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Giving Australia’s national gemstone the respect it deserves

For too long, stubborn myths have plagued the Australian opal market – unfashionable, cheap, too fragile – and it’s now time to set the record straight, writes DAMIEN CODY.

COVID-19 has adversely impacted many businesses across a broad range of industries, and one of them is very close to home – opal retail.

The retailing of opal products is largely built around a model which relies very heavily on international tourists; indeed, for most businesses upwards of 90 per cent of the customer mix is overseas visitors. As a result, many are positioned in high- cost CBD tourism precincts.

Yet with borders currently closed to foreign visitors, a significant number of opal retailers have either not survived or are now on their knees – and when the financial lifelines of JobKeeper and rental assistance are withdrawn, many more could falter.

This situation has highlighted a sad fact: the vast majority of Australians show little interest in opal. But why do Australians hold their national gemstone in low regard?

Could it be that the old superstitions about opals bringing bad luck are persisting? This bad-luck myth was promoted by the diamond industry who, in the 1920s, were worried about competition from the new opal finds in Australia.

More Australians should be aware of the unique and colourful story opal has to tell, so that its true value can be appreciated

Surely in the 21st Century we can now dispense with these ridiculous notions!

European opal was adored in Roman times and sought-after as a talisman for good fortune and improved eyesight. Today, there are many cultures globally that believe opal brings good fortune.

Maybe there are some who worry that opal is fragile. However, the reality is that it has a hardness of around 6.5 on Mohs’ scale.

Treasure it, wear it with care, and it will last for a lifetime – and beyond. If you can look after an emerald, you can look after an opal!

There might be some who feel that opal is unfashionable, or that it is something that their grandmother would wear. Maybe they have been put off by the poorly designed and cheap opal trinket jewellery typically made with low-grade triplets or even synthetics.

Yet, the world’s most prestigious jewellery houses – Tiffany & Co., Dior, Cartier, JAR, David Morris, Chopard, and many more – feature Australian opal in their designs.

As a consequence, the very best of Australian opal is snapped up by overseas markets. Australian opal enjoys a lofty position as one of the most sought-after gemstones alongside the heavyweight trio of ruby, emerald and sapphire. Yet at home it still suffers from a lack of cohesive marketing and government support, and as a result it is sold at a comparatively low price for its rarity and beauty.

More Australians should be aware of the unique and colourful story opal has to tell, so that its true value can be appreciated.

Firstly, Australian opal is very distinctive and is in a league of its own when compared with opal from other sources.

Secondly, a 2019 study published in InColor, the journal of the International Color Gemstone Association (ICA), found that “consumers buying Australian opal can do so with the assurance that the gemstone they are buying is an ethical gemstone. The industry is an exemplar for many gemstone-mining activities around the globe.”

Indeed, the industry is made up entirely of small business and family enterprises, as big business has not been prepared to endure the speculative nature of production.

Another unique selling point is that solid Australian opals are one of the few gemstones that are always untreated, as they cannot be improved by any method.

A curious fact is that, on occasion, the fossilised remains of dinosaurs who lived 65 million years ago were later preserved by being naturally ‘opalised’ – Australia is the only place on the planet where this occurs.

Opal was revered by our indigenous people, who recount its virtues and wonders through Dreamtime stories which have been passed on for thousands of years.

The early explorers of the vast interior of the continent, travelling atop horses and camels, were the first white people to see this phenomenal gemstone and excite the world with the discovery.

In the following 140 years, opal has been mined by enterprising folk in our harsh Outback, and miners today still endure tough conditions and fickle yields to bring this magical stone to the surface – where, after tens of millions of years, it captures daylight for the first time and provides its colourful and extroverted display.

It is high time that jewellery retailers in Australia re-discovered this magical gemstone and became ambassadors for Australian opal.

This Aussie icon deserves the support of the Australian jewellery industry.

Name: Damien Cody
Company: Cody Opal Australia
Position: Director
Location: Melbourne, VIC
Years in Industry: 23

 

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