Peter’s Story Part 6

The week before opening my new shop was hectic. I flew down to Melbourne to purchase stock with my remaining money. With a limited budget it was a difficult exercise. I not only needed stock but a selection of display stands and of course presentation boxes and bags to put sales in.

I had been buying a little bit of opal jewellery from Ziggi Kiefer. Ziggi was a wholesaler and later opened a retail jewellery store in Melbourne. (His daughter still runs it). He was absolutely a tremendous help to me. He spent two full days, taking me around what he considered the best suppliers in Melbourne. He knew most of the owners of these businesses and made it a point of getting me the best deals and ensuring that any further business would see me “looked after”.

I then drove to Sydney for a day and visited several wholesalers to fill some of the remaining gaps in my stock.

With all the accumulated treasures the last couple of days were spent arranging these to best entice future customers. In hindsight I can describe my stock as “sparse”. Importantly, I had nice stock, of good quality, and a little different to what was main stream. Most of my display cases had more space then stock and I had not a single piece in backup, other then rocks and crystals I had found over the years.

The night before opening I invited friends and anyone who had helped along the way to a preview. We had a fantastic party and I drank much too much champagne. The results of that were only nullified by adrenalin on opening day.

My bank account had less then a hundred dollars in it, my wallet was empty, I owed my dad considerable money but finally the dream was reached and my new business ‘MINESHAFT’ was open for trade.

The first few weeks were a blur. We had a lot of customers as they were all keen to explore the new center. Almost everyone who entered the complex for the first few weeks came in and checked us out. I had no idea what to expect. I knew how much I had to sell to remain viable and that was the only concern. Each time an item of stock was sold a replacement or sometimes two was immediately ordered.

Luckily, there was no other jewellery store in the complex. We quickly became ‘Jack of all trades’ and took in jewellery and watch repairs and anything else that could generate revenue. I would deliver the repairs to a local goldsmith and a watch repair guy on the way home and pick them up on the way to work. I started to design customer’s jewellery and sent these down to Ziggi who had an extremely good goldsmith. It was all a learning curve that had to be learned instantly.

The challenge was to identify areas that could generate sales and head in those directions as quickly as possible. I believed Canberra with its’ embassies and diplomats presented a good opportunity for the sale of opal. I sent letters to all of these, telling them that Mineshaft stocked opal. I remember vividly the first large sale of opal jewellery we had. The immaculately dressed gentleman asked if I could show him four nice opal pendants. I only had four, so undeterred I got them out and placed them in front of the diplomat. I told him these were the best four opal pendants I had, going on to explain their virtues. Luckily he was very happy with these and didn’t need to see any more. He threw me off guard by asking for my best discount. This was going to be the biggest sale in my short retail career so I cut my profit down to a minimum. When he opened his wallet I barely made an impact on the wad of $50 notes it contained. First lesson learnt well!!!

My dad, Cynthia and Anne’s mum would come and help from time to time. My dad, being a retired headmaster, needed people to talk to so he would entertain the customers with idle chit-chat. Sometimes he would follow a new customer in and when they looked at an item he would say “If these people don’t want this piece could you put it aside and I will come and get it later.” Inevitably the customer sensing the competition would buy the object. I think my dad found this entertaining. Anne’s mum loved working in the shop and simply being with people. Living in the bush she rarely had reason to come to town so this gave her life a little spice.

Our opal sales were continuing to grow so I decided to make a trip to Queensland and find a supplier of Boulder opal. I headed for Quilpie and when there asked around for opal dealers and cutters. This led to meeting Des Burton.

Des Burton is an icon of the boulder opal industry and is hugely responsible for the resurgence of boulder opal mining in the 60’s and 70’s particularly around Quilpie. His processing shed I will long remember. Leaning up against the fence were giant walls of assembled boulder opal mosaics about two meters by a meter.

Boulder Opal panels on Des Burtons shed

Boulder Opal panels on Des Burtons shed

Inside the shed were piles of boulder opal and several boulder opal table tops. These table tops have since become collectors items. In fact, many, in later years, were dismantled and the boulder opal cut into gemstones. Des had several cutters working for him and apart from the countless quality gemstones, he had several containers of cheaper opal. These were $5 to $20 each and were perfect for my new business. This first trip emptied my wallet leaving just enough money for petrol home.

