Black Opal of this quality, to put it mildly, is ‘exceptionally rare’. This is what all opal miners dream of finding. black opal of this quality in a stone as large as this is simply unbelievable. This gem was found many years ago and is currently for sale BUT you will need a wheelbarrow full of money. It is probably the most beautiful gemstone I have ever held. It weighs in at an astonishing 306 carats!
Opal has been described as natures kaleidoscope, an individual expression of nature’s beauty, rainbows of perfection. Each opal is totally unique.
Some writings mention that the first recorded opal artifacts dating back to about 4000 B.C. were found by anthropologist Louis Leakey in a cave in Kenya. However others dispute this saying the beads in question were actually chalcedony, quartz and other ornamental stones. Perhaps the biggest argument that should have steered him away from thinking they were opal is that all the buried remains had been cremated so there would be little chance the hydrous precious opal would have survived.
The Roman writer Pliny tells of a magnificent opal belonging to Roman senator Nonius in 50 B.C. that Mark Anthony tried to acquire for Cleopatra. However the term the Romans used, “opalus,” could have been misinterpreted. For example it has been suggested that irised rock crystal, that is one in which there is a crack that displays Newton’s rings of color, is the stone which the Romans called opalus
In the old world Hungary was the main source of opal for Europe. Historians also argue here, on when opal mining actually commenced as a lot of old writings only lead to conjecture.
The opal mines in Dubnik (One of more than twenty opal deposits) were most likely the first opal mines in the world to deliver opal to the world market. They were specifically mentioned for the first time in 1597 when Emperor Rudolf 11 issued a mining license for the deposit.
Mexico, Peru and Honduras supplied their own native empires.
Australian Opal was first discovered in 1840 in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia by Johann Menge. Soon opal deposits of incredible quality and quantity followed.
The first of these was in 1869 on Listowel Downs in Western Queensland. It was these first discoveries that enabled early entrepreneurs such as Tullie Wollaston to successfully market the gem and establish the Australian opal industry.
And the stories began. Million dollar pockets, Stones of such exquisite beauty that the finders could not bare to part with them, Fortunes made and lost, Claim jumpers, Opal fever. Even the names exude a passion. Names such as Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy.
Mines like Hayricks, Lunatic Hill, Red Show. All are apart of Australian opal’s romantic evolution.
Opal mining attracts a diversity of human characters often as colorful as the stone itself and they have one thing in common, ‘passion’. The thrill of finding precious opal is the driving force for these opal hunters. Born with an optimistic streak, the belief that they will have a lucky strike and the ability to work hard under the most adverse conditions is a common thread. Anyone lucky enough to dig out their own beautiful opal will remember that moment forever. I get goose bumps every time I think of my first large pocket of semi black opal I dug out at Mintabie Opal Fields in South Australia.
After the find comes the joy of turning the rough opal into a true opal gemstone. With every opal unique, it is a pleasure to cut and reveal its inner beauty. Be it Lightning Ridge, Andamooka, Coober Pedy, Mintabie or one of the many Boulder Opal mines the end result will be a beautiful Australian Opal.
Once the gem opal is cut a design that suits the flowing colours and patterns has to be designed. The finished piece is a beautiful unique piece of Australian Opal jewellery.
Although this website will contain some information gleamed from historical sources and from books written about opal our aim is to give first hand information from our many years mining opal, cutting opal and dealing opal. Perhaps the information will be different to most opal sites but I am sure that most opal lovers would like to read a new perspective.
I plan to write sections on mining opal, classing opal, cutting opal, how to buy and select an opal, Hints for designing opal jewellery and many interesting stories related to opal.
For anyone interested in the history of opal mining in Australia you can’t go past the many books written by Len Cram of Lightning Ridge (P.O.Box 2, Lightning Ridge, N.S.W.2834)
An excellent small introduction to opal has been written by Fred Ward. It is simply called Opals.
Black opal is the most majestic of all opal. The best Black Opals are truly striking, the rarest and the most valuable. I believe their beauty far exceeds all other gemstones.
The term “Black Opal” often confuses people. We get customers thinking that black opal is exactly that….black….with no other colour. We also get asked often, for a black opal triplet or a black opal doublet.
What is Black Opal?
Black opal is firstly a solid stone. It consists of nothing but opal.
The background tone is very dark or black. The colours dance on top or come out of this dark base. It does not matter what colour is displayed; the important thing is the background ‘tone’ of the opal is dark.
There are a lot of opals that could be termed semi black because the background tone is exactly that. Most opal stores simply place them under the one banner, and that in part, has led to this confusion. This is probably because Black Opal with a truly black background tone is incredibly rare and opal merchants would then have little “Black Opal” to offer.
