We are ready for part two on Opals. In this episode, we head to the south, the southeast of South- Australia! We talk about opal types, miners, markets, and kangaroos. So, grab your breaky (as any Aussie would say) and join us!
Listen to the episode
Brecken: That was hilarious Livy. I called him boo. I said, “You got it boo.” And Livy, our little two year old, goes, “You got it boo!”
Do you need to sneeze? You’re freaking me out with your face. What do you need to do?
Jonathan: So… I hate saying so.
Brecken: I got this, boo.
Hi, it’s Brecken
Jonathan: and Jonathan
Brecken: from Gem Junkies and we’re back!
Jonathan: Welcome to episode three.
Brecken: Australian opal.
Jonathan: Part two of opal
Brecken: part two of the opal series. Last week, we talked about the world of opal. This week we’re gonna delve a little bit further into Australian opal.
We did have a question that came up about opal care.
Jonathan: Yes. opal care, which is a very common question that we didn’t talk about as a durability. And so opal care and durability go hand in hand. And so opal care, one of the first questions that we always get asked is, “Should you oil your opals?” And
Brecken: Please don’t oil your opal.
Jonathan: Do not oil your opals, all oil does is it attaches to the surface of opal. And then it attracts dust and dust is the same hardness as quartz, which is harder than the opal.
Brecken: It’s a seven. Opal’s five and a half to six and a half. You can see where this is going.
Jonathan: It scratches and abrades the surface of your opal and will make it look ugly. So the only time you’d ever store opal in oil as if you were to store it like in a safety deposit box, Loose.
So anytime it’s a finished piece, you shouldn’t store it in anything, but just in air. And then also care of an opal the best way to clean an opal, a piece of opal jewelry is with,
Brecken: Warm, soapy water
Jonathan: and a toothbrush.
Brecken: Yep. Soft, soft bristle toothbrush,
Jonathan: soft bristled toothbrush.
This week has been very busy for us.
Brecken: We are getting ready for the JCK luxury show. It starts next week. So we’ve been busy bees.
Jonathan: Yep. Busy bees, getting everything organized, all of our beautiful pieces finished. And so it’s been very, very busy.
Brecken: Ready for what? Eight hot days in the desert sun.
Jonathan: Something like that.
Brecken: Except we never leave the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
Jonathan: That’s very true. We never get to see the light of day.
Brecken: No, it’s through the big windows.
Jonathan: Okay. Through windows.
Brecken: Yeah. There you go.
Jonathan: We do have one correction. I said last time that there were only two places that black opal was found,
Brecken: Jonathan misspoke,
Jonathan: which was Nevada and Australia. But there are some black opals from Ethiopia that are not died.
Brecken: Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan: So let’s talk first about the different types of opal that come out of Australia. And along with each of those, we can talk about where they come from. So where do you wanna start? You wanna start with your traditional light opal or do you wanna start with black opal?
Where do you wanna start?
Brecken: I wanna start with, black opal.
Jonathan: Okay. The most expensive of all. Black opal is called black opal, not because it’s black, but because the base color is dark versus the base color being light.
Brecken: And why is the base color black?
Jonathan: The base color is dark due to an addition of iron as a trace element. And that’s what gives black opal it’s dark base color. But black opal isn’t just black. It’s a continuum from light opal all the way to black with all the different grays in between.
Brecken: So doesn’t iron also color Mexican? It gives it the orange and red color.
Brecken: And it also colors the black, correct? Oh, Iron is a tricky thing.
Jonathan: Iron is a tricky thing. It’s a lot more iron, which is why it’s black. Maybe if it was less iron, it would be more like Mexican maybe, but it’s also a different formation. Australia is all sedimentary, whereas we talked about Mexican being volcanic. So I think it also has a little bit to do with that.
Brecken: So where does black opal come from?
Jonathan: Black opal comes from Lightning Ridge, Australia.
Brecken: I knew that answer.
Jonathan: Of course you did. And where is Lightning Ridge in Australia?
Brecken: New South Wales.
Jonathan: That’s correct. New South Wales.
Brecken: It is a short airplane ride from Sydney, Australia. What about an eight hour car drive from Sydney?
Jonathan: Yeah, probably something like that.
