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Northern Regional Development Board
Northern Regional Development Board
$1 million opal hat image courtesy Australian Opal Exhibition
$1 million opal hat image courtesy Australian Opal Exhibition


Outback opals

Long seen as just a tourist gem, Australia's national gemstone is shaking off past stigmas to be embraced by a new generation. CARLA CARUSO reports.

From dusty, remote parts of Australia comes the opal, Australia's national gemstone. The multi-coloured gem is an icon of the outback. Indeed, 95 per cent of the world's opal is produced here.

Opal fields lie in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, with black opal found in the New South Wales town of Lightning Ridge, Boulder opal in Queensland and white opal mainly from South Australia.

Federal Government agency Austrade estimates current Australian production figures for uncut opals between $100 million and $200 million.

Yet, while the US, Japan and much of Europe enjoys the stone, few Australians would have opal designs in their jewellery boxes.

Lightning Ridge opal expert, gemmologist and valuer Michelle Schellnegger says past stigmas have been hard to shake, but it is slowly happening: "There used to be a lot of discount, souvenir-style tourist stores with opal, which may have tended to cheapen it in some people's mind. But, today's retail outlets are offering more variety and quality opal jewellery. There are still the classic and conservative styles of opal jewellery available, but we are seeing more contemporary designs as well."

The small-scale nature of the industry also means things have been slow-moving, according to Maxine O'Brien, the coordinator of the trade-only Australian Opal Exhibition, and the secretary-manager of the Lightning Ridge Miners Association. "As far as the Australian domestic market goes, we're a fairly small industry," O'Brien says. "There's not a lot of promotion for the end consumer."

Plus, Australia's opal industry is struggling to keep pace with the resources boom, with opal miners being drawn into more lucrative mining jobs, says Andrew Cody, the company director of opal exporter Cody Opal and president of the International Coloured Gemstone Association (ICA).

There are other challenges, too, he adds: "The opal industry is suffering quite dramatically from the state of the American economy due to the Australian dollar being so high. As well, the value of the Japanese yen has fallen. Tourism is well down and, unfortunately, it's going to get worse with the rising cost of fuel. Australia is on the worst side of it, because we're further away. It's never been quite this difficult."

Contrary to the doom and gloom, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Challenges have forced the opal industry to look "out of the box", and investigate new types of customers and emerging markets, such as China and Russia.

The ICA has organised its first dedicated coloured gemstone trade fair in October in Dubai, another promising new market.

Innovation in design, such as using sterling silver and inlays - layering fine opal in another metal - for more affordable options, is also helping to attract younger clientele at home.

And, it's working well for Sydney-based Opals Australia, according to national accounts manager Clayton Peer.

"In collaboration with a Sydney based designer, we have developed a sterling silver collection, titled the Phoenix Range," Peer says. "This range is targeted towards consumers who are price-conscious and looking for cutting-edge designs, refined finishes and quality opal at an affordable price. Our silver products are targeted towards younger consumers, aged from 18 to 35 years old."

Opals Australia is also promoting a branded image in the marketplace, using branded stands and signage, so consumers associate with its "OA" label, rather than just with the opals themselves.

"We are currently seeing a positive growth in the Australian domestic market," Peer says. "Our branded range is having great success throughout Australia."

Also emerging is a focus on design. Adelaide boutique jewellery house iOpal uses cutting-edge, one-off designs for its "discerning clients", teaming opal with everything from African fluorite beads to Argyle diamonds.

Schellnegger says she has noticed the change: "Conventionally, most black opal has been cut into an oval shape, with a cabochon, but there has been much more emphasis on freeform or designer pieces. In the last 10 years, there has been an increase in non-conventional shapes."

Such innovation has been on show at the International Opal Design Jewellery Awards, held in Lightning Ridge every two years, of which Schellnegger has been a judge.

Other recent events upping the design factor include the National Opal Miners Association's (NOMA) Opal Fashion Bash in Townsville in April, which saw Miss Universe Australia contestants strutting down the catwalk in opal jewellery, and the Australian Opal Exhibition on the Gold Coast in July, where the gem collided with fashion and art to create the million-dollar opal hat that was on display (see page 39).

NOMA president Drago Panich puts it simply: "The youth is our future and the greater number of young and dynamic people we can directly expose to our national gemstone, the brighter the future will be for the opal industry."

Sunshine Coast retailer Opals Down Under has also been attracting the young market with its new Slider bead range.

"We have released beads in our new Sliders range, which sees opals shaped into doughnuts, with a silver sleeve inserted through the hole," explains manager and opal cutter Scott Coggan. "This allows the beads to not only be worn as pendants but, depending on the diameter of the hole, also be used on European-style bracelets, such as Pandora, Trollbeads and Chamilia."

Opals Down Under advertising and internet coordinator Rhys Fox says the store has also had a surge in enquiries for opal engagement rings in recent months among young couples.

"I think couples are wanting something different to diamonds and a good amount of these customers are actually having the rings hand-made for a completely one-off approach, which is fantastic," Fox says.

For such a request, strong Queensland Boulder opals are recommended with a bezel or rub-over setting - as opposed to a claw setting - to protect the stone.

Schellnegger says there are other developments in the works, each helping the opal's cause: "Two consecutive Qantas issues recently featured stories on Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge, plus, the JCK magazine in the US did an opal feature recently; the more that it is out there, the more that people will consider it."

