For the Romans, opal was the most precious of all the gemstones, believing that it unified the beauty of all gems known to men. They were buying opal from traders in the area of the Bosporus and Constantinople. The traders said that the gems came from India and reached to Constantinople through the “great eastern trade route.”
Opal – a gift from the heavens
Mythical lore’s surround the origin of opal. They are the first attempts of civilization to grasp the beauty of these gems. Today, some of the most fascinating stories to survive are from roman times. As records of Pliny the Elder show, opal played a major role in roman society. A fact which can be inferred by the lore of Ops and her role in the festivities of Saturnalia, a celebration to honor the god Saturn.
Saturnalia was the celebration of the love that unified them. “Ops being a Roman goddess and the wife of Saturn. The Romans gave a celebration to honor Saturn … called Saturnalia and that portion of the celebration devoted to Ops was called Opalìa. From that, it is further alleged, the word opal subsequently derived. This Roman mythological version was one generally accepted as the true derivation,” as A. W. Eckert reports.
Pinpointing the exact origin of the word opal is very challenging. This is due to the far-reaching roman empire which subsequently was not only influencing many cultures it came in touch with but was influenced by other cultures as well. This is emphasized by a story from the Bedouins of Sahara.
“…in 290 B.C., the Romans are calling opal ceraunium, meaning “thunderstone,” the word apparently originated from the Bedouins of Sahara, who believe opals, with lightning trapped in them, fall from the sky during thunderstorms and acquire their marvelous colors in the process … present use of the word ceraunium, sometimes spelled keraunios, refers to meteorites.”
“Treasures … from cupid”
However, the beauty of opal was not lost on the citizens of Athens in 495 B.C. either. The poet Onomacritus was so fascinated, that he wrote a poem about opal in which he concludes it to be the Gem of Cupid. “Looking at the beautiful painting from Jean-Honoré Fragonard, one is left wondering if opals are among the treasures she received from her love,” says Alexander Kreis.
When looking at opals nowadays the most beautiful opals are from Australia. Black opals from Lightning Ridge are renowned for their richness in colors, being similar to the Great Barrier Reef with its lush green, and deep blue water. A unique arrangement of the display of these colors makes each gem a painting full of life. Which might be part of the reason why Maurice Prendergast named his painting “Opal Sea”.
[“Psyche showing her sisters her gifts from Cupid” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard -1753]
[Ceiling Fresco in the Hall of Saturn by Pietro da Cortana in Florence (ITA), Palazzo Pitti – 1663 to 1665]
[“Opal Sea” by Maurice Prendergast – 1907 to 1910]