Brecken: Jonathan and I flew a plane there. I flew a plane there with the assist of a pilot, but
Jonathan: So you rode in a plane to Lightning Ridge?
Brecken: No, he let me fly in the air. I got to kind of tilt the wings and turn the plane. And when we were landing in lightning Ridge, it was the most beautiful epic scene landing a plane in the Outback. There was the cutest little kangaroo that jumped in front of the plane on the landing strip. And I thought this was just the most magical thing. And the pilot, like almost crapped himself, because it could have been really bad if we hit the kangaroo.
Jonathan: Yeah, there was a bunch of kangaroos and wallabies that jump alongside the airplanes as they land and take off. So it’s kind of very picturesque.
Brecken: It is, but also very dangerous. Don’t hit, don’t hit a kangaroo with an airplane.
Jonathan: Or a car.
Brecken: Or a car, both dude. They’re dumb animals.
Jonathan: Yeah. They’re not bright. They’re a lot like deer here.
Brecken: No, but they’re worse than deer because I don’t think deer run towards headlights. I feel like kangaroos do. They just- remember when we were on that island? Phillips Island, they just came out of nowhere. Yeah. And we’re like, “Cars coming. Let’s let’s check it out.”
Jonathan: They’re more curious I think.
Brecken: But they’re so cute.
Jonathan: Very cute. And they are kinda like dogs. Like we went to an animal park there and they would lay down, they’d be laying down sunning themselves and you’d come and scratch their bellies, just like a dog. And they’d, it was they’re pretty cute.
Brecken: Happiest day of my life.
Jonathan: It was pretty, pretty fun.
Brecken: Cuddling with kangaroos and koalas.
Jonathan: Koalas are also quite cuddly.
Brecken: All right. We digress go back to black opal. Jonathan,
Jonathan: What else is there to talk about? So it was first discovered the field in Lightning Ridge was first discovered in 1905 by kangaroo shooters.
Jonathan: So we link right back.
Brecken: So the Ridge full circle.
Jonathan: Yeah. So that’s where the best black opals come from. There are a few black opals that come from other places in Australia, but it’s the primary source.
Brecken: What, Mintabie has blacks or is it Winton?
Jonathan: Yeah. So Mintabie definitely has some black opal as well. And there’s a little bit that comes out of Coober Pedy once in a while as well, but mostly from Lightning Ridge.
Brecken: Okay. One thing I thought was super interesting about Lightning Ridge in general was it’s just full of crazy people.
Jonathan: I mean, you have to be crazy to live in the middle of the desert eight hours from the next major city.
Brecken: But there was this miner who made himself teeth out of opal. Do you remember that? That was insane.
Jonathan: That was pretty cool. He had dentures that were opal dentures. Yeah. I don’t think they’d be very good for eating.
Brecken: No, probably not.
Jonathan: They would break pretty teeth.
Brecken: I don’t know how hard are teeth?
Jonathan: Teeth are pretty hard.
Brecken: Are they?
Jonathan: Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll have to look up. “On the Mohs scale what are teeth?”
Next let’s talk about the more traditional light opal, which is a large, there’s a large area in Australia that you can find light opal everywhere from Andamooka and Coober Pedy, Mintabie, Lambina, which are all in South Australia, north of Adelaide. And then you also get over to like White Cliffs and that way more into New South Wales. It also has light opal.
The bulk of light opal is found in Coober Pedy. And Coober Pedy in Aborigini means,
Brecken: “white man in a hole.”
Jonathan: Right. And that’s what it is. There’s a bunch of holes and the miners actually live underground because the summer temperatures can get so crazy, crazy hot there that nobody wants to live out there.
Brecken: Oddly enough, I have watched a house Hunter’s international, where they were looking. At homes underground in Coober Pedy. It was crazy. He was a miner. There you go. He moved his whole family there. Yeah.
Jonathan: So there’s quite a region that covers light opal, which is the more traditional.
Brecken: And we kind of talked about it last week, but Australia is an ancient seabed. So that’s how a lot of the opal in Australia formed. The silica, rich water percolating down and forming those bands of opal.
Jonathan: So you get a lot of, especially outta Coober Pedy, you get a lot of shell opal as we call it. Which is where the organic material of the shell disintegrates and the opal replaces it. So you get actual sea shells and opal fossils. So that’s something that’s kind of cool.
