The History of Opals in Art and Design

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In the fifth and final part of our series on the precious stones used in the latest Tiffany T designs, Ana Kinsella hones in on the most iridescent of gemstones

Who wouldn’t be drawn to an opal? The translucent stones somehow succeed in being greater than the sum of their parts: usually colourless or creamy-white, it contains within it a full spectrum of iridescent colours that move when caught in the light, like the viscous play-of-colour that occurs when petrol mixes with a puddle of water.

These qualities, combined with the stone’s historical rarity, meant that opals were incredibly prized throughout the centuries until the discovery of huge deposits of opals in Australia in the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, opals were regarded as both protective and curative, as well as being considered generally omens of good fortune. Favoured by royalty, the arrival of Australian opals meant the stone became accessible to many more. Queen Victoria was a particular admirer of the opal and often gave opal jewellery as gifts as well as wearing it herself. One notable piece was a large cabochon opal ring, encircled by nine pearls set into gold. The ring, which originally belonged to Queen Charlotte, made its way into Queen Victoria’s extensive collection of opal jewellery alongside many others, including an opal tiara designed for the queen by Prince Albert. Today, the ring’s beguiling iridescent colours can be viewed as part of the Royal Collection at Kew Palace.

Of course, every good narrative needs an obstacle along the way. Sir Walter Scott’s 1823 novel Anne of Geierstein supposedly caused the opal’s fine reputation to take a tumble. In the novel, a mysterious princess, known for the gleaming opal she wears in her hair, perishes suddenly after the stone comes into contact with a few drops of holy water. The opal’s colour fades and the princess turns to ashes. The novel was popular enough (and its readers superstitious enough) that its publication triggered a fall in the sale of opals in Europe that lasted for 20 years. But the opal would eventually prevail, shirking off any notions of bad luck, and remains popular to this day for its captivating, iridescent beauty.

See more of the Tiffany T collection in the film below, which is directed by Polly Brown and features a poetic voiceover, also from Polly Brown.

Discover new opal designs from the Tiffany T collection here.