About Black Opals
There are many things that make Lightning Ridge famous as a holiday destination but it is the black opal that was the catalyst to putting 'The Ridge' on the map.
The opal is unique to only a few places in the world but the black opal is unique to one, as are the methods by which it is found and the men and women who vie for beauty and value.
What is Black Opal?
Opal is found in many parts of Australia but it is the elusive Black Opal that has made Lightning Ridge famous. This rare gem is an appropriate symbol of the town as the exact nature of Lightning Ridge and its people is as mysterious as the stone itself.
Opal is non-crystalline silica, similar to quartz, but is not a mineral. Its internal structure enables unique diffraction of light to produce white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black. Opal is formed from a solution of silica (very fine sand-like particles) and water. In some sandstone outback regions, water passes though the sandstone to form a silica-rich solution that flows to voids formed from decomposed fossils and as the water evaporates, a silica deposit is left. This is repeated over vast periods and from it, an Opal is formed.
The Black Opal differs from other Opal as it is formed on a darker (black) quartz-like layer that enables greater refraction/reflection of the light to the top of the opal, especially the reds and pinks. It is the 'reds' that are more valuable.
Interestingly, the actually process of how an Opal forms is still somewhat a mystery and there are many theories. Consequently, determining where it can be found is also a mystery as it is very much hit and miss. Some have described mining for Black Opal as playing the lottery but with most of the time spent digging underground.
What's so unique about opal?
Opal contains every colour of the spectrum, from deepest and clearest blues and iridescent greens, through to golden orange, red and fuchsia.
Opal can be pale and delicate, or dark and brilliant. It may contain any combination of an infinite number of patterns. An opal may reveal itself all at once - glorious from all directions – or it may be quiet and surprising, showing its greatest brilliance only during flashes of movement.
Indeed, precious opal is like no other gemstone because it changes colour as the observer turns the stone. Whatever your taste, there is an opal just for you.
How opals are mined at Lightning Ridge?
In Lightning Ridge opal is mined underground. Mines usually extend to a depth of 25 metres and they use jackhammers or machines with names like 'digger', 'bogger' and 'blower'. Open cut methods are used