Crown Jewel: Royalty's Continuing Obsession With Opal

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  • Category :  McKenna Mulvany
  • Date Posted :  Jun 19, 2020
Cinque Terre

For centuries, opals have adorned the jewellery of some of the world’s most famous and influential historical figures. They’ve scintillated in the imperial crowns of the Holy Roman Empire and the former kingdom of Hawaii. They’ve sparkled on the ears and necks of countless queens, from Empress Josephine to Queen Elizabeth II. Though far too many of these famed opals have been mysteriously lost to the ebbs and flows of time, the royal obsession with this incredible gemstone has never waned. 

The first royal encounter with opals occurred in 35 BCE. A Roman senator named Nonius came into the possession of a breathtaking gem mined in Slovakia, which was, at the time, the only source of opal in Europe. When Mark Antony, who had just begun courting Cleopatra, heard about Nonius’ opal through their fellow politicians, he became adamant that it had to become his to bequeath to his beloved queen of Egypt. Nonius refused him several times, despite Mark Antony offering him hundreds of thousands of dollars in modern day currency for the stone. This greatly angered Mark Antony, and he threatened to use his power to have Nonius stripped of all his worldly possessions and exiled from Rome. Rather than face Mark Antony’s ire, Nonius fled Rome, leaving everything behind except the opal. Neither he or the gem were ever seen again.

After this story was recounted by Pliny the Elder in his 77AD text, Natural History of the World, opals became intrinsically associated with royalty - and power. In the 13th century, an extraordinarily beautiful opal dubbed the Orphanus became the centerpiece of the Holy Roman Emperor’s coronation crown. Orphanus was described as snow white, sparkling like a diamond, with incredible flashes of red-wine coloured fire. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since 1350. The coronation crown is now on display in Vienna with a massive sapphire in place of the opal. Orphanus, it seems, has lived up to her name - she has no person, nor a home, to belong to.

In 1805, yet another infamous statesman became besotted with a gorgeous opal. Napoleon I was well aware of the tale of Nonius, and completed Mark Antony’s fruitless endeavor by gifting his wife, Empress Josephine, with a 140 gram black opal named The Burning of Troy. The name is not just a reference to the opal’s intense fire (play-of-colour),  but the ancient legend of the sacking of Troy in 1184 BCE. The Trojan War began when Paris, Prince of Troy, eloped with Helen, wife of the Spartan King. Napoleon thought of Josephine as his Helen of Troy, as they were both great beauties. Sadly, like Nonius’ opal and Orphanus, The Burning of Troy was lost forever after Napoleon’s empire was overthrown seven years later. 

During the 19th century, the tradition of royalty gifting one another with opal jewellery continued. Queen Victoria is perhaps one of the most famous and prolific royal wearers of opal jewellery. Her dear husband, Prince Albert, often designed jewellery including the gemstone for the Queen. In 1853, he commissioned the iconic jewellery maison Garrard to craft an intricate opal tiara of his own design. Inspired by pieces Queen Victoria had received during her tenure as Empress of India, the Oriental Circlet Tiara became a favourite of HRH. After her death, the tiara was passed on to her daughter in law, Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Princess Alexandra had the opals reset with Burmese rubies. Though the opals are long gone, the Oriental Circlet Tiara lives on, and has been photographed multiple times on both the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II. 

Queen Victoria’s status as an icon of fashion had far flung influence on how royalty and nobility dressed. Upon hearing news of how opals had become all the rage in Victoria’s court, King Kalakaua of Hawaii requested that a lavish crown be crafted with the jewel for his belated coronation in 1883. London jewellers Hoffnung and Co. created a crown that cost thousands of pounds and was adorned with diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, and opals.

Ten years later, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. In the aftermath of the coup, American diplomats discovered the mutilated remains of King Kalakaua’s crown. Palace guard George Ryan was accused of having stolen almost all of the crown’s one thousand gemstones and was subsequently arrested. Apart from a handful of diamonds, none of the other jewels were ever recovered. A replica of the crown was made using glass crystals in 1925, and is still displayed at Iolani Palace in Honolulu. 

Looking back through the history of royal opal jewellery, it would seem as if none of the gemstones survived until present day. However, modern royalty is keeping old traditions alive by sporting opal jewellery on a regular basis. For her 1947 wedding, Queen Elizabeth II was given the Australian Opal Spray Brooch by RSL Australia, and still wears the gold and black opal piece often (pictured above). Seven years later, during a tour of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth was given the famous Andamooka Opal Parure (matching set) by the Australian government. The necklace and earrings boast over 200 ct of brilliant South Australian Opal. Rightfully so, the Queen keeps the magnificent jewels in the Royal Vault for safe keeping.

Young royals like Queen Letizia of Spain, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, and Meghan Markle have all been photographed in recent years wearing opal jewellery, ushering the trend into a new generation. It seems almost certain that so long as there are royals, there will be royals wearing opals. But regardless of whether or not you’re a real prince or princess, wearing opal jewellery is sure to make you feel as special and glamorous as one.