Brecken: We have belamite tubes, which are the internal structure of a squid that have been opalized that we’ve made little bar necklaces out of.
Jonathan: The Belamites are really cool and very popular right now.
Brecken: We also had the most amazing fivefold clam specimen that Jonathan sold.
Jonathan: I’m good at selling.
Brecken: Broke my heart. It was so beautiful. Did they make that into a piece of jewelry or keep it as a specimen?
Jonathan: Made it into a piece of jewelry. She made it into a beautiful pendant, beautiful.
Brecken: Talking about light opal. We really got heavy in Australian light opal in what, the 70’s or 80’s. Frank went over to Hong Kong to purchase it.
Jonathan: He just didn’t know anyone in Hong Kong, had never been to China. He flew over to Hong Kong, opened up the yellow pages and started going through opal cutters. And that’s how he got into the Australian opal business.
Brecken: I think it’s an interesting story. Why most of the Australian opal was being cut in Hong Kong at the time. They were extremely good at cutting Jade.
Jonathan: Yeah. They were great Jade cutters and had a lot of practice.
Brecken: Jade is mostly cut into cabochons just like opal is. So it made sense that the material would be cut there with the skilled labor that was there.
We talked a lot last week about kind of the Roman views on opal, but we didn’t talk about the Aboriginal Australian views on opal and their stories about it because the English were not the first people to discover opal in Australia. Correct?
Jonathan: Right. The Aboriginals also discovered opal and they have their own stories about opal and how it came about is they believe that the Maker came down to Earth. And where he landed,
Brecken: where he walked, everywhere he walked it turned to opal. There’s also a story that what opals are rainbows trapped in the soil, the Maker threw rainbows down and trapped them in the soil. And, and that’s what opals are.
Jonathan: So one of the, one of the Australian Aboriginal dream time stories as told by June Barker of lightning Ridge,
voice over: In the Aurelia country, the dream time creator came down to earth in a giant rainbow. He gathered together all the tribes and said he would return when he thought they were wise enough to carry out his plan to have peace on earth. On the Stony ridges, where the rainbow had rested, there was a great area of rocks and pebbles. Next morning, when the sun rose and shine his light on that spot, the rocks and pebbles flashed and glittered in the sun, all the color of the rainbow that had given them birth. Red, orange, green, yellow, blue, violet. These were the first opals.
Brecken: So beautiful Jonathan. The Australians love their opal. They’re opal crazy over there.
Jonathan: Opal crazy.
Brecken: So we have talked about black opal where it’s mined, light or white opal and where that is mined. And also there is boulder opal.
Jonathan: Yeah. Boulder opal, which is my favorite. And boulder opal is found in Queensland in quite a large area right in the center of the Great Artesian Basin.
Brecken: And boulder opal is opal that is still connected with its host rock. Its host rock is an ironstone. So it’s a really hard material, and it’s really hard to remove that opal to get a solid band of opal. So you’re left with opal and ironstone.
Jonathan: Right. You have very thin seams of opal and they’re still attached to ironstone, which is like a petrified sandstone. It’s usually brown in color, brown to light brown. And it really helps just like, black opal the color really stand out. So boulder opal has great play of color and really strong, vibrant colors.
Brecken: Yeah. I remember the first time I saw boulder opal, I thought, “What the heck is this stuff?” I don’t even know what this is. And you, when you see, sometimes it’s more of an opal matrix. Which is just very little opal material and mostly a brown stone.
Jonathan: And which also can be interesting. It’s small veins of opal all throughout the ironstone. And so it looks like little lightning bolts, or you could sometimes see pictures in it. So those are much less expensive than with the full opal face, but they make really fun jewelry.
Brecken: Yeah. When that comes from Yowah
Jonathan: and that’s where you have
Brecken: A little like pocket yeah of silica.
Jonathan: A little pocket of opal. And so when it comes out, it comes out looking almost like an egg, or a nut. And then when you crack it, when you cut it apart, it’s got a, just a perfect little round pocket of opal in the center of the brown ironstone. So you call it a Yowah nut.
Brecken: A Yowah nut looks like a little nut that you cracked open, almost like a geode, right? Kinda same idea, but full of opal instead of amethyst or quarts.
