OPAL – AN OCEAN OF COLOR
Opal is distinct from other gems due to its opalizing feature. It is a one of a kind display of color. Colors flash, sparkle, disappear and re-emerge. The range of color can change completely and is creating new images.
But how does this ocean of color come into being?
Opal is made up of a grid of silica spheres. These have a diameter of 1.5 to 3 thousandth of a millimeter. If enough spheres are connected with each other, the incoming light will be split and color ensue’s. Now, the color of an opal is dependent upon the number of spheres residing within the gem, as well as the density of the sphere-cluster.
Another question touches on the place of discovery. Different kinds of opal can be found in different places around the world. E.g. African opals are found in Ethiopia, Fireopal is found in Mexico and Brazil, and pink opal can be found in Peru. However, no country has come close to the beauty and intensity of colors found in opals from Australia. This is the reason why we specialize in Boulder-opal, crystal-opal, and black-opal from Australia.
The extremely rare black-opals from Lightning Ridge, found in the north of New South Wales, were our travel destination in April 2017. On our way, Australia’s countryside presented itself in its utmost beauty, which in turn led to an increased passion on our part for this exceptional gemstone. Deep canyons, and extraordinary sandstone formations, e.g. the “Three Sisters”, which are a famous part of the Blue Mountains, as well as eucalyptus trees which are all around us, make for a distinctive feature of Australia’s vegetation. Not to mention the waterfalls that fall ~985ft. (300m) into the valleys.
Welcome to lightning ridge
Coopers Cottage was built in the year 1916 and is still around. It was the house of one of the first miners in this Region and is exemplary for the early days. Entering the house, you can still feel and imagine the tremendous efforts, and the harsh way of life, these people took upon themselves to find their luck.
After a short night stay, we make our way to the first mining area. The Mulga Fields are located close to Carters Rush, Glengarry, and the Sheepyard. For many miles, we drove on red dirt roads with the constant threat of a sharp stone damaging our tires.
At the mine, the streets suddenly turn white. In addition to that, many white mounds are to be discovered. These mounds are due to exploratory drillings. Each mound is the result of a vertical tunnel. The white material is from the Cretaceous age. That is the layer in which black-opal can be found and is usually 60mln to 97mln years old.
The fine opals can’t be found everywhere. Where exactly to drill is decided by pure instinct of the miner. The miner takes his clues partly from the surrounding vegetation. Because, one indicator for opal is a fault-line, e.g. the layer between sedimentary levels. But the layers are not the only sign of a possible opal deposit. Each and every mining area has its own rules and peculiarities, making the miner’s experience within this area one of the most valuable assets he has at his disposal.
Now it is getting exciting. In front of us, we see the entrance of a mine. A small vertical tunnel, with a rusty ladder attached to it, is leading us 50 ft. (~15m) below ground. Attention is required. There is no safety-net, no rope that will save one from falling down below. Additionally, during the night, snakes can fall down a mining-shaft and hide within the mine. Stepping off the last rung of the ladder, we are now in the opal bearing level of the mine. The ceiling is around 6,5 ft. (2m) high. Heavy machinery is used for the rough part of the work. Then, they use a flashlight to carefully search the walls for reflections. Once an opal has been found, the miners are very careful at excavating the gemstone.
In our hands, we hold fresh samples of today. A lucky day. It is not every time that they work underground and find gemstones. This is especially true for high quality, luxury gems. These are exceptionally rare. In fact, only 0.25% of the gems found are of exceptional quality. The material taken off the wall by heavy machinery will be searched for opals as well. To do this, the miners transport the material to the surface, and then to a washing plant. The condition of most of the equipment is an adventure of its own. This is summed up best by a road sign on our way to the next mine, warning: “Cars with breaks give way”.
[The “Three Sisters” of the Blue Mountains – Pictures by KREIS]
[Alexander Kreis at Coopers Cottage, build in 1916 – Picture by KREIS]
[Entering a Mine for Black opal – Picture by KREIS]
[A Black Opal reflecting Light – Picture by KREIS]