“Of all precious stones, it is opal that presents the greatest difficulties of description, it displaying at once the piercing fire of carbunculus, the purple brilliancy of amethystos, and the sea-green of smaragdus, the whole blended together and refulgent with a brightness that is quite incredible.” Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.)
The history of opal has many narratives. Two of the most interesting to survive the storms of history come from the ancient roman era and the convulsing reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. “Both highlight the appreciation and fascination for opal throughout human history,” emphasizes Vanessa Kreis.
the roman empire
“People were fascinated with this gemstone. Just think of the attempt of Pliny the Elder to describe opal during his journey,” tells Alexander Kreis. Opal played an important role in the roman empire and was a coveted object to be treasured. Just how important a role can be derived from a further historical description from Pliny the Elder. This time, Pliny reports of a historic incident including Marcus Antonius.
“[The citizen] Nonius…carrying with him, out of all his wealth, nothing but this ring…how marvelous the luxurious [opal]…to prescribe a man for the possession of a jewel!” In 41 B.C. Marcus Antonius wanted to buy the opal mounted on top of the ring, to give it to Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. But Nonius refused the offer, at which point Marcus Antonius confronted him with a final offer: Either Nonius was to give up the opal or he has to leave the city forever. Nonius chose to leave the city.
“It is fascinating to see that Pliny the Elder does not describe Nonius by his virtues or past deeds. This historical figure stands out solely for the possession of the opal,” Sonja Kreis points out.
A gift for his love, the empress Josephine
“The Burning of Troy” is one of the most mysterious gemstones in history. In addition to that, it is one of the most elusive black opals. It earned its name due to the display of red color. It is thought to be reminiscent of a fire, glistening through the night. At the height of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power, it was a gift to his love, the Empress Josephine.
As the historian, A.W. Eckert reports, “In 1814 … Josephine died and the Burning of Troy opal … disappeared. It seemed then to be lost forever and yet, a hundred years later, this same stone abruptly appeared in Austria, having been acquired by the city of Vienna, though by what means remains secret. Officials of the city government valued it so highly that even when the Austrian capital city was experiencing severe financial distress immediately following World War 1, they refused [to sell] it. The Burning of Troy disappeared again at the outbreak of World War 2 and has not since resurfaced.”
[“The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine” by Jacques-Louis David – 1807]
[“Portrait of the Empress Josephine” by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon – 1805]
[“The Bruning of Troy” by JG Trautmann 1713 – 1769]