The opal

Emerald green with a marbled texture, the opal is turned into necklaces, rings, buttons and earrings by meticulous processing.

W e are setting out for Erzurum in Eastern Turkey to discover the 'Oltu emerald' in situ. Following a long and pleasant journey, we stop briefly to drink tea at one of the famous Erzurum samovars. Directly opposite us, the Palandöken Mountains have not yet donned their bridal white snow. We take the Tortum-Artvin road to Oltu, 100 kilometers from the city of Erzurum and better known for its jet than its opal. Some 50 kilometers later we leave Tortum behind at the turnoff for Narman-Oltu and about forty-five minutes later reach first Narman, then Oltu.

Dr. İbrahim Ekinci, an opal processor, meets us at the township capital. With Ekinci, who also practices medicine here, we drive on to the village of Turnalı near Şenkaya, about 30 kilometers away. Taking in the scenery along the way, we continue our conversation  with Ekinci, who tells us how opal was first discovered here: “I travel frequently to the neighboring villages to visit my patients. 

It was when I went to the village of Turnalı on one of those trips that I noticed some shiny green stones in the garden walls. Since I'm interested in minerals, I took some samples and examined them closely. I then ran some chemical tests on them and had analyses done at the university.”

What emerged from those scientific analyses was that 31 of the 99 varieties of opal that are found in thirteen different countries, such as Australia, America, Mexico, Brazil and Peru, are found in Turkey's Oltu and Şenkaya area, which is thought to be among the richest in the world in terms of opal reserves and diversity. Two types of opal in particular are unique to this region in the whole world. The first is called the 'emerald opal' for its resemblance to that stone, the other the 'picture opal' because of its unique designs, colors and motifs. We are still chatting congenially when we reach the village of Turnalı. Carpeted with luxuriant green grass, Turnalı is perched on a mountain slope between the two Erzurum townships of Oltu and Şenkaya. It is a charming Anatolian village surrounded by pine trees and adorned with a tiny lake. We park our vehicle on the village square, and the villagers welcome us warmly with typical Anatolian hospitality. We stroll the approximately two kilometers to the stone quarries in the pine-scented air. As we walk the villagers speak of the emerald mines that flourished here at the summit and on the other side of the mountain in Ottoman times.

Once upon a time there was a cruel king who lived here with his beautiful daughter. So beautiful was the maiden that the king strictly forbade the villagers to look at her on pain of death. 

Whenever the princess ventured outside the palace grounds for a stroll with her retainers, the people were commanded to lower their heads and close their eyes, or to stay at home. But once, on a day such as this, when the princess was abroad, a poor peasant raised his head and his eyes met those of the princess, who instantly fell in love with the intrepid youth. His head turned by the princess's beauty, the young man clandestinely climbed the palace walls that evening, and succeeded in meeting face to face with the beautiful princess once again. They were just about to speak when the palace retainers appeared suddenly and the young man was captured. Brought before the king, the youth, knowing that he would be punished by death in any case, declared his love for the princess to the king. On the verge of ordering the young man's death, the king, unable to resist the young girl's heartfelt pleas, agreed to give him a different punishment. So the young man was brought to the place where the green stones are and left there, doomed to live in solitude. 

Madly in love, the princess took to her bed. The king summoned all the physicians in the land, but they could find no cure. A long time passed. Unable to forget the princess, the young man worked his love for her into the green stones. He made necklaces and rings, and one day he sent them to the king as a gift. His eyes weak now with age, the king placed the ring on his own finger and fastened the necklace around his beloved daughter's neck without looking to see who had sent them. Relinquishing his cruelty in the tide of time, the king's heart turned soft as putty. Thanks to the necklace of green stone,  his daughter's health was restored. The now-kind king summoned the young man, and the couple were united in a magnificent celebration that lasted for forty days and forty nights. People today still believe in the positive effects of that 'Oltu emerald' (opaline) on the human psyche. And it is rumored that whoever wears this stone will find happiness, will be delivered from evil, and will live in harmony with his fellowman.

Unlike other minerals, opals which are precious for their quality and rarity are not extracted from hundreds of meters below the surface of  the earth. They can be found either in the earth's crust itself or just a few meters below. And they are extremely impressive looking with their iridescence, green tinge and marbled designs.

Extracted without harming the natural environment, the stones are brought to workshops where they are sorted again. How they are to be cut is decided on the basis of their shape, and they are put through the cutting machine in the form of plates. The cut plates are then held with copper tongs and individually shaped. Only diamond abrasives can be used for the sanding since the stone is so hard.

After the surfaces have been rubbed down, they are polished with felt and given their final appearance. Each one different in design and hue, the opals are then mounted in silver or gold settings and presented to eager buyers in the form of earrings, rings, and brooches.

The processing of opal started out in a single workshop in the township capital of Oltu. Recently however there has been a proliferation in the number of workshops. The opals worked by the trained craftsmen from Ataturk University's School of Fine Arts and the Jewelry Department of the Oltu Occupational High School are further enhanced in value. You can find decorative items made of opal in the Rüstem Pasha Bazaar of Erzurum, a city noted more for its jet. Built by Suleyman the Magnificent's son-in-law and grand vizier Rüstem Pasha and known locally as the Taşhan, this attractive bazaar awaits visitors with its decorative items made of opal, aka the 'Oltu emerald'.