The opal is unlike other gemstones in that each stone is unique in form. That often strikingly brilliant individual colour and pattern has been a big part of the opal’s appeal through the ages. In antiquity the opal was also a symbol of good fortune, believed to have mystical powers. The opal’s place in ancient society is also well documented. Pliny the Elder recorded the story of the Roman senator Nonius, who chose to flee into exile when pressured by Mark Antony to sell his prized possession. The general coveted the precious opal, seeking it as a gift for Cleopatra.
The opals of ancient Rome came from fields in modern-day Slovakia, and much later new fields were discovered in the Americas. But Australia came to dominate the global market for opals, both in quantity and in quality.
To the Aboriginal people of the outback the opal has an important spiritual value, and a number of myths and legends surround the gemstone. There is the belief that the opal represents the ancestors, something they left behind to mark their presence. Another story has the Creator putting the colours of the rainbow into stone to produce the opal.
With European exploration and then settlement of the outback came the realisation of a precious resource just waiting to be harvested. The first gemstones were found in South Australia in 1849, but it would be nearly forty years before an opal industry operated as such.
By the 19th century the opal had gone through a period when it was somewhat out of favour, as superstition had associated it with the Black Death and the downfall of kings. Later as the negative myths subsided the opal became fashionable once more amongst the elite of Europe. Queen Victoria adored the stone, and the market for it grew.
The Opal Fields of Queensland
Early opal history in Queensland typifies the transition in demand for the stone on world markets of the time. High yielding fields were first discovered around Thargomindah in 1873, but at the time there was no ready commercial outlet for Australian opals. Credit is given to a young entrepreneur named Tully Wollaston, who set about convincing the gem merchants that Queensland opals presented a huge commercial opportunity. Some 16 years later the industry became established in southwest Queensland, where vast areas of land were to go on producing some of the highest quality opals.
The New South Wales Outback Yields Opals
Australia’s first commercial opal mining operation was in fact at White Cliffs, a field some 300km northeast of Broken Hill in New South Wales. The area’s high quality opals were first extracted in 1889 for sale on the European market, where they proved a sensation. By the nature of their geology, opals lie near the surface. At White Cliffs the pickings were easy, even if the living conditions in that isolated and arid place were not. By 1914 the fields were largely depleted, and with the loss of markets in the aftermath of war and the subsequent world depression, White Cliffs never recovered as a commercial field.
While White Cliffs yielded a ‘light’ opal with an array of vivid colours, New South Wales’ other famous field produced a different stone. Lightning Ridge, 770km northwest of Sydney, became famous for its black opal. Also first discovered in the late 1880’s the Lightning Ridge field took longer to become established because the black opal was not initially appreciated. But when its commercial value was finally realised, the Lightning Ridge opal became highly sought after. While most black opals are retrieved at depths of up to 18 metres, some Lightning Ridge mine shafts are as deep as 30 metres below the surface.
Coober Pedy and Opals in South Australia
The self-proclaimed Opal Capital of The World is Coober Pedy in northern South Australia. It’s a barren place where the inhabitants took to living underground to cope with the extreme daytime heat and freezing nights. In 1915 opals were discovered at Coober Pedy, and it soon became Australia’s biggest producer of the gemstone.
Most opals mined in South Australia are the lighter variety, but there are also some black opals to be found there. The first people to exploit them were the local Aborigines of Mintabie, who after starting to work their field following World War I were able to keep their find a secret for some years before the heavy machinery came in. Some of the very finest Australian opals were discovered there in 1930, beautiful stones ranging from top quality light opals through to some rare dark stones.
While Andamooka was the last large commercial opal field found, there is still plenty of interest in the hunt for Australian opals. Wherever commercial opal mining has taken place, the tourism industry has grown around it. There is always the chance of a precious opal find, whether it be by fossicking or ‘noodling’ as the locals call it, or by making the commitment required to take opal mining seriously. There are still opportunities to take up the hunt for the gemstones out there, provided prospectors bring with them all the determination and resilience needed.