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Tiffany and Dior reviving Aussie opals, but can Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy maintain supply?

Tuesday, 01st September 2015

Australia’s rich red dirt is home to an array of resources, none more colourful than the country’s national gemstone, the opal, which is enjoying a renaissance as Europe’s top fashion houses compete to capture its beauty.

The opal, sometimes known the “mystery stone”, has become a desirable feature in high-end jewellery, according to opal wholesaler Chris Price. Diamonds once dominated the high end of the market, he says, but that focus has shifted and people are seeking colour.

“For people who can have everything, (with opals) they can have something no one can duplicate … opals are personal. It is nice to have something that no one else has,” Price says. “Each stone, whether you are talking about a $20 stone or one of value, is different. Opals don’t come back on the estate market, they stay in families and they are not resold. It’s a real sense of personal treasure.”

Damien Cody, director at Cody Opal, says the French fashion houses have rekindled their love affair with the opal. “It has also triggered demand throughout the world, because if the big fashion houses are using opal it drives demand elsewhere,” he says.

Price remembers the first major high-end jewellery piece to use opals: a spectacular snake by Dior, in 2004, with 92 pieces of blue-green/black opal. “(Dior’s) Victoire de Castellane had this real passion for Venetian-style jewellery: lots and lots of colour. She was the co-ordinator who put together a high-class team of designers. They did a few minor pieces and then the snake, which was really the first high piece,” Price says. “Then it was followed hot on the heels by Cartier who did a major piece.”

Tiffany & Co. features Australian opals in three of its pieces in this year’s Blue Book (featured in WISH last month) and chief gemmologist Melvyn Kirtley says the company has used opals throughout its history in its statement and fine jewellery collections. “Their beauty has inspired our designers to create unique pieces that play to the opals’ ability to interact with the light and produce dramatic colours and patterns,” he says.

Kirtley says Australia has the perfect geological terrain to produce the world’s finest opals, pointing to the combination of desert conditions with wet winters and hot dry summers, along with the abundance of rocks rich with silica. “These conditions, present for millions of years, created the ideal environment for opals to form,” he says. “The rarity and unique beauty of top quality opals from Australia will continue to drive customer demand for this exceptional gemstone.”

Australia’s leading opal is the black opal, found at Lightning Ridge in NSW. Opal producing regions in Australia also include White Cliffs in NSW, Coober Pedy, Andamooka and Mintabie in South Australia and various locations around Queensland.

Maxine O’Brien, manager of the Lightning Ridge Miners Association, says that over the past 12 months opal prices in the field have “really” increased, adding that a good indicator of the boom in international demand was the jump in the number of buyers visiting the regional town to buy stones. Opals across the board have increased in price by around 20 per cent as demand has grown. High-end opals can retail from around $US5000 ($6500) a carat to $US50,000 a carat, while the higher volume opals can start from $US15 a carat.

Cody says demand has been driven not only by European fashion houses but also by an influx of Chinese buyers. He says it is still “early days” for the Chinese interest. “We have Chinese buyers making their way to our offices in Melbourne on a regular basis and that wasn’t happening even a year ago,” he says. “The Chinese buyers are across the board, they are buying quantity and quality. The difficulty we have now is there is this huge demand, which we haven’t seen since the 1980s, but we don’t have production to meet that demand.”

Cody makes the point that opals are a finite resource — productivity has been on a steady decline over the past 140 years and few new opal fields have been found. “We have seen a few miners who may have left come back to work, and people who may have moved off to the coalmines, to use their skills where there was big money, are starting to filter back. So that means there is more work and hopefully a few extra stones there,” he says.

Opal mining is generally operated by small family-run teams, who mine a 50m x 50m area. Each individual can have two mining claims registered in their name.

“Overall, there haven’t been any new finds and that is the problem. We need some people going out there and prospecting into newer fields and newer areas and using the science that we have to their best advantage and trying to find new locations,” Cody says. While there are many theories, the process of how an opal forms is very much a mystery, and so is determining where it can be found. It isn’t like stumbling on a giant ore body of gold and digging it out of the ground. Finding an opal is about the miner’s eye being caught by a speckle of colour as they sort through the dirt dug from a small underground shaft.

Cody says the industry hopes it can keep the new increased demand but he warns that if new supply isn’t found, buyers will move on to other gemstones. “The buyers I speak to are very conscious of the fact that if they start promoting something, they want to be sure they will be able to meet orders, or repeat it. If they catalogue it they certainly want to have the product.”

Price adds that while opals are “such a rare resource”, the supply is in the ground, and it is just a matter of getting access to it. He says opals differ from diamonds and other gems because their crystalline structure is round, a unique feature among stones found in nature.

“We simply gather it out of the ground and grind and polish it — there is no heating and no chemicals,” he says. “It is really the pure gemstone and is fast becoming the last of the really natural stones.”