My favorite boulder opal material is Koroit as the, Aussie’s say “cr-oye-t.” yeah. It comes from a place called Koroit or “Cuh-row-it” is how we would say it in American English. You see pictures and patterns in the stone. It’s almost like a painting, like an artist took it and painted a picture. It’s really beautiful.
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s awesome.
Brecken: The only word I can say in Aussie English is “bolduh.” “Boulduh” for boulder opal. Oh, I can’t even say opal it’s like,
Jonathan: Yeah, we’re definitely not Aussies.
Brecken: We’re not Aussies. And I practice every time we meet with our suppliers, I always say, “Okay, say boulder for me.” And they’ll say “bolduh.” and so I’ll have to repeat it like 15 times so I can say it until the next time I meet them. “Throw some shrimp on the barbie.” No, I didn’t get it.
Jonathan: Just stop. You’re you’re
Brecken: “I’ll have a tinny.”
Jonathan: I think you’re too California girl for an Aussie accent.
Brecken: Maybe I just can’t get it. I don’t know what it is. They shorten everything though. So my name’s Brecken as most of you know, and growing up, my siblings would call me Brecky and that is the exact word the Australians use for breakfast. “Let’s have some Brecky.”
Jonathan: So the first time we went everywhere, she thought the signs were all,
Brecken: they were all for me!
Jonathan: They were all for you.
Brecken: “Brecky served here.”
Jonathan: She was welcomed in Australia every morning. and the interesting thing about Australia is they set up opal mining to be artisanal forever. And so there isn’t these huge, large mines like there is for like diamonds or for tanzanite, or anything like that is that you only get a small plot.
Brecken: You only get a small claim.
Jonathan: That, that small claim. And so the only times that you really get a whole lot more then that is like, if a bunch of miners get together and work a plot together, but that’s pretty much it. And so they’re all pretty artisanal and small mines. And that’s why you don’t find a lot of opal miners anymore.
Brecken: It’s hard work.
Jonathan: It’s hard work. And corporations can’t go in there and mine the opal. And so it’s kind of a dying breed.
Brecken: Yeah. We, we can’t buy opal from just one person. We don’t have one source of opal. We probably buy our opal from over a hundred different miners.
Jonathan: Probably off and on and over the years, definitely around a hundred. And the majority of it from the Chinese because the Chinese do more buying of opal rough than anyone else, and cutting and all that kind of stuff. So we buy a lot in Hong Kong and China of opal.
Brecken: Most of our boulder is not being cut in Hong Kong. Most of that’s being cut in Australia.
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s the exception is the boulder, which
Brecken: They actually keep a lot of the nicer stones in Australia and cut them in Australia. Especially in boulder. And also I think some of your bigger light and your bigger blacks, and then they send more calibrated, maybe more commercial pieces to be cut in China.
The opal market has changed drastically, I would say in the last 30 years. It used to be extremely profitable to mine, opal, and then it got much harder to do. There was more and more prospecting and not as much material available. And I think in the early two thousand’s, when gold prices went like through the roof, remember during the recession and so did oil. A lot of your opal miners retired or moved to mining gold and oil.
Jonathan: And their kids saw how hard work it was or they didn’t have kids. And so you don’t have really that second and third generation doesn’t exist so much. And so you’re left with not only of it being more difficult to find, because they’re having to go deeper. And most of the easy stuff I think has already been found. But you also just don’t have as many people mining.
Brecken: When we were in Lightning Ridge, there was an opal mine that I, I would not go in. I stayed up with the kangaroos.
Jonathan: It wasn’t scary.
Brecken: It was! So I am one: extremely afraid of Heights and it is just like a pit. How many yards or feet would you say Jonathan, down to the bottom of that pit?
Jonathan: I think it was like 20 to 30 meters, which is three feet, three inches per meter.
Brecken: So 60, 70. I’m gonna round up and say a hundred feet down into this hole.
Jonathan: Yeah. And there’s no ocean in Australia. So it’s like, you’ve got like this metal culvert. So like a metal pipe that is at the top of the thing. And then they had these sections, like six foot sections of swinging ladders. So they weren’t like strapped together.
Brecken: No, they were all joint. And just like, hang like. Picture metal clothes hangers just dangling off of each other. And that’s what you’re climbing down.
Jonathan: And no ropes, no gear.
Brecken: No. You had a hard hat though.
