Monday was the first day of spring, but Sydneysiders weren’t focused on Wattle Day: for them it was Opal Day. The Opal card is the automated ticketing system smartcard for Sydney public transport, trialled for two years, and replacing a confusing system of fourteen different paper tickets. September 1 was the official date that paper tickets would be phased out.
All other major Australian capitals have automated public transport ticketing systems, but for some reason the Opal card was very hard to implement, and getting it off the ground took twenty years and defeated eight successive governments. It was gloomily warned that the new system would cause complete chaos, while conspiracy theorists were sure it was designed to increase fares, or even part of a police state surveillance plot.
However, the roll-out went quite smoothly on the morning of September 1. There weren’t massive queues, or gates needing to be locked against hordes of angry commuters, and people who hadn’t ordered an Opal card online simply bought one from a kiosk. Some people found the Opal card was actually saving them money. Its success means a sigh of relief from Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian.
The Opal card is based on Hong Kong’s Octopus card, and London’s Oyster card. The name Octopus suggests that you can travel in multiple directions, like the limbs of an octopus, while Oyster is an allusion to “the world is your oyster”. Although it starts with the same letter, Opal doesn’t have any clever hidden meaning to it – the opal is our national gemstone, while the black opal is the state gemstone of New South Wales.
Opal is a precious gemstone that is one of the most spectacular; a single stone can flame intensely with every colour of the spectrum, out-shining even the diamond. The highest quality specimens will sell for the same amount as the most valuable diamonds, rubies and emeralds, although such opals are very rare.
Opal is a common substance, found throughout the world, often of a milky white appearance (opal miners call it potch). Common opal can be pretty once cut and polished, but it is not valuable. Precious opal has what is called “play-of-colour” – that stunning multi-coloured iridescence.
97% of the world’s precious opal is produced in Australia, and Australia’s opal fields are larger than all those in the rest of the world combined. What makes Australian opals so valuable is not just their brilliance, but their stability. In other countries, opal is often found in volcanic rock and has high water content, meaning it tends to crack during cutting and polishing. In Australia, opals are found in the outback desert, once a vast inland sea.
South Australia is the major source of opal, producing more than 80% of the world’s supply. The town of Coober Pedy is mainly associated with opal mining, and the world’s largest and most valuable opal, the “Olympic Australis” was found here in 1956 (the year Australia hosted the Olympic Games for the first time, hence its name).
Lightning Ridge in New South Wales is the main source of black opal, the most valuable type of Australian opal. Despite their name they are not black, but have a predominantly dark background, so the rainbow colours of the opal stand out more strongly.
Boulder opal is the second-most valuable type of opal, where thin veins of precious opal fill cracks in ironstone boulders. The dark backing of the ironstone means that the opal shines in a similar way to a black opal. Boulder opal is found in Queensland, including the town of Winton.
The precious gemstone has given its name to our national women’s basketball team, known as The Opals. They are an internationally successful team, and Lauren Jackson plays for them.
According to official sources, Indigenous Australians called opal “fire of the desert”, and their legends tell that the opal’s colour was created when a rainbow touched the earth. Like other gemstones, opals had spiritual value as that which a spirit ancestor left behind as a sign of his or her presence. They could thus be imbued with that ancestor’s powerful spiritual energy.
The word opal comes from the Roman name for the gemstone, opalus. It is believed this is most likely from the Sanskrit word upalus, meaning “gem, jewel”. The Romans believed the opals they bought were from exotic India, but this was an ancient marketing ploy, as they were really from where Hungary is today. The Romans valued opals highly, and saw them as symbols of hope and innocence.
In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to be very lucky, and thought vital for good eyesight. Blonde women wore opals in the belief it would keep their hair colour bright, and one odd superstition was that you could make yourself invisible by holding an opal wrapped in fresh bay leaves. I imagine some embarrassment must have been caused to anyone who tried this!
The modern superstition that opals are unlucky appears to come from Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein – even though the novel never actually says that there is anything unfortunate about the gemstones. In the story, a mysterious sorcerer’s daughter named Lady Hermione, who always wore opals in her hair, appears to be under some sort of enchantment.
When a few drops of holy water are sprinkled on her head, they quench the radiance of the opals, and Hermione faints. She is carried to her room for a lie down, and the next day nothing is found of her but a heap of ashes on her bed. Later it turns out the opal turned pale to warn its owner of impending doom, not because it was cursed.
Nonetheless, the novel does seem to have affected people’s feelings about opals, because in the year of its publications, opal prices plunged, and the European opal market took many years to recover. It is also thought diamond cartels helped spread these rumours, because the discovery of high quality opals in Australia were a distinct threat to their livelihood. Hungarian opal miners told people that Australian opals must be fakes, as they were certainly too good to be true!
Queen Victoria swam against the superstitious tide, for she loved opals and wore them throughout her reign. She gave them as gifts to her daughters and friends, so that opals became highly-regarded and fashionable, thanks to the British court. The royal family have a fine collection of opals, including the “Andamooka opal” from South Australia, presented to Elizabeth II in 1954.
Opal was used as a girl’s name as early as the 16th century, but became much more common in the Victorian era, when gemstone names were in fashion. In Australia records, the name Opal is particularly associated with South Australia, and in particular, areas where opals are mined.
Although our national floral emblem gets a reasonable amount of use, our national gemstone is very rare as a name. Yet it is really rather beautiful, and its O initial even seems fashionable. Short and simple, it has a hip and quirky vibe, while the stunning gemstone gives it a very patriotic feel. Retro Ruby has climbed and climbed – could Opal have a better chance in its wake?
(Photo of Opal card from NSW government website)