The history of Opal Mining --- Where Opals come from

Let’s talk about Opals and where they are mined. Opals have a rich and fascinating history, one that dates back to Roman times, full of mind-blowing tales. A history mired in greed, adventure, hijinks, and Indiana Jones-like escapades. During a period, in our collective chronology, Opals were the most desired of all gemstones . Sure, folks loved silver and gold, but  every other stone was just a party-favor — Opal was the top-tier gem; it was THE gemstone. To what degree? Wars were fought for Opals, empires sold for the stone, and economies built around its splendor. In this article, we’re going to move fluidly through  time as we  talk about Opal mining and  modern sources of Opals around the world. 

Where are Opals mined?

95% of Opals are mined in Australia in various legendary pits, sometimes with colorful stories to accompany their extraction. The rest, that 5%, is found in places like Ethiopia, Mexico, Brazil, Nevada, and other smaller locations, even Mars. It’s important to note that Australia has the best regulated and documented Opal mining operation in the world. One with the right infrastructure and the right census. So, that 95% is an approximate amount. Why? Many other places have inconsistent book-keeping so it’s near impossible to truly get a proper account. 

 Australia and Opal mining

 Most modern historians and geologists agree Australia’s boom in Opals began in 1849. The first real treasure trove of that precious gemstone was uncovered by German geologist Johannes Menge near the small town of Angaston. The man wasn’t much for fanfare and only a select few knew of its existence. It wasn’t until 1869 that Opal really hit the big leagues in Australia and the industry exploded. 

Johannes Menge

The first official Opal discovery, the one that hit the press and everyone’s imagination, occurred on that date near Listowel Downs. For a couple of years, the area was hit by hundreds of miners. They stripped it dry. During that time, most Australians believed that it was a fluke. A one-off mining opportunity and that there was no more of the precious gemstone on the continent.

Then, out of the ether, dozens of other mines started to pop up. From Queensland to New South Wales, people seemed to be stumbling into ditches and coming up, like the proverbial groundhog, with an Opal tight in their fist. Stories of huge mines started to emerge and small towns, full of prospectors, sprung overnight in faraway places. 

Mining Town In White Cliff

For years, despite their great findings, prospectors were just making ends meet - not much, but enough to survive. Why? Europeans and American buyers were extremely wary of buying Opal. A string of counterfeit rings had been flooding the market with fakes that looked authentic but lacked the richness of color that a real gem quality Opal possessed. This meant that the market, and Opal as a commodity, was in a slump. So, prospectors would sell the gemstones just to keep the lights on. 

One chemical breakthrough changed the paradigm and in a snap, the commercial value of Opal skyrocketed in the first years of the 20th century. Science had uncovered a way to actually test the purity of the gemstone. And, like that, a hundred ships sailed to Australia. From London to America, wealthy corporations joined forces to try to seize the Opal trade. Those shanty Opal towns, like the one in Lightning Ridge, blossomed. Opal fever hit Australia hard. 

Like in the States, during the Gold Rush, for a couple of years whole towns would spring up around a mine. Prospecting became a way of life. The rapid influx of prospectors meant an economic boom in certain places that were, less than 10 years prior, nothing more than dirt and sand. 

Today, Australian Opal still takes the world by storm. Most gemstones used in Opal rings come from that area.  It produces 95% of the world’s commercial supply, much of which comes from the 70 or so Opal fields found around Coober Pedy --- the Opal capital of the world.  A great number of crystal opals, like the one used in this crystal opal ring, are derived from these mines. 

 Crystal Silhouette Rose Gold Opal Engagement Ring

This is that place that unleashed onto the market the world’s largest and most valuable gemstone in existence, “Olympic Australis.” Though most of Australia’s black opal comes from Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy has also been known to produce  some magnificent specimens of black opal, the rarest of its kind. 

Opal and Ethiopia 

 Reports of Opal deposits in Northern African history can be dated to 4000 BC when the gemstone was used as a carving tool by the indigenous population - an interesting use of the stone, considering the relatively soft nature of the material.Nonetheless, due to Africa’s unstable political and social atmosphere, mining in the region didn’t begin in earnest until the late 20th century. The first published report of the gem hit the Ethiopian press in 1994 with the discovery of a large deposit in the Menz Gishe District, North Shewa Province. 

Opal deposits in Ethiopia

Opal from this region is becoming more widely available in the market  and mostly comes from one of the only government-supervised mines in the Wollo Province — Opal from Ethiopia, due to where it's uncovered, is known worldwide as “Welo” Opal.  While beautiful, and less expensive than its Australian counterpart, it is both newer to market and less stable, given its hydrophane structure, and has been known to sometimes permanently alter its appearance when exposed to different variables.

Mexico and Opal mining 

Opal occurs naturally in significant quantities in the central Mexican region — mostly in the state of Queretaro. During a period there were close to 100 mines in the area but major accidents, natural and manmade, made it extremely hard to find and exploit deposits.

Today, there are only a few small opal mines in Mexico. 

Other locations

Other regions around the world are also awaiting exploration  with undiscovered Opals. That even includes the US. Mining where Nevada’s Virgin Valley has some geologists and precious gemstone traders buzzing about potential finds. 

There’s nothing like uncovering an unexpected One of a Kind Australian Opal.

At NIXIN Jewelry, we delight in the discovery of extraordinary opals and communicating their stories through the pieces we create. We offer a collection of handcrafted Australian opal rings, opal necklaces, opal bracelets and opal earrings in an array of sizes and styles. Ready to ship opal jewelry and jewelry cleaner also available.

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