October is a special month where birthstones are concerned. One reason is that there are two October birthstones: the opal and pink tourmaline. And while tourmalines are beautiful in their own right, the opal gets all the attention, as it is among the most unique and beautiful gemstones in existence. Here’s a look at both of these birthstones and the histories and traditions surrounding each.
What Are Birthstones And How Did They Originate?
Birthstones are a collection of precious gems that correspond to a person’s birth month. Traditionally, each gem holds different meanings and symbolizes unique characteristics, which are said to belong to the wearer of the gems. Each month’s birthstone has a fascinating history behind it. Some months have just one birthstone, while others, like October, have two.
Some sources such as 1st Century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus tell us birthstones originated on the breastplate of Aaron, with each gem representing the 12 months of the year and accruing 12 signs of the zodiac. Others say the breastplate’s stones signified each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Eighth and 9th Century religious treaties were written associating particular stones with the 12 apostles. And while more modern accounts, including folklore, do not identify the breastplate or religious connections, some claim wearing one of these gemstones during its assigned month enhances its therapeutic properties.
Throughout history, accepted birthstones rotated in and out, with style and availability sometimes determining which stones would reign. In 1912, the UK’s National Association of Jewelers standardized the list, which was updated in 1952 by the Jewelry Industry Council of America. Among the changes was the addition of pink tourmaline for October (pink was key). Their list was made exclusively of transparent gems, which was why the tourmaline replaced the opal.
Before the addition of the pink tourmaline, some sources indicate that opals have been October’s birthstone since the 15th century.
October’s Opal: The Colorful Beauty
Opals are best known for the amazing colors they display. While the common opal is a rather plain white, precious opals, regardless of their base shade, are full of fire, showing just about every color of the rainbow. There are also fire opals, which can be a deep reddish-orange color or sometimes a bright pink. Black opals are dark stones that display a rainbow of colors.
The name comes from the Greek word opallios which means “to see a change of color.” To the Romans, it was opalus, which meant “precious stone.”
Royalty and rulers throughout the ages have prized these stones. In Victorian times, Queen Victoria herself—known to be a lover of gemstones of all types—prized opals most of all.
Roughly 95% of these stones come from Australia—and in fact, native aborigines believe that the opal’s colors come from the rainbow that formed where the earth’s creator touched the earth with his foot.
In truth, the colors come from millions of tiny silica spheres that refract light to create a dazzling display within the stone. One reason why opals are so rare and precious is that the spheres within have to be uniform in shape and of a certain size to create colors we can see.
Opals take millions of years to form—about five million years for one centimeter. Researchers currently believe that the reason why Australia is rich in opals is that parts of the continent were flooded with silica-rich waters 20 million years ago. Evaporation resulted in silica deposits in cracks and boulders, which eventually became opals.
The Ethiopian opal, or the Welo opal, is a new variety of opal discovered in the Wollo province of Ethiopia. It is highly valued for its vibrant colors and patterns.
Opals on Mars?
Australia isn’t the only place where one can find opals. They’re on Mars, too! Scientists revealed in 2008 that opal deposits had been discovered on Mars—which, they say, is an indicator that life could have once been on the planet since opal forms through water evaporating to leave behind silica.
Opal Characteristics and Folklore
- It is said that opals are considered a lucky gemstone—unless it’s not your birthstone. Is it bad luck to wear them if you’re not an October baby? It’s just a myth with origins which likely stem from diamond traders of the 19th and 20th centuries who worried that the diamond would lose popularity against the opal.
- Opals are associated with faithfulness and confidence.
- Rulers often wore opals, believing that they warded off evil.
- Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes of the desert, once believed that opals held captured lightning and that the stones themselves fell to earth during thunderstorms.
- Greeks believed opals protected against disease and bestowed the gift of prophecy.
- Europeans thought the opal to be a symbol of purity, hope and truth.
- Opals are the stones given for the 14th wedding anniversary.
Pink Tourmaline Facts and History
The name comes from the Sinhalese word toramalli, which means “stone with mixed colors.” That’s because even though “pink tourmaline” is designated as October’s stone, the gem comes in more colors than any other precious stone in the world—and sometimes you’ll find more than one color within the same stone, as is the case with the aptly named “watermelon” tourmaline, which is pink and green.
In fact, with all the colors, these stones have often been mistaken for other gemstones. The famous “Caesar’s Ruby” pendant, which is part of Russia’s crown jewels, is actually a red tourmaline variety known as rubellite. Spanish conquistadors often confused green tourmalines for emeralds—and it wasn’t until the 1800s that scientists began to differentiate between tourmaline and other gemstone types.
Some tourmalines also come from Australia, just like their opal cousins, but these stones are most commonly found in Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Madagascar, and Mozambique. In the United States, California and Maine have both been known to produce tourmaline. Here in Maine, Mount Mica is where the first tourmaline deposit was discovered in 1820, though the Dunton Mine near Plumbago Mountain is the highest producing mine in Maine.
Mines in California’s San Diego County were famed for producing rubellite for China’s Empress Dowager Cixi, who loved the color. Between 1902 and 1910, these mines shipped 120 tons of rubellite to China.
Pink Tourmaline Characteristics and Folklore
- Pink tourmaline is associated with the heart chakra in Hinduism and Buddhism, signifying unconditional love and compassion.
- This stone is said to release tension and improve hand-eye coordination, assuage dyslexia, as well as promote overall flexibility, happiness, objectivity, compassion, serenity, and tolerance.
- Egyptian legend says that tourmaline has such a variety of colors because the gemstone traveled along a rainbow, gathering color as it went.
Which Is Your Favorite?
If you have an October birthday, that means you get to choose which of these birthstones is your favorite – Opal or Pink Tourmaline! But since both stones are so incredibly diverse—one kaleidoscope and the other available in just about every color imaginable—it’s a tough choice to make!
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.