Queen of Gems

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-By Kristy Attard

If diamonds are the king of gemstones, opals are the queen. Opals have held people in awe for centuries with kaleidoscopic colours and are one of the five most precious gemstones in the world. Their unearthly beauty has been the subject of myth and legend since ancient times, when opals were either dreaded or cherished. There is a rich history of opal mining in Australia from early prospectors digging mines by hand with picks and shovels to tourists noodling in mullock heaps hoping to strike it rich. Today Australia supplies a staggering 95 per cent of the world’s opals and yet strangely, the industry is in deep trouble. If Australia has a rich supply of opals that are of the highest grade, then why is the industry doing it so tough? And what on earth is noodling in a mullock heap?

Changing Luck

There is no other gemstone shrouded by as many superstitions as the opal. To the ancient Greeks, opals were the tears of the god Zeus. The Romans prized opals, believing that they would bestow the owner with good fortune. Medieval Europeans thought opals represented the evil eye and the eyes of animals associated with witchcraft, like cats, toads and snakes. The opal was also rumoured to grant invisibility to the wearer, making it the stone of thieves.

Queen Victoria made the stones fashionable by wearing them throughout her reign, largely reversing the negative superstitions people held about them. She loved the brilliant stones, giving them as wedding presents and keeping a personal collection. Opals are the birthstone of October, and today people all over the world enjoy wearing them for their striking colours and beauty.

Although many countries mine opals including Brazil, Canada and Mexico, Australia is the world’s largest producer. Australian opals are renowned for their quality and dazzling colours. In 1995, the opal was claimed as the national gemstone of Australia. While there are opal mines located throughout Queensland, NSW and South Australia, the most famous places for opal are Andamooka, Coober Pedy, Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs; Lightning Ridge is particularly famous for its stunning black opals. In 2008, black opals were declared the State Gemstone Emblem of NSW. Australia exports opals to markets mainly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and the US, but despite all this, the industry is struggling to survive.

There are several reasons behind the opal industry slowly dying off. The mass production of synthetic opals in China, Japan, Russia and the US has had a devastating effect on the Australian industry. French industrialist Pierre Gilson invented synthetic opals in 1975, a production process which took him a decade to develop. Synthetic opals sent shivers through the Australian industry back then and today the flashy fakes are still doing damage, driving down prices of genuine opals.

There has been unrest in the opal industry regarding policing the sale of synthetic stones. There are currently no laws in Australia prohibiting the sale of synthetic opals as long as they are correctly labelled. However, many prominent industry figures are arguing that this labelling is not happening. Aside from the mining, retail, of course, is the other side of the opal industry, and the GFC did a lot of damage there. Tourists have always loved buying Australian opals, but due to the drop in numbers during the crisis, sales figures fell, and the quiet retail climate impacted the already shaky industry.

Anybody There?

The mining boom has led to many people leaving desolate opal towns in search of a better income. Lack of supply is a pressing issue. Older generations of miners are realising that there are few young people moving into the industry. Opal mining towns are home to small communities living in what would otherwise be ghost towns if it were not for the precious stones lying beneath the surface. Mining for opals is said to be more than a vocation; it is a way of life for the few that still venture down shafts looking for that flash of colour in the rock.

Many young people from opal mining families are now opting to work for large scale coal, oil and gas companies. Receiving regular impressive pay cheques working for these companies is guaranteed, unlike toiling in a mine field hoping to strike opal. When mining opal, chance is the name of the game, and there are no guarantees. There are stories of miners who stayed toiling until the day they died in opal mines and never found anything worthwhile. Funnily enough, tourists whiling away the time noodling through mullock heaps might just be the ones who find a valuable opal. Noodling through mullock heaps means picking – or fossicking, as it is known – through piles of dirt and rocks excavated from mines. It can be a lot of fun, but the youth living in opal communities are looking for stability and guaranteed money for their efforts.

For the people already mining opals there are headaches to be had, not just from the heat but also from too much red tape. State governments imposing more fees and paperwork on opal mining turns away the older generation and makes it harder for the new generation to take their place. The opal industry is full of characters, with people from all walks of life hoping to find opals. There are people mining opals who were seeking a sea change from the hustle and bustle of the city many years ago; some miners grew up with opals in their blood, taking up after their fathers before them; there are eccentric locals who enjoy sharing what they know with bright eyed tourists passing through town; others prefer the peace and quiet, happily living in dugout homes underground. It would be a shame to lose these wonderful opal communities and effectively ruin a quintessentially Australian industry in a swamp of legal mumbo jumbo.

Genuine Beauty

The big question is, ‘what can be done to save this colourful Australian industry?’ For communities, dwindling populations mean that the legacy of opal mining will likely fade away. What the industry desperately needs – and numerous people have echoed this – is new blood. Opal mining urgently needs young people with the right attitude to get involved. Skills can be passed on; what matters most is having someone to pass them on to. Interestingly, the newcomers could prove to be closer than expected.

Every year thousands of graduating high school students across the country plan a gap year overseas. A gap year typically involves staying with a host family, plenty of travelling, doing volunteer or paid casual work and meeting new people. It is a chance to see life from a completely different perspective. A gap year gives young people the chance to enjoy themselves after the stress of their HSC exams. They learn new skills, improve self confidence and help make a difference. Rather than travelling overseas, spending a gap year travelling through the historic opal mining towns of Australia could prove an unforgettable experience, and the parents left behind would surely feel more comfortable knowing that their teenager is still within the country.

Spending time in an opal mining area is drastically different to life in the suburbs. While there are no multi level shopping centres or traffic jams, there are landscapes that look like the face of the moon, down to earth locals, and rainbow coloured opals waiting to be discovered. Who knows, a year spent working the opal fields could even provide gap year students with much needed funds for the future!

Opals are incredibly beautiful; each opal is as unique as DNA. What could be better than finding genuine Australian opals on a gap year? It is literally a little piece of Australia to treasure. All the students would need would be people willing to show them the ropes and pass on valuable skills and knowledge.

Hosting recent graduates could provide numerous benefits to the opal industry. Besides bringing in the next generation, there would be a subsequent boost in local economies. Young people embarking on a gap year need places to stay, things to do and plenty of food to eat. They are eager to get involved, with energy and enthusiasm to burn. When the year is up and they wave their goodbyes, a fresh new round of people can come to fill their place. Welcoming students on a gap year could well prove a way out of a dark tunnel for the industry.

Opal mining is an intriguing part of the mining sector and has a special place in Australian history. To let this fascinating industry die out would be a tremendous loss. Australian youth can continue writing the story of opals for this country but the question is this: would they be made welcome?

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

August 10, 2022, 8:50 AM AEST