Several months into trading I came home from work to a tremendous shock. Anne had moved out! She had taken all her belongings including the huge four poster bed we had bought in from the farm. I had no inkling she was unhappy or that she was contemplating ending the relationship. I was dumb founded, confused and shocked. I drove out to the farm and tried to find out the reasons but returned home shattered and none the wiser. A few weeks later she left for New Zealand eventually marrying a shearer. They ultimately moved back to Australia, raised a family and are now living on the family property. Many years after our breakup Anne came into the shop and we had coffee. She explained that there was really not a problem. She had felt uncomfortable committing to a long term relationship as her other relationships had ended with pain and she didn’t want to go through that. We have since had many coffees and talk about life and the many directions it takes us all.

I threw myself into work, building up the business and the relationships I was forging with the various embassies. On the weekends I was spending time with my daughters. The challenges that were presented gave me the strength to move past the personal setback.

One of the embassies beginning to patronize us was the French embassy. Several diplomats were regularly visiting the shop. One of these asked if there was any where to look for rocks around Canberra. She was also the social club/entertainment attaché. I organized a trip to Grabben Gullen for sapphires and later excursions including weekend camping trips further afield. These excursions were well patronized with sometimes up to 30 people attending. One memorable flashback was a French family who had a pet Aussie galah. There is nothing unusual about this except that it spoke fluent French and that sounded remarkably strange coming from a normal ‘scratch cockie’ bird

I became close plutonic friends with Vivian and we would meet up after work for coffee and go to night clubs together for company and conversation. Two of her male colleagues would occasionally join us and they kept saying how much they would like to see the “real” Australian outback. I told them that I would be going to Queensland for a trip soon to find an old boulder opal mine and they could come if they liked. They would have to be prepared to travel in the back of a short wheel base Landover with a top speed of 95 km an hour. (Four wheel drives in those days were very basic and not very comfortable.) The seats in the back faced inward and were simple fold down seats with modest padding. A little different to the transport the French embassy provided! A couple of weeks later Hugh Campbell (A friend who worked in a curtain shop at Cooleman Court), the two French diplomats and I headed off to the “real Australian outback.”

Outback Australia

Outback Australia

I had been shown the location of an old mine by a geophysicist who had worked at the Bureau of Mineral Resources. He had flown on to the hill in a helicopter when they were mapping the area.

 There had been some old small workings around the hill and apparently there was a lot of surface boulder with colour. We had tracked it down on a 1 to 100,000 map and I had a couple of aerial photos so I thought I would have no trouble finding it. He was adamant there would be a lot of boulder in the hill.

On the way up we spent a couple of days at White Cliffs and then traveled the back roads through to the boulder fields. We slept under the stars on swags and ate basic campfire food. Despite the uncomfortable traveling conditions the French guys were having a ball. Every thing was new and ‘that’s amazing’ was being uttered several times a day.

Peter on top of Mopunt Tighe

Peter on top of Mount Tighe
Boulder opal collected at Mt Tighe
Real Australia

Real Australia

We stopped at the pub in Yaraka for a counter meal. In the far corner having a beer or several was a very old local. He had obviously spent a good proportion of his life in the sun as his skin would have looked worn out on a rhinoceros. With no teeth and his hands crippled with arthritis he was quite at home in this outback setting. He intrigued the French guys and they mentioned how they would love to know a little about his life. I suggested we go and sit with him and strike up a conversation. The old fellow was very interesting and had spent his life as a shearer, roustabout and many other occupations, all in the outback. It was then the conversation changed to women. One of the diplomats said to him ‘I cannot understand how you could live in these conditions without ze woman?” The old guy as quick a wink looked him in the eye, lifted his crippled hand and said “How do you think me bloody hand got like this?”

We found the old mine and spent a couple of days collecting a few drums of quite nice boulder. I only wished I knew what I know now, as this hill became one of the best producing mines in Queensland. It’s name “Mt Tighe”!

On the way out, negotiating a steep wash out, I broke a rear axle so we had an even slower trip back to Canberra. The French diplomats said they had the best trip ever and came away with a much better understanding of true Australia.

On one of our nights out Vivian told me her younger sister Christian was coming to Australia for a visit and asked me if I could show her around Canberra. When she arrived we met over coffee and I arranged to pick her up the next day to see Canberra’s sights. We did the usual War memorial, Parliament house, Cotter Dam etc and then had tea somewhere. Later I took her to the major lookouts to see the night lights. After this Christian said ‘You can take me home now please” Dutifully I started to drive back to her sisters apartment. When she realized where we were going she said ‘No! Take me to your home please” in the cutest French accent. Who was I to protest?

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