The hydrophanous opal (Ethiopian opal), just add water to unlock the magic within.
Opals are amorphous minerals made from hydrated silica, so this means that the opal is formed when silica has chemically bonded with water molecules. Due to this formation, opals are a little softer than some other minerals and therefore require a little more tender care than harder gems to maintain their beauty and prevent scratches.
In the Middle Ages, opals were considered lucky because their rainbow of colours represented the collective auspices of the whole spectrum of gems. Some even believed that an opal wrapped in a bay leaf would provide the owner with the power of invisibility!
On the contrary, a beautiful opal will make the wearer more visible, and there is no reason to hide the beauty of an opal by wrapping it up in a leaf. Hydrophanous opals, get their name from the words 'hydro', meaning 'water' and 'phane', meaning to have a specified appearance. Hydrophanous opals are special due to their opacity or semi-opacity, which changes transparency when wet. So wrapping them up in a moist cloth (rather than a leaf) when being stored will help keep and restore their transparency and vibrancy. Most hydrophane opals are sourced from Ethiopia (though not all Ethiopian opals are hydrophane). Other origins also produce fine hydrophane opal, including areas of South America.
These unique opals come to life when they slowly absorb water. It should be noted that hydrophane opals absorb and lose water very slowly, so there is no need to panic if one is dropped into water, or is away from water for a while. It would seem that Ethiopian hydrophane opals are similar to us in this respect; they almost appear to take on some characteristics of living beings, who need water to thrive. Maybe these special gems should come with a label - 'Ethiopian hydrophane opals, for clarity and vitality, just add water'.
Similar to their country of origin, Ethiopian opals flourish in moist conditions and become lacklustre in dry conditions. Ethiopia is considered to be the very beginning of civilization, since it contains evidence of the very first modern humans; homo sapiens idaltu. Although Ethiopia's Lake Tana is the source of the Nile, the longest river in the world, the country has suffered from a series of dreadful droughts in the past, which have ravaged the country and its people. Ethiopia is ironically referred to as 'the water tower of Eastern Africa', since it is the source of several rivers apart from the Nile, which run from the table-like mountainous region. The Ethiopian opal shares the land's relationship with water, in that it also suffers when there is a lack of water. Although Ethiopia contains Africa's greatest water reserve, it lacks the irrigation systems with which to use it to best serve the land. Therefore, both Ethiopia and the Ethiopian opal contain water, but require continual replenishment of this precious resource.
Perhaps the recent discovery of this intriguing natural phenomenon in Ethiopia can be interpreted as an auspicious sign for the years to come; an indication that Ethiopia will enjoy an abundance of natural resources and not suffer from drought in the future. Conversely, it could be considered to be a reminder to keep watch over the water reserves.
At first glance, an Ethiopian opal appears to glow from the inside, almost as if lit by a magical and mysterious source of light. They are a variety of base colours, including white, blue, orange, grey or brown, and have a honeycomb pattern. However, this description simply does not do justice to the glowing spectrum of colour that lights the Ethiopian opal from the inside. This is brought about by the diffraction of light, which is best shown off by rounded cabochons. These make brilliantly illuminating pendants, brooches or earrings.
This brilliance may be the reason behind a belief in the healing power of opals in several cultures, especially for eyesight. It could be that the brightness of opals led people to presume that these so called 'eye stones' would provide the owner with good eyesight. A further comparison can also be drawn from the name 'eye stone', which relates to our eyes needing hydration to sparkle, as do Ethiopian opals.
It is quite amazing that water, a colourless substance, can contribute to such amazing vibrant colour inside an opal. The American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, Loren Eiseley wrote, 'If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water', and it could be said that some of this magic is contained within the natural wonder that is the Ethiopian opal.