as soil samples dug by recent expedition crews on the Red Planet. Most intriguingly, the presence of opals on Mars strongly suggests a history of water. And water almost always suggests life, so scientists are analyzing the Martian opal traces for evidence of fossilized, opalized microbes.
Ruled by Venus, planet of love and beauty, you’re an easily bored bon vivant, a flirtatious sparkler and chilled-out charmer, and an effervescent party-guest who’s likely to slip out before the conversation gets deep or heavy (and, oops, right before the check comes). Besides, you hate good-byes. This may be the reason that it’s often difficult for you to finish things: you resist the idea of finality.
Many have theorized that the color-play of the opal reflects the mood of the wearer, and several ancient civilizations used the flashy gem to predict the future. Just as your birthstone is dynamic and ever-changing, you need to keep the oxygen flowing freely in your relationships. Big, dramatic displays of emotion make you feel trapped. Like all Air signs, you always case the room for the nearest exit, and so you may seem fickle. You’ll go to any lengths to avoid conflict and confrontation, and in the process you may also sacrifice commitment. This untethered quality is your essence, symbolized perfectly in the brilliant sparks within an opal which surface like laughter overheard from a distant room, then vanish on a whim.
Does this translate into the opal being sketchy, shady, unlucky? You’ve heard the rumors, no doubt. Two works of literary fiction, featuring doomed heroines undone by the stone—The Opal Ring by Charles Dickens, and Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott—contributed to the notion of blaming opals for bad karma. Note that around the same time, around 1888, the diamond magnates of De Beers chimed in on the evils of opals to promote their own mining interests. Just sayin’. Some precious stone pundits even blamed the Black Death or bubonic plague on the bewitchery of October’s glowy, flowy gem.
In fact, some of those anti-opal superstitions still persist today, like:
- Only those born in October should wear this stone. (Happy birthday, Libra, but we beg to differ.)
- Opals should never be given or accepted as a gift. (We beg to differ, again. We accept all gems as gifts.)
- You CAN offset the above curse by paying something for the gift, thus making it a business transaction. (OK, GTK.)
- Engagement rings should never contain an opal, because the jinxed stone will result in the bride quickly becoming a widow.
- White opals are especially unlucky, but black opals are REALLY lucky by contrast.
- Setting the opal among diamonds negates inherent bad vibes in the opal.
- Opals turn pale in the presence of poison, and lose their luster when their owners die (a prominent theme in Sir Walter Scott’s novel).
If you choose to buy into any of the above, the good news is that early in the 20th century, tourmaline was appointed the alternative for opal as October’s birthstone. Read on.
In spite of the bad press of her era, opals were the favorite gem of Queen Victoria, perhaps because Australia was the only known source of these iridescent stones until quite recently, and the vast continent of Oz was pinned beneath the boot-heel of British colonialism until 1931.
The oldest continuous civilizations known on earth, namely the Aboriginal nations of Australia, tell stories of opals that may date back as far as 60,000 years. The Andamooka people of Southern Australia believe that opals were created in the Dreaming or collective Dreamtime when their ancestral being was sent to earth via a huge rainbow. The Yuwaalaraay people from Wallangulla, also called Lightning Ridge, trace the emergence of opals to the scales of a great crocodile named Gurria. In Central Queensland, the elders say that the opal is the product of tears shed by the spirit of the opal itself upon witnessing mankind’s cruelty, and that the sun hitting those tears formed a rainbow. Today, many Australians interpret the appearance of a rainbow as a sign that one of their members has committed a crime against tribal law.
Throughout many centuries and many Aboriginal societies in Australia, the Rainbow Serpent who blesses the continent with precious water is an omnipresent character in sacred stories, songs, glyphs and paintings. And as it turns out, the association of the gem with water is scientifically correct.
Opalauctions.com dealer Wayne Sedawie writes in his book, Australian Opal: The Lightning from Down Under, “The history of opal in Australia began millions of years ago when parts of Australia were covered by a vast inland sea. Over a period of time, water and rain floods flushed water, containing silica minerals from the ground surface, down into cavities and niches in sedimentary rocks…Opals, put simply, are a gel from silica with varying percentages of water. The water content of opal varies between three and ten percent with opal having a hardness on the Mohs scale of 5.5 to 6.5.”
By the way, opal is considered a comparatively soft stone, with diamond being the hardest at 10 on the Mohs scale. Sedawie goes on to explain that opal is made up of tightly packed silica spheres measuring only 0.00001 inches wide. These spheres reflect and refract light as it enters the gem, creating the chameleon-like play of colors that make the opal seem animate, organic, and somehow alive.
The geological history of Australia’s inland sea seems to lend credence to the Aboriginal memory of the Rainbow Serpent traveling over the barren landscape in search of rivers, and blessing the island-nation with rain.
Opal ring courtesy of Margery Hirschey, www.margeryhirschey.com
The water content of the stone also contributes to its fragility, the probable source of opal’s bad rep. Cutting this stone requires consummate skill, since it’s brittle and prone to fracture. And opal’s formative relationship with water strikes yet another point of mythological resonance: in Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott, the tragic protagonist, Princess Hermione, is reduced to a heap of ashes when the moody opal she wore in her hair is splashed with Holy Water (“I’m melting, melting…What a world…”).
