ETHIOPIAN OPAL UPDATE (A soapbox opinion)
Should the Australian Opal industry be worried about the influx of Ethiopian Opal onto the world market?
I believe many in our industry are blissfully running their businesses along the same lines they have always been without any knowledge or interest in what is happening on the world stage. Their heads cemented firmly in the sand. Perhaps they should take notice because the “times may be changing.”
At the Tucson trade show in 2010 opal from the Welo Province in Ethiopia was being offered by several gemstone dealers. I mentioned it in an article in volume 51 of Metal Stone& Glass (My blog on Tucson 2010). Part of what I wrote was “At the possible wrath of some Aussie opal lovers I dare to make this statement. If this field is as extensive as it may well be, perhaps in the future, Australia could lose its dominance in the light opal market.”
This year at Tucson the amount of Ethiopian Opal offered for sale increased dramatically. My feelings are that Ethiopia is possibly providing somewhere around 20 – 30% of the light opal market to the world and growing! (There are deposits of chocolate coloured opal in Ethiopia but the opal I am referring to is light based opal very similar to our light opal) The price was around 30% cheaper than comparable Aussie opal at the wholesale level. Often with new fields or new deposits this is the case until the opal is proven both as a product and to its’ reliable availability.
So the question has to be asked. How to we handle this and what changes need to be made to protect OUR market place? What exactly are the problems?
The amount of opal offered in itself is not alarming because at least opal IS reaching the world market. I believe this is the most important fact. The more opal on display across the world can only help the popularity of the stone as a gem. Hopefully the market will increase and more people will become interested. If more of the worlds jewellery stores begin to stock opal than that has to be good. With the production of light opal in Australia declining it may be a good overall thing that this new opal can fill the void
BUT there are some problems and there are changes that need to be made here in Australia particularly with the marketing of OUR product.
As yet no one is really sure of the long term stability of the opal. Most dealers of Ethiopian opal I talked to say their opal is stable and are not having any trouble. However, when I asked if they knew of anyone treating cracky opal with opticon or one of the glues available with a refractive index similar to opal the general response was “I don’t have that problem with my opal but I have heard some people may do it”.
One concern I had was the affect Ethiopian opal might have on the doublet and triplet market. I asked some of the Chinese opal cutters if they had tried the new material. Their overall response was that it was not suitable for triplets and the doublets were very ‘watery’ without the ‘kick ‘ Aussie opal has.
People in our industry must stop using the line “Australia produces 95% of the world’s opal” This is simply no longer true. We all need to say something along these lines “Australia produces the bulk of the world’s opal. Opal is found in many countries but we believe ours is the best” We should NOT put this new opal down as that is counterproductive to the promotion of opal as a gemstone and can only come across to a customer as ‘sour grapes’!
However we can shift the focus back to our product in several ways. We must all guarantee our opal. Firstly we must tell our customers that our opal is not treated in any way what so ever and that we guarantee it against crazing. At my shop ‘Mineshaft’ most of the opal we sell is from our own mines so we let the customer know that this opal has been out of the ground for many years and is completely stable. Not only that but it is backed by knowledge from the mine to the finished piece of jewellery and comes with a story. It all comes back to knowing our product and educating customers on the positives rather than mentioning anything to the detriment of the industry as a whole.
So I am saying to the industry “sell our Aussie opal as the premier opal of the world along with all the romance and history that all our opal fields exude. Educate the consumer so that when they leave the store they are in love with opal and know more about OUR opal and OUR opal fields”.