Now hear this, now hear this: Lightning Ridge, Australia, the planet’s most celebrated source of opal since shortly after its discovery in 1901, is alive and kicking. Widespread reports of its demise were and still are, to put it mildly, premature. “It’s one of the biggest myths in this trade that Lightning Ridge has stopped producing to a significant degree,” scoffs New York black opal specialist Virginia Grant.
Never have epitaphs for the Ridge, as insiders call it, seemed more out of place than at present. Since 1990, it has produced more opal than it did in the preceding two decades. “When you combine output from new deposits with that from the reworking of old ones, Lightning Ridge production is past the levels of its last great resurgence in the early 1960s,” exults Dallas-based precious stone dealer George Williams.
Couple this abundance with slackened sales to Japan, which until its recent recession had hogged 85% of annual black opal production for nearly a quarter-century, and you see why Grant and Williams want people to stop thinking of Lightning Ridge, the world’s sole source of true black opal, as a faded glory. “This country hasn’t seen fine black opal for so long,” says Grant, “many in the trade concluded Lightning Ridge was dead.”
Now (mid-1992) with prices for all but the very finest black opal down anywhere from 10% to 50% from early 1991, it is time for American jewelers to count on, not count out, Lightning Ridge. “They’ve got the best chance they’ve had in decades to make a market in black opal,” William says.
Incredibly, such a market would be a first in the U.S.
The First Golden Age
Lightning Ridge is a low, extended rise 500 miles northwest of Sydney in Australia’s outback, named for its spectacular electrical storms. When opal found the region was first shown to dealers in Europe around 1905, they dismissed it as either treated, or worse, gaudy. Used to light Hungarian opal with its muted dots and dashes of powdery color, they did not know what to make of Ridge material with its deep black background against which was displayed vivid, often chunky smears and smudges of ingot red, royal blue and verdant green.
Even seasoned Australian buyers, by then accustomed to white opal from New South Wales and Queensland, delayed enthusiasm for the new darker opal. In fact, it took miner Charlie Nettleton, the first man to dig a shaft at Lightning Ridge and a legend in Australia’s opal trade, a while to make his first significant sale of top Ridge goods: 17 ounces for $30, reports Peter Bancroft in “Gem and Crystal Treasures.” If the stones were top-grade cuts, they would command anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 per carat today—at wholesale. That’s why you probably wouldn’t see them in America. “I haven’t sold black opal much above $4,000 per carat,” Grant laments.
Meanwhile, Nettleton’s missionary zeal on behalf of Lightning Ridge opal slowly won the gem many converts. Beside it’s aesthetic merits (“European buyers determined the black opals to be the ‘fanciest’ they had seen,” Bancroft notes), the new material endeared itself to dealers because it was less prone to cracking than other opals.
As the world took note of Lightning Ridge opal, Nettleton continued his quest for a strike that could meet swelling demand for the material. In 1907, he discovered Three Mile Field, a find as momentous for opals as that of diamonds along South Africa’s Vaal River 38 years earlier. The discovery sparked an instant opal rush, drawing 1,000 prospectors and “producing more opal than all the other Lightning Ridge properties combined,” writes Bancroft. Between 1907 and 1920, Lightning Ridge experienced what George Williams calls “its first golden age,” during which it earned a reputation as the supreme source for opal.
No Flash in the Pan
The second golden age didn’t come until 1962. Dealers unfamiliar with opal mining assumed the four-decade dearth meant the Ridge was exhausted as a source. In reality, says Williams, the Ridge had exhausted the mining techniques used to extract the small nodules (called “nobbies”) of opal from beneath its layers of sandstone where they were embedded in clay-like dirt.
Activity revived when miners introduced mechanical sifting machines called “puddlers” that were used to rework below-ground dirt mounds at the site of old diggings. Below-ground mining returned to its former pace thanks to automatic self-tipping hoists that allowed miners in shafts to fill buckets with nobbie-bearing dirt, have them lifted to the surface, emptied and returned for refilling without having to leave the mine. (The next mining breakthrough, the use of nine-inch drills for opal prospecting, came in 1987 and triggered Lightning Ridge’s third and latest, golden age.)
Lightning Ridge’s reactivation during the 1960s coincided with the onset of Japan’s monumental mania for black opal. By 1968, Williams estimates, at least 60% of all Ridge production went to Japan, either through export or tourism. “When I arrived at Lightning Ridge in 1968,” the place was frantic and prices were climbing sky-high,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget the day in 1971 when I heard the news that a piece of gem-quality black opal had sold for $1,000 per carat at the Ridge. By then, 85% of Ridge opal went to Japan.”
With Japan’s buying down as much as 40% during the recession of 1991-92, that country’s strangling share of the black opal market has loosened to 1968 levels, possibly even more when you consider the recent surge in Lightning Ridge opal production. What’s more, the Australian dollar has been dropping, making black opal an even bigger bargain for U.S. dealers.
All in all, conditions are right to start—and sustain—the first viable U.S. market for black opal in history. Certainly prices are right. “Black opal is the most affordable that it has been in decades,” says Virginia Grant. “A thousand dollars, even $500, buys you so much more than a year ago that the difference in quality is very noticeable.”
Nevertheless, with prices for superb stones perched securely at $8,000 per carat and more, America will likely only welcome commercial-to-better grades of Lightning Ridge opal. Even so, that leaves a broad range of multi-hued semi-black, black crystal (transparent) and black opals to choose from. Once U.S. consumers appreciate black opal, they will buy more of it—and spend more, too.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The Lightning Ridge opal shown in the header image is courtesy of George Williams, Dallas.