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HISTORY OF THE PRECIOUS OPAL

In Ancient Times


"The delicate colour and tenderness of the opal remind me of a loving and beautiful child."

The above quotation, perhaps the most beautiful ever applied to a gemstone, is attributed to the Greek poet Onomakritis, who lived in the sixth century B.C. This appears to be the earliest known definite reference to precious opal, although it is probable that it was known before this time.

One of the oldest listings of gemstones is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Exodus. In chapter 28, verses 15 to 22, a vestment, variously described as a pouch, apron or breastplate, according to the different translations, is to be decorated with 12 stones, in four rows of three. In the English translations, opal is not mentioned amongst these, although, in one German translation, one of the Hebrew names is apparently translated as opal. The date of this writing is about 1300 BC.

An important early description of opal is that of Caius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century A.D. Pliny wrote an extensive treatise entitled, in English, Natural History. He describes opal as being:

"Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe them is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. For there is amongst them the gentler fire of the ruby, there is the rich purple of the amethyst, there is the sea-green of the emerald, and all shining together in an indescribable union. Others, by an excessive heightening of their hues equal all the colours of the painter, others the flame of burning brimstone, or of a fire quickened by oil."

Opal was held in great value by the Romans, a fact which is reflected in the well-known story of the Roman senator Nonius. He is said to have possessed a very fine opal about the size of a hazel nut, and valued at 20,000 sesterces. The stone was so beautiful that the Roman emperor demanded that Nonius hand over the opal (whether by purchase or gift is not recorded). Nonius himself held the stone in such high regard that he departed from Rome with his gemstone, leaving his wife, family and property behind him.

The Romans also called opal Paederos, or Cupid, because of the perfection of its beauty; while in the Latin and German of the Middle ages, it was called Orphanus and Waise respectively. 'Die Waise' in modern German, is 'the orphan' in English.

By Roman times, opal appears to have been quite well known, and it is possible that the origin of the gemstones could have been in what is now eastern Slovakia. In early pre-Roman times this locality was in the region occupied by ancient Germanic or Celtic tribes. Even if the stone were mined at that earlier time, it may be questioned as to whether trade routes existed between northern Europe and the older civilisations of the Middle East.

Regarding the origin of opal in Roman times, King (R1634) states:

"Opals came to the Romans from India; at present the best are brought from Hungary."

The references to opal from India are scant in the literature, although there is a reference to opaline silica occurring in Kerala (Ghosh, R0550). However, Dr M. Joshi, of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, states that precious opal has been recorded from Tamil Nadu and Andrha. The former locality has an abundance of volcanic rocks, but the latter is of particular interest as the rocks of that area are largely of sedimentary origin. It is also known that trade routes between India and the Middle East, especially by sea, existed in early times, so it is quite possible that gemstones were widely traded in the region. According to King:

"Pliny calls India the sole mother of the opal, yet he can only mean of the best variety, as he afterwards mentions some found in Egypt, Pontus, Galatia, Thosos and Cyprus. These had less lustre than the Indian, their colours being a mixture of sky-blue and purple, 'ex aere et purpura', which wanted the emerald green of the Indian variety."

It seems likely, therefore that opals treasured by the Romans were, at least in part, from the locality of Dubnik, near Presov, in eastern Slovakia. In Roman times, this area would still have been under the control of the old Germanic or Celtic tribes, but not very far outside the limits of the Roman empire. Under settled conditions, it is highly likely that trade routes existed between these Germanic tribes and Rome, especially for easily transported and valuable materials.

With the collapse of the Roman dominion, when the lands at the extremities of the Empire came once again under the aegis of less sophisticated peoples, one can postulate that these trade routes disappeared, and/or the market for the opal from these mines no longer existed.

At the time of Charlemagne* the map of modern Europe was beginning to be defined. At the time of the death of Charlemagne, the site of the Dubnik opal mines would probably have been in the kingdom of the Avars, a people prominent in central Europe from the sixth to the ninth centuries.

*Charlemagne died in 814 AD