Lightning Ridge: Catching Opal Fever

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A piece of raw opal, found at Lightning Ridge Australia

“When I close my eyes, I see opals,” said Kelly, shaking his head.
It seems he has a touch of opal fever.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Lightning Ridge and the surrounding areas are famous for its abundance of opals, and in particular the black opal, which can basically only be found here. For decades, people have visited, and never left. They were entranced by this fiery precious gem; one that constantly changes and flickers in the light.

While I appreciate the area and the gem (and in fact acquired a few for my own personal enjoyment whilst here), I didn’t quite understand the fever itself, until I saw Kelly come down with it.

Lucky, this is one fever that didn’t require a hospital, as it did in Hawaii and Thailand.
There are a few ways you can mine for opal:

  • Own a claim. A few thousand dollars, a few safety and environmental courses, and some heavy machinery later, and you have yourself a mineral claim, and the ability to go underground for opal. More on the opal mining process in a minute.
  • Go fossicking or “noodling”. You accomplish this silly sounding task by going to the rubbish dumps, where miners have dumped truck after truck load of sandstone from their mines. Although miners have a pretty keen eye for opal, it is very easy to miss a chunk while chipping away at the sandstone underground. This is where the fossickers and noodlers can make a living if they work hard enough. A full-time fossicker in a heavily mined area about 60kms from Lightning Ridge can make an average income of $20,000. Some may say that’s pretty meager, while they will say that they’re outside, with nary a care in the world, and enjoying every day. Fossicking is also the most common way for a short-term visitor or tourist to try to get their hands on some opal.
  • Actually, the most COMMON way for the average tourist to mine for opal, is in the jewelry stores. In Lightning Ridge, you can mine through store after store and dealer after dealer looking for that perfect piece of opal to take home with you.

There are also a number of different types of opals, and ways of fashioning them into gems too. The two main types of opal are:

  • Black Opal. Since the back of the stone is black (or almost black, for the “semi-black” or “grey” opals), the colours of the opal shine magnificently. This is the rarest kind of opal, and the Lightning Ridge area is one of the few places in the world to find it.
  • White Opal. This is a more common form of opal, with an array of glittering colours shining through a milky white stone. White opals can also be found at Lightning Ridge, as well as the well known mining town of Coober Pedy and other places.

As for finding the opal that will suit your pocketbook and still be “the real deal”, here are a few pointers on the different types you’ll find:

  • Solid Opal. Being the most precious type of opal, your wallet will feel the effects of buying a solid stone the most. It is just as it sounds: solid.
  • Doublet. A doublet is a thin slice of solid opal, glued on to a black backing of potch (which is technically opal, but is colourless and therefore worthless). Doublets can be quite magnificent since the colours of the stone shine against the dark backing.
  • Triplet. This is the lowest grade of opal, but also the least expensive. Similar to a doublet, a triplet is a thin sliver of opal glued onto a dark backing, and then covered on top with a layer of silicone or crystal. This protects the stone, makes it look bigger than it is, and helps the colours of your tiny slice of gem to shine radiantly.

And of course, ask anybody in town what they prefer, and they wouldn’t be seen with anything other than a solid opal. Then again, they find the bloody things laying on the ground half the time around here.

THIS POST ISN’T FINISHED! We got to visit a personal underground mine, spend a Friday night at a pub/library/community center/general store with a rascaly bunch, and we even scored some opal! Read the rest of our story here at the World Nomads Ambassador Journal.

Other Lightning Ridge Adventures:

Lightning Ridge Australia: The People, The Appeal

Lightning Ridge: Past and Present, Outback and Inland

The Black Queen Experience at Lightning Ridge

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