The discovery of opals is ancient and uncertain. It is believed that opals were first mined around 4000 B.C. in Ethiopia, but their popularity did not grow until the Romans embraced them around 100 B.C. By then, the majority of opals were mined in Hungary. For about 1,000 years, Hungary was the opal supplier of choice for European rulers and clergy. Precious opals were discovered in South Australia (1849), Queensland (1896), and New South Wales (1890), Australia, in the 19th century. Rare black opals were found in the Lightning Ridge field in New South Wales around 1905. By the end of the 19th century, Australia had taken over as the world's primary source of precious opals.
Mexican opal officially discovered around 1835, but known during Aztec period or earlier. Brazilian opals were discovered in the latter half of the 20th century, but the fire opal is a more recent discovery.
Ethiopian opal – “rediscovered” in 2002-2003 in Shewa Province. Made a big splash, but much of it proved unstable and the industry lost interest. In 2008, the Wollo area started producing and this material, once cut, is mostly quite stable.
Other sources: US (Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon), Honduras, Indonesia. Many other sources for common opal.
Historically, opal was considered a lucky charm that brought beauty, success and happiness to its wearer. The early Greeks believed opals embodied the powers of foresight and prophecy.
The Romans also cherished opals, considering them to be a symbol of hope and purity—an appropriate attribute for a gem with a rainbow locked within it.
The Arabs thought that opals must have fallen from heaven in flashes of lightning. According to Arab tradition, it is believed that opals prevent lightening strikes, shield its wearer from any undesirable elements in their day-to-day lives and give a cloak of invisibility to its wearer when desired.
Opal featured in literature with Shakespeare referring to it in Twelfth Night as the “Queen of Gems.”
History books would have us believe that the European supplies of opal came from India and the Middle East, but it is far more likely that they came from Hungarian mines. An example of bad luck in an 1829 Sir Walter Scott novel led the public to believe that an opal had caused misfortune to befall the heroine. This reinforced an old idea that opals were bad luck, and the opal market dropped in the aftermath. At the same time, Australian opals began appearing in the market, but dealers were hesitant because the Australian opals were so brilliant, some assumed they were fakes. There is another, older legend that people would place opals under their tongues to ward off the plague. When the dead were discovered to have opals in their mouths, it gave opals a bad image. Fortunately Queen Victoria fell in love with opals, and her passion for them helped restore opal's popularity. Queen Victoria finally dispelled the curse by giving opal jewelry as gifts at a royal wedding.
Opal originally made the headlines in the 1890’s with the first samples of Australian opal. The Hungarians declared that the new Australian variety was not the real thing, as opals with such a fusion of fire and color had never been seen before. According to Koori (indigenous Australians) legend, the creator came down to earth on a rainbow to bring a message of peace to all humans. At the spot where his feet touched the ground, the stones became alive and started sparkling in all the colors of the rainbow, giving birth to Australian opals. Today, opals are one of Australia’s national treasures and one of the world’s most prized gemstones.
Scandinavian women still wear opal hair bands to ward off the onset of gray hair, while some people believe that this gemstone has therapeutic properties that rejuvenate the inner spirit and invigorate the mind.