Jonathan: Yeah. Hard hat. So if you fell,
Brecken: I wasn’t going down the hole. So I just stayed up there all by myself. It was really peaceful. I had a moment in the Outback.
Jonathan: It was, it was pretty cool though. Underneath us they showed us around and showed us where, you know, they had taken this much out of this part of the mine and that much out of that. And this was a major find. And then showed us how they worked the mine with, you know, small equipment underground. And then they have like a bucket that pulls it back up to the surface.
Brecken: They had all these timber logs right. Holding up the ceiling. I didn’t go down, but I saw amazing pictures.
Jonathan: So they have all these just big timbers that were, that hold up the ceiling and keep the mine from collapsing in.
Brecken: Good thing. And they prospect by drilling holes everywhere. So they’ll just kind of go in to an area that they think might have opal and they’ll just drill down and take a core sample out, look at the core sample and see how much material is actually there. And if it’s worth digging a hole and actually mining that material out.
That was almost as bad as the drunk Brazilian guy.
Jonathan: No, the drunk Brazilian guy was way worse. Drunker. I didn’t even go down that line because they told me I could rip my feet off. So the emerald mines in Brazil are much scarier than the Australian opal mines.
And we did talk a little bit about opal triplets from Idaho, but there’s also a lot of opal doublets and triplets out of Australia. Sometimes the seams of opal are too thin to make solids. And so that’s when you take the thin piece of opal and you glue it together with ironstone and that makes your opal doublets. Or when you add a glass, or quartz, or a Sapphire top, that’s when you get a triplet.
Brecken: We do a lot in opal doublet. It’s become a really popular stone for designers to work with.
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s a great, it’s definitely the best bang for your buck in opal is opal doublet, you get so much more color and so much more vibrancy.
Brecken: It gives you almost the, it gives you the color of a black opal, really. That’s because it gives you that really dark base behind the light opal and it really makes the stones pop and you can get a pretty large size of it for not very much money. A few hundred dollars a carat where your finest black would be. Thousands and thousands of dollars a carat. I think the most expensive black opal I saw was $200,000 for the stone. Yeah, there was, and it was red pattern with Harlequin, like your picture-perfect black opal.
Jonathan: But there’s definitely even more expensive ones than that.
Brecken: I’m sure. Yeah. stones with a little more provenance. Bigger stones.
Jonathan: Bigger. Yeah. And that’s the thing about opal is that, you know, you can, they come from tiny, tiny to very, very large. I mean, we’ve seen ones as, you know, as big as my arm, especially in Boulder opal, and then, you know, in light opal, I’ve seen as big as my fist. And so all solid light opals, that’s kind of a cool thing about opal is you do get some very large pieces.
Brecken: A little bit showier than your other gemstones. Cause you can’t, I mean, what’s the biggest Sapphire you could get. I mean, you can get like 20, 30, 40 carat stones, but they’re not as big as like a hundred carat opal and you can find a hundred carat opals out there fairly easily compared to a 40 carat Sapphire.
Brecken: All right. I think this wraps up our opal series.
Jonathan: Yep. Our two part opal series.
Brecken: If you have any more questions on opal, give us a shout out at [email protected] and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.
Jonathan: So, what are we gonna talk about next week?
Jonathan: Ruby the King of all gemstones.
Brecken: The King of gemstones! We’re leaving the queen and going to the king.
Jonathan: Yeah, go to the king first. And so we’ll be talking about Ruby. So if you have any questions about Ruby, feel free to leave a comment or shoot us an email. And let us know your questions ahead of time, or if there’s any other topics that you want to hear, definitely let us know so that we can put those on plan.
Brecken: We can plan into the future. I think we’re also planning on doing one in Vegas.
Jonathan: Yeah. We’ll definitely do a recording in Vegas. And so that will be not next week, but the week after we’ll be releasing the one that we do in Vegas.
Brecken: It’s just a party.
Jonathan: It’s just a party.
Brecken: It’s just a bunch of jewelers getting together, having a laugh.
Jonathan: Thank you for listening to our third episode of Gem Junkies.
Brecken: Gem-Gem-Gem Junkies!
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Jonathan: Anything you put on there, she records. It has a chance of getting on the air. It does after last week, anything can be on there.
Brecken: Anything goes.