Opal has caused division within the industry for years. It’s a regular fixture in the jewellery collections of high-end luxury brands and often resides in the pages of magazines and online style editorials, yet has been relegated in Australia to ‘tacky’ tourist stores and duty-free outlets.
Aussies might be known for their patriotism but they are reluctant to embrace their national gemstone. That is until now, according to Atheka Le Souëf, director of Melbourne-based retail store Lightning Ridge Opal Mines.
“The gemstone has actually become a lot more popular with Australians and there has definitely been an increase in opal sales within the local market over the past four years,” Le Souëf states, specifically citing black and boulder opal in both finished jewellery and loose gemstones as good sellers.
Le Souëf attributes this surge in demand to recent media exposure: “There was a lot of media attention probably about four years ago and I think that heightened the profile of opal within the local market.”
Scott Coggan, manager and opal cutter at Sunshine Coast-based Opals Down Under, agrees.
“Over the past six to seven years our domestic sales have increased enormously,” he explains.
Coggan, who acknowledges that the business has invested in significant marketing during this time, says opal engagement rings are a standout, particularly with consumers aged around 25 to 30 years old.
“I think the younger generation is looking for an individual piece rather than the standard diamond,” he says, adding, “Opal is a softer gemstone so what many are doing is wearing their wedding ring on an everyday basis and treating their engagement rings more like a dress ring.”
Coggan also comments on the popularity of free-form boulder opal pendants set in gold.
It’s not only opal specialist retailers who are noticing a rise in demand. Rick Stearns, director of Stearns Showcase Jewellers in Bendigo, Victoria, says he has also noticed an increased interest in opal jewellery in the past two years.
Stearns has sold opal jewellery for about 30 years but admits he only recently started giving the category special attention. Unsurprisingly, it was at this time that demand surged.
“We saw an opening,” he states. “No one else was doing it because a lot of jewellers just don’t carry opal but, once we started to expand the range, the market just grew.”
Stearns says expanding his product variety played a big role in stimulating sales: “You can’t sell what you don’t have. We weren’t selling a lot of opal in the past because we never had a lot of different pieces; however, once we put in a full range of it with earrings, pendants and rings, all of a sudden there was some interest.”
The store carries the Firegem Australian Opal range, distributed by Paterson Fine Jewellery. Stearns says all jewellery pieces in the range are popular but adds that ring sales are particularly higher than what they have been in the past.
Black and boulder opal remain firmly ingrained in this gemstone’s narrative but triplet opal – typically defined as a thin slice of opal sandwiched between a black backing and a clear dome-shaped capping – is also finding its niche, according to Paterson Fine Jewellery managing director David Paterson.
“We have been selling opal jewellery for more than 70 years and the demand has never been higher for us,” Paterson says. “Triplet opals have always been second cousins to the main market, featuring Australian boulder (QLD) and black opal (NSW); however, these gemstones have become very popular in Europe and Asia and the prices have been driven up accordingly,” he explains.
Paterson says price rises have meant more expensive pieces are now often out of the realms of the independent retailer, thus giving rise to a greater popularity and demand in triplet opals.
“Boulder and black opals will always have their strong place in the market, especially for custom-made pieces, but triplet opal jewellery is now much more common in readily-available stock and retail collections,” he states.
Dennie Fickling, director of DF Opals, suggests doublet opal – comprising a slice of opal with a black backing – is another option for retailers to consider.
“Doublet opal is a good entry-level opal piece for the first-time opal buyer,” Fickling explains, adding, “I have had customers that have purchased a doublet opal piece and then later they want a solid, natural piece. I think doublet opals are very good as long as they are looked after and are sold as doublet opals.”
Fickling, who he has been selling loose opals for a “long time” and began selling boulder and doublet opal jewellery about five years ago, says most of his loose opal stock is sold overseas but adds that he is starting to sell more jewellery in Australia.
“I don’t really know why this is the case,” he states. “I think the jewellery store owners are starting to give opal a go and it seems to be working.”
Invest in knowledge
Le Souëf says jewellers stocking or considering opal jewellery need to appreciate the importance of investing in education.
“Opal is not like a diamond that can be easily quantified; opal can be quite subjective in a lot of ways so you do need quite a lot of experience to correctly identify it and value it in order to sell it properly,” she says, warning that incorrect valuations can damage the industry. “If people are sold an item they think is worth a lot of money when actually it isn’t, this will have a negative impact on the image of opal.”
One supplier focusing on educating retailers and the end-consumer is Opals Australia, which has a branded-jewellery offering comprising more than 1,000 jewellery designs in 18-carat gold, 14-carat gold and sterling silver.
According to Opals Australia national accounts manager Clayton Peer, the main reason for developing a brand as opposed to selling unbranded product is because it is one of the most effective ways to provide education about Australian opal jewellery.
Peer says Opals Australia stockists receive numerous support tools and services to help increase sales. “These include, but are not limited to, a variety of display stands, fantastic easy-to-follow training materials for staff education, a large selection of professional photography to be used as advertising support and a website that holds thousands of jewellery designs for easy ordering,” he explains.
Peer adds that Opals Australia’s range performs well in the Australian opal-producing regions of Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy where “Baby Boomers are experiencing the many sights that Australia has to offer”.
He admits that there is still a large number of jewellers and consumers who have little to no knowledge of Australia’s national gemstone.
Maxine O’Brien, coordinator of the annual Australian Opal Exhibition and secretary-manager of the Lightning Ridge Miners’ Association, believes it will take time before any opal publicity results in noticeable local retail sales.
“The domestic market caters mainly to international tourists; however, I do believe opal has lost its negative connotations in Australia due to a rise in international jewellery designers using Australian opal and winning international awards,” she says.
“Australian jewellery designers are creating beautiful works and this will hopefully translate into more sales over time,” O’Brien adds. “In the past, Australians related opal to a tourist souvenir and were never really exposed to high-end gemstones or fine opal jewellery but this is changing and social media will continue to have a major impact as Australians come to appreciate the spectacular beauty of their national gemstone.”
Similar to Coggan, Paterson states that young consumer demographics are spearheading the opal hype.
“Our experience has been that the younger generation are leading the revival because of the colourful nature of the gemstone, the story that the gemstone has and its rarity,” he says. “It will always be a popular tourist product because 98 per cent of all opal is mined in Australia and the two per cent that is mined overseas has poor, incomparable colour. Also, new jewellery trends are all about colour and difference and what better gemstone to feature than Australian opals.”
While opal jewellery might not be on the wish-list of every Australian right now, there’s no denying that tides are turning. Jewellers would do well to pay this category some attention because, as Stearns says, “You can’t sell what you don’t have.”