In a piece I wrote almost two weeks ago on the saving of the Trove online resource, I mentioned that I was using it to look up newspaper and magazine articles to check the text of a manuscript I was editing1. That manuscript was on the development of the opal industry in Queensland, and was all done and dusted last week. However, now I am editing a similar, longer manuscript on the development of the opal industry in New South Wales.
One of the articles I saw on Trove was from a Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, from Saturday October 6th, 1906, and was effectively an interview with a ‘gem expert’ who was extolling the beauty of gems from Australia and how they command top prices in gem markets in the UK and USA. He was asked if opals were unlucky, and replied with: “Australians are infatuated to keep alive a foolish fallacy, based on nothing more substantial, and dating back no further than an ill-omened opal in one of Sir Walter Scott’s romances”. He went on a bit afterwards imagining how Scott could have perceived the opal to be a “harbinger of dread and doom”2.
I knew that this myth that opals are bad luck had been around for a long time, as I remember hearing such drivel when I was a kid. However, I hadn’t known the source of the myth. On the off chance that ChatGPT could find out more, I asked it where the myth had originated (see appendix). It more or less reiterated the Scott assertion above, but gave more detail. It said in part, that the myth had arisen in Europe in the 19th century, and one of the most significant factors that helped “fuel the superstition was the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Anne of Geierstein’ in 1829.” In this novel, a character dies “shortly after a drop of holy water falls onto her opal, causing it to lose its fire and sparkle.”3
In a book ‘The Lore of Precious Stones’, further detail from Scott’s novel is given:
“The wonderful tale therein related of the Lady Hermione, a sort of enchanted princess, who came no one knew whence and always wore a dazzling opal in her hair, contains nothing to indicate that Scott really meant to represent the opal as unlucky. […] when a few drops of holy water were sprinkled over it, they quenched its radiance. Hermione fell into a swoon, was carried to her chamber, and the next day nothing but a small heap of ashes remained on the bed whereon she had been laid. The spell was broken and the enchantment dissolved. All that can have determined the selection of the opal rather than any other precious stone is the fact of its wonderful play of color and its sensitiveness to moisture.”4, 5
Despite this, whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry on the novel has stated “There is in fact little evidence that the superstition was common before the 1850s. A popular gift book of the 1840s was entitled The Opal, which would seem an unlikely title if the notion of the opal’s unluckiness were well established5. In addition, the earliest mention on Trove of the ‘bad luck’ adhering to opals was from the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of October 1892, when it asked: “Are opals unlucky?” While my search was not exhaustive, it seems a stretch to assign the unlucky opal assertion to a novel that was published over sixty years previously, despite this 1892 article asserting that it was the source. It did, of course, state that it was mere superstition6.
Another story about the derivation of the unlucky reputation of opals refers to the Spanish King Alfonzo XII, who, in the late 19th century, fell madly in love with the Comtesse de Castiglione. She reciprocated, but months before they were due to wed, Alfonzo married another woman, the Princess Mercedes. Vowing to get even, the Comtesse sent the bride a wedding present in the form of a magnificent opal set in a gold ring. Two months later the princess died. After the princess’ funeral, Alfonzo gave the ring to his grandmother, Queen Christina, who very soon thereafter also died. The ring then passed to Alfonzo’s sister, the Infanta Maria del Pilar. She died as well, and the ring then passed to Alfonzo’s sister-in-law who also promptly died. Alfonzo then took the ring for himself and, within a month, was also dead7. At the time there was a cholera epidemic raging through Spain which killed many tens of thousands of people8.
Of course, inanimate objects cannot create bad luck. Indeed, there is no such property as luck; it is only a perception9. I suspect that a more likely explanation for spread of the bad luck reputation of opals is that diamond merchants of the mid 19th to early 20th centuries spread the myth when high quality Australian opal appeared on the market in the 1890s. The arrival of increasing quantities of this spectacular gem, with its stunning play of colour, and its increasing popularity represented a threat to the lucrative diamond trade7. However, what went through the minds of the gullible as they believed this drivel in the century before last, we will likely never know.
- Kunz, G.F., 1913. The curious lore of precious stones. J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 512 pp.
Blot: Where did the myth that opals are unlucky originate?
ChatGPT: The myth that opals are unlucky likely originated in Europe in the 19th century. At that time, opals were becoming increasingly popular, particularly among the wealthy, but there were also some prominent instances of misfortune and bad luck associated with them.
One of the most significant events that helped to fuel the superstition was the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Anne of Geierstein” in 1829. The novel features a character who dies shortly after a drop of holy water falls onto her opal, causing it to lose its fire and sparkle. This scene is said to have led many people to believe that opals were cursed and could bring bad luck to their wearers.
Another factor that contributed to the myth was the discovery of a large deposit of opals in Australia in the 19th century. Many miners who worked in the opal mines reported a string of bad luck, such as injuries, accidents, and other mishaps. Some even claimed that the opals themselves were cursed and that they could bring harm to anyone who touched them.
Despite these beliefs, opals remain popular today, and many people wear them without any fear of bad luck or misfortune.