Many Australian mines are now exhausted, and newly discovered deposits of Ethiopian opals flood the market. Various forms of the gem may also be mined in Mexico, home of a distinct orange variety called Mexican Fire Opal, as well as Brazil, Peru, Nevada and Idaho. Additional deposits have been found in Central Europe, Honduras, Indonesia, Turkey and Madagascar.
This jewel takes many forms, and the stones are frequently cut into super-thin layers, backed with a piece of black plastic, and crowned with a quartz, glass or plastic domed topper, creating what’s known as a triplet. Without the top piece, it’s called a doublet. These manipulated opals are quite common, and are in fact a slice of genuine opal, kept affordable by slicing and dicing.
However, if you’re choosing a piece of opal jewelry based on the purported metaphysical powers of the gem, you need to choose an opal that is a single, solid specimen, like the superb, whole-stone opals featured in the work of fine jewelry designer Margery Hirschey. The integrity of a stone that hasn’t been layered or otherwise tampered with is superior, both esthetically and in metaphysical terms.
And beware: the market is also filled with synthetic opals. These mimic the chemical composition of an organic opal, but cost next to nothing to produce in a lab. And at the lowest end, jewelers will set literally worthless fake opals, created by suspending glitter in liquid plastic, into precious metal settings. In such cases, the setting—sterling, vermeil, gold, platinum – is what qualifies the piece as precious jewelry.
Many natural opals show their fire in a streak or irregular patch surrounded by matrix or non-opalized host rock, Boulder Opals being a dramatic example. By contrast, synthetic and imitation opals are always all fire! If you’re simply shopping for a pretty stone that fits your budget, it’s fine to buy a frankly fake, an unapologetic synthetic, or a budget-stretching doublet or triplet, as long as you know what you’re getting and pay accordingly.
Genuine opals that are not layered or glued in any way need to be babied. Depending upon the source of the stone, some opals do best when stored in water, or kept in a sandwich bag with a damp cloth—not wise for doublets or triplets, since moisture may weaken the adhesive bonds holding them together. Likewise, the newly discovered deposits of hydrophane (meaning “water-loving”) opals in Welo, Ethiopia are more porous than their Australian counterparts, and immersion may change their color and weaken their structure. Intense heat and light are also dangerous for all opals, as are ultrasonic and chemical cleaners.
If opals seem a little too demanding and diva-like, tourmaline is low-maintenance by comparison, pink tourmaline also known as Rubellite being the specific birthstone recommendation for October and Libra.
Tourmalines are found in Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Madagascar and Mozambique, as well as other areas of Africa. The gem also occurs in California and Maine, and Tiffany & Co. sent 120 tons of pink tourmaline called Rubellite mined in San Diego, California to Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of Imperial China, between 1902 and 1910. Cixi was a woman who knew what she liked! Her death in 1912 effectively ended commercial tourmaline mining in the United States. But, in a brilliant marketing move, Tiffany declared tourmaline as the new October birthstone, to reignite interest in the gem and boost sales.
Tourmaline is rated 7 to 7.5 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, meaning that it is significantly harder than opal, and far less likely to crack or get scratched, within reason of course. It’s wearable, and mouthwateringly gorgeous. Intense, saturated pinks and clear, deep greens combine to create Watermelon Tourmaline. Single-color tourmalines are among the most vividly colored gemstones on earth, especially in dazzling pink, teal, jungle-green and electric lilac and violet shades.
Many positive metaphysical properties are linked with wearing tourmaline. Aligning with Libra’s duality, balancing male and female energies in the body, as well as right-brain (intuitive) and left-brain (logical) faculties, is a key benefit. The same aspects of this stone are reputed to improve hand-eye coordination, and is said to help overcome dyslexia. And like all pink stones, pink tourmaline turns up the romance, sex and love-vibration, especially suited to Venus-ruled Libra.
Margery Hirschey loves both gem choices and comments, “One of the reasons we love tourmaline is the rainbow of colors they can be found in. Mostly known for shades of red and pinks and a variety of greens, no two are exactly alike. We like to use various shades in one piece, much the way a painter fills a brush with varying shades of the same color paint. It gives the piece more depth and interest.
We love opals that are usually lighter in color with just a little bit of fire. Some opals can have so much fire that it looks artificial to me, so for me, color is more important. I love the light, turquoise-y color with high-karat gold. The color combination reminds me of a French interior from the 18th century…French blue with gilding. It’s just so beautiful.”
So, you’re up for flights of fancy, opal’s your stone. If you’ve just come down to earth and want to steady yourself, enjoy pink tourmaline. Libra, your sign is uniquely poised at the transition from summer’s end into fall, and both gems suit the season that straddles the light and dark with the autumnal equinox, gently leading the way into the next cycle of deep, dark Scorpio magic on October 23.
Also see: Star Stone for September, Sapphire
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