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It’s no surprise that opal is Australia’s national gemstone — the industry behind it reflects our national spirit.
It’s no surprise that opal is Australia’s national gemstone — the industry behind it reflects our national spirit.

Please don't forget about the little guy!

An increasing mountain of bureaucracy is grinding Australia’s iconic opal mining industry into the ground, writes ALISON SUMMERVILLE.

It’s no surprise that opal is Australia’s national gemstone — the industry behind it reflects our national spirit.

It’s an industry comprised of small, hardworking, independent operators who hope that they'll find their fortune with experience, persistence, and a little luck.

Unfortunately, while the international audience for Australian opals is growing daily, our local government has little regard for the industry.

The opal industry is facing significant issues across all three states, and I believe the State and Federal Governments are hiding an agenda. The removal of small-scale mining for National Park purposes without consultation is evidence of this.

I’ve seen intelligent people reduced to tears over the frustration and anger they feel towards departments and the absurd amount of paperwork required, as well as the long delays in processing tenures. 

The Resources and Environment departments show a deep lack of understanding and care for the people who mine our national gemstone.

This lack of understanding is particularly important regarding the ‘ripple effect’ of the opal mining industry.

It begins with opal miners and quickly connects with geologists and gemmologists who work hand-in-hand with miners.

Then there are the machine operators because, contrary to popular belief, we aren’t just getting out with a pick and shovel anymore — those days are over!

The local economy expands further by providing the services required to maintain this machinery and simple things like fuel and repairs purchased from local businesses.

These people all operate in the industry's background.

Opal needs to be cut, and we desperately need more cutters in Australia because so much of the product goes overseas.

Opal cutting is a specialised field, and while there are lapidary clubs across Australia that are educating the next generation, we need more.

Lapidary involves all manner of machines, cutting and polishing wheels, and dremels – and another workforce of people provides these tools and services.

The next level is the buyers, who travel around the country purchasing opals. They fly in and fly out, hiring cars, staying in motels, and eating in restaurants, and so we see the flow-on impact for tourism and accommodation.

"Opal cutting is a specialised field, and while there are lapidary clubs across Australia that are educating the next generation, we need more."

From there, we meet the industry level you’re likely familiar with — suppliers and retailers. Jewellers turn the opal into works of art, which they then sell to consumers at the retail level.

Many buyers from exotic locations in every corner of the earth travel to Australia to purchase opals.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a king or a queen, an emperor or a president; when you see influential, high-profile figures abroad wearing Australian opals, these are the people who bring it to them.

These buyers are spreading the word about our gemstone on the international stage.

The same could be said for television shows like Outback Opal Hunters. They’ve done an excellent job increasing awareness about the industry.

Anyone who comes to Winton and looks at our visitor book will see the terrific number of people travelling from overseas to witness firsthand a uniquely Australian industry. 

People's inspiration to travel from one side of the planet to another to visit the opal fields all goes back to that romantic notion I mentioned earlier—the idea that you can be on your own with a handful of tools and pull something special from the ground.

As I’m sure you can understand, the opal industry's ripple effect spreads far and wide. While we may not be the largest industry in Australia, we are still important — we represent our national gemstone!

Opal is so difficult to find, and as a result, no large or even medium-sized company sees mining as viable. We are a unique community that shares a love for a rare gemstone.

Our footprint is minimal with no water or chemicals used to mine. Queensland has 200 mining claims which spread from Kynuna to Cunnamulla – that's more than 1000 kilometres. While we may be small, we are not inconsequential!

Queensland’s Parliamentary Mace weighs 7.7 kilograms and is gold-plated sterling silver. There are 32 Queensland gemstones set in the Mace, including nine opals, two garnets, six amethysts and 15 sapphires.

Every time Mace is presented during a discussion in Parliament and the ‘experts’ begin discussing the issues facing Queensland, all I can do is laugh.

Our national gemstone is right under their noses, and the lack of recognition the industry behind those gemstones receives just dumbfounds me.

I would challenge any Queensland politician to attempt to take up a mining claim and see how they go — to see how far they make it before some bureaucrat tells them ‘no’ for some obscure reason.

Artisanal mining is a unique and wonderful world — and it’s about time the powers that be in Australia treated it as such.

Name: Alison Summerville
Business: QLD Boulder Opal Association
Position: President
Location: Winton, Queensland
Years in the industry: 30+

 

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