International Opal Jewellery Design Awards 2007
International Opal Jewellery Design Awards 2007

Jewellery Decisions gemmologist and trainer Sarah Gambi, who has worked internationally for names like Cartier, Bulgari and Rolex agrees: "More marketing and more involvement with the big high-fashion firms, such as Tiffany and Co and Cartier, will help to get opal out of the duty-free zone and into the high-market luxury brands."

Though some opal experts argue the "Duty Free" perception of opal jewellery is an exclusively Australian phenomena and that this perception does not exist globally.

"The relative rarity of opal makes it highly sort after in the global market, albeit, still as a niche product," says Ben Morrow, director, Opals Australia.

Cody believes that sometimes Australians need to see something work well overseas before they'll consider it here.

"An interesting example was that we had somebody show us an opal jewellery design in a magazine from New York," he said. "She asked if we could do something like that here. She had to see it in New York to appreciate it."

The opal industry has certainly had its challenges in recent times, from a tourism downturn to the poaching of promising talent by other industries, yet despite it all, Australia's national gemstone is rising to the task by looking to new markets and clientele, and changing its approach.

With the right amount of foresight and innovation, the outback stone can only shine brighter, abroad and closer to home.


Discovering opal: some facts and figures

The name opal comes from the Greek word opallios, which means to see a change in colour.

When rotated, the gem can show off an ever-changing interplay of fiery colours. Each opal is one-of-a-kind and the different varieties offer a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes for the customer.

Black opals are the rarest and most valuable of the stones. The world's most valuable black opal, the Aurora Australis, was found at New South Wales' Lightning Ridge in 1938 and is valued at $1 million. It weighs 180 carats and sparkles with red, green and blue against a black backdrop.

Black opal recently became the official gemstone of New South Wales.

Opal is largely made up of a variety of natural silica found in the earth and is mainly mined using open-cut and the traditional shaft and tunnelling method.

There are three major mining areas in Australia, each producing a different variety of the stone: Coober Pedy in South Australia; Lightning Ridge in New South Wales; and central Queensland.

Coober Pedy is home to the white opal, which is sometimes referred to as the milk opal. White opals can be differentiated by their pale white or light body tone. They're much more plentiful and common than any other kind of opal and generally display less vibrant colours. Although, as some of these light opals tend to be more transparent, a brilliant colour play may ensue.

Nearby towns Mintabie and Andamooka also have the gem.

Black opal, recently named the official gemstone of New South Wales by the NSW Government, is found in the town of Lightning Ridge. The stone has an underlying dark background hue, which gives the colour a greater intensity; however, the word "black" doesn't refer to the face of the opal just to its background - and its precious colours come in a rainbow of hues.

Boulder opal is found all over central Queensland, including such areas as Quilpie, Winton and Opalton. It is often found as a thin veneer of opal of vibrant colours naturally covering the surface of the ironstone rock that is unique to Queensland. Sometimes it is found as very colourful pinpoints in a matrix - or the fine-grained portion of rock, where coarser minerals or rock fragments are embedded.

German geologist Johannes Menge made the first Australian opal discovery in 1849 in Angaston, South Australia. Consequently, the Queensland Boulder Opal and Lightning Ridge fields attracted many miners during the 1880s. Opal production later became a commercially viable industry. Production began at White Cliffs, NSW in 1890, from Opalton, Queensland, in 1896, and at Lightning Ridge, NSW in 1905.

Many written accounts of early opal discoveries suggest that most were accidental - an opal-bearing rock, kicked-up by a galloping horse, a shimmering stone, swishing around in a shallow creek.

When Australian opals appeared on the world market during the 1890's, the Hungarian mines in which opal had been discovered before, perpetuated the notion that Australian opal was not genuine. Perhaps this was because the Australian gems had a fire not seen in overseas specimens.

Indeed, by 1932, the Eastern European opals were unable to compete with Australian opals and ceased many overseas mines stopped production. This is how Australia won the title of premier opal producer of the world.

There is a uniqueness about Australian opal. Most of the production is from sedimentary rocks and there are no such deposits anywhere else in the world, according to Anthony Smallwood, opal research scientist and lecturer.

Jewellery Decisions gemmologist and trainer Sarah Gambi says Australian opals are high in quality: "You need three things to judge a good opal - the background, the pattern and the colour - and Australia had all three."

Others believe it's hard to judge a good opal on three factors only. Smallwood says the vibrancy of the colours and patterns of Australian opals are outstanding: "Really good opals have this vibrancy and 'zing' about the colours that often just leap out at you," he says.

One stigma that has plagued the opal over the years is that it is considered bad luck by some. Sunshine Coast retailer Opals Down Under is quick to dispel the myths on its website: "The 'bad luck' myth is the result of centuries of misinformation, superstition, wives' tales and jealous diamond traders spreading rumours. Opal has also been considered a good luck talisman and lucky charm throughout the ages and has been prized by many civilisations."

It certainly hasn't stopped overseas customers and celebrities enjoying the stone - US media mogul Ted Turner famously gave actress Jane Fonda a massive black opal engagement ring, and there have been many others. Gambi also says: "The Japanese love this stone. For them, it is said to bring good luck."

Opal is the traditional birthstone of October.

Image Gallery (4 Images)
Carla Caruso • Journalist
Carla Caruso has been a jewellery junkie for as long as she can remember, has covered the Vicenza gold fair in Italy and one day hopes to pen a novel about all that glitters. She has been a freelance contributor to Jeweller since 2005.
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