I believe that opal with a very dark background tone (50% or more on the tonal scale) should fall into the classification of Black Opal. This then means opal businesses can offer a range of Black Opal in all price ranges to their customers. A line has to be drawn in the sand and I have drawn it for our business.
Not all Black Opal is expensive and this also seems to cause some confusion.
To be valuable and expensive black opal has to not only have a dark background but it must have a lot of colour with a good play of colour. If for example, an opal has a very dark background and only a small amount of blue then it will be inexpensive.
As the colours go up the rainbow (from violet to red) they generally become rarer and hence more expensive if on a dark base. Adding to this is when two or more colours are present, and exhibiting a pleasing colour ‘play’. If the back ground colour is semi-black then the opal will be less expensive. With so many countless combinations you can begin to see why black opal varies from inexpensive to down right mind boggling.
What black opal to buy?
If you have decided that you want to purchase a black opal here is my advice.
1/ Buy from a reputable business that has been around successfully for some time. Better still, if they have been involved in mining and cutting. That demonstrates a love and a passion for the stone.
2/ Decide how much you want to spend
3/ Decide if you want a set stone or an unset stone
4/ Look at those pieces in your price range
5/ Buy the opal that you are attracted to and NOT the opal that is the rarest or the business says is the best. (You can be guided but buy from the heart).
I often get asked “What is the best opal to buy?” I always answer “The opal you like the best, for that opal will give you the most pleasure!”
Lightning Ridge in northern N.S.W. is the home of Australian Black Opal. Since 1902 it has produced the bulk of the worlds supply.
Lightning Ridge is not the only source of Australian Black Opal.
Black Opal has been found in small quantities at most of the major opal mining centers such as White Cliffs, Coober Pedy, Mintabie and Andamooka.
Mintabie at its peak produced significant quantities of magnificent gem black opal. In the 1980’s I worked several mines on the Old Field and at Crystal Valley that produced pockets of gem black opal (see pictures). In fact I still have some of this material that I am cutting from time to time. Some of our black opals for sale are from Mintabie. In the 1980’s I knew several Mintabie miners that took parcels of cut black opal to Lightning Ridge to sell because they believed they were getting a better price selling it as Lightning Ridge opal.
The location of all our black opal is proudly disclosed. To me, if it is a beautiful opal then it is a beautiful opal….end of story
The darkness of a doublet or triplet is due to the black back the opal is glued to so they cannot be called a black opal triplet or black opal doublet! The same goes for opal inlay jewellery!
This tray contains a mixture of black opals from Lightning Ridge and Mintabie opal fields. Click on the image for a larger picture
More black opals from Lightning Ridge and Mintabie opal fields. Please click on the image for a larger picture.
Mintabie opal field is located 280 kilometers north of Coober Pedy. It is 35 kilometers west of Marla.
I went to Mintabie in 1980. It changed the direction of my life and you are reading this now as a direct result of that first trip. Whenever I see a picture of Mintabie my pulse races a little. I can smell the fumes of burning explosive fuse and recall the vivid colour of the opal and the excitement I felt when digging out the pockets of opal I found there. I recall the drone of generators at night, the sound of multiple bulldozers by day interspersed with the detonation of explosives……..dreams are made of the stuff!
Around 1920 a well digger by the name of Larry O’Toole is attributed with finding the first opal at Mintabie. However, aborigines were selling a semi black type of opal at Coober Pedy that was obviously not from Coober Pedy. It most likely was Mintabie opal.
Opal miners seem to have discovered the Mintabie opal fields some time just after world war one. Because of the extremely harsh conditions and lack of water not much mining was done until heavy machinery was bought in later on. The sandstone at Mintabie opal fields is very hard (much harder than Coober Pedy) and the upper level the early opal miners worked was extremely difficult to mine with old fashion hand mining and discouragement would have come easy.
In the late 1970’s a Croatian miner named Milan started a major rush to Mintabie by finding a huge pocket of opal on the escarpment. Following Milan were opal miners such as Yakka, Sarge, Drago, Stan, Joe, Tony, Ned, Ted, Russian Spy, Bruno and so many more pioneer opal miners of the era. Combined, they were responsible for the development of one of Australia’s major opal fields. During the 1980’s the Mintabie opal fields were the biggest producer of opal in terms of value. In fact there were several years when it produced more opal then all the other opal fields put together.
And yet a lot of people had never heard of it. I know in the early days a lot of opal miners sold their opal as either Coober Pedy opal or Lightning Ridge opal depending on the type of opal. They would take their rough around the country trying to sell it to whoever they could and often they found resistance from the buyer if they mentioned an opal field the opal buyer was not familiar with. I believe in the early days Mintabie opal field did not get the credit for the quality of some of this early opal that it rightly deserved!
Most mining at the Mintabie opal fields was done by heavy bulldozers (Catepillar D9’s and similar). The claim size was 50 meter square and the average depth was around 20 meters. Many went as deep as 40 meters. I know of one claim on the old field that went to 101 feet in the corner before green dirt was reached signifying the end of the opal bearing ground. At the peak there were around 70 bulldozers working and Mintabie opal field held the distinction of the highest per capita use of diesel of any town in Australia.
Mintabie opal has a unique advantage over opal from other fields. It is the hardest of all Australian opal. Perhaps this is because the host rock is older (Ordovician) than the host rock of other opal fields (Cretaceous). Perhaps it is because of the harder and more compact host sandstone. In any case it means a more robust opal that resists scratching a little more then other opals.
How many more years before another Mintabie opal field is found? No one knows. I have been incredibly fortunate to have played a small part in Mintabie opal field’s history and those years I spent there are imprinted permanently in my life.
To all involved in the opal industry perhaps the most important person in the evolution of the industry was Tullie Wollaston. Through his pioneering efforts Australian opal was introduced to the world stage.
He was born on the 17th May in 1863 on the family property, Lake Hamilton, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
Wollaston dealt in other gemstones but opal was his favorite. In 1890 he successfully marketed Queensland opal. The same year he marketed White Cliffs opal. In 1903 he dealt with Lightning Ridge opal and in 1915 Coober Pedy Opal..
I am amazed at Wollaston’s toughness and his resolve. During his long and arduous trips to the outback opal fields he endured the most extreme conditions. He kept a diary with entries that show his strength of character.
Kyabra Hills is an opal mining area in south western Queensland not far from where my Rainbow Mine was. I spent several years mining there. I prospected and visited a lot of the areas mentioned in Wollaston’s diary.
It is a long way from anywhere and Wollaston’s first trip to buy opal from Joe Bridle, as documented in his diary, is truly gritty.
He left Adelaide in November 1888 in one of the hottest summers ever (He noted the “temperature 111 degrees”.) One of his co adventurers, Herbert Buttfield, later perished from the harse conditions not that many kilometers from Rainbow.
Selected tip-bits from the diary of this trip read:
“Hergott Springs, red clay pan, treeless and grassless, stock dying everywhere.”
“December 14th- Innaminka at last. Only 23 days after leaving Adelaide, and it seems 23 years!”
December 19th “St John, my riding camel, fell with me three times today. Reached waterhole 7pm, tired out aching limbs and sore throat.
December 23rd “Same old conditions; sore footed camel: walked ten miles on foot. Mirages wonderful to-day; unbelievable till seen. The hours drag out so interminably we dare not look at our watches.”
December 27th “Heat awful. Self and beast utterly exhausted on reaching Tanbar at 9.30 pm.”
“I shall, as long as I live, remember that blood-red sun sinking over the blackening desert, that sickening hot wind, the smell of smoking clay and burnt stones, and the sickening sense of despair.”
He arrived at Joe Bridle’s camp on the 9th January 1889, covering 700 miles in seven weeks.
He had not seen Bridle for two years and it is not known if he actually purchased any opal from him. He does record, however, opal he purchased from the Breakfast Creek field. “Sixty one pieces of Breakfast Creek stone from Charlie Whitehead for twenty seven pound. It was small stuff but very brilliant, and the dancing lights pricked my hands in a delicious way.”
This last entry, to me, shows that Wollaston had opal fever. He obviously felt the magic that emanates from good quality opal. The lengths he went to, to acquire such gems, would have heightened his appreciation of it
Eight days after returning to Adelaide he was aboard the S.S. Sydney, bound for London with his wife and baby and a bag full of opal rough.
In London he was deeply disappointed to discover the gem dealers wanted nothing to do with Australian opal. Finally he found Hasluck Bros., of 104 Hatten Garden who were eager to give this new Australian opal a chance. So, at last, Australian opal was soon to find acceptance on to the world market place.
Wollaston’s life was one of adventure, excitement and he must have had an intense passion for opal. It must be remembered that at this time only the very best opal found its way on to the market place so he must have held some exquisite opal.
A much more detailed and absolutely fascinating account of Wollaston’s part and influence in the opal industry can be read in Len Cram’s book ‘A Journey with Colour’ Volume 1
This page features random photographs taken over the years. Some are mining pictures whilst others are just nice pictures taken along the journey. Click on the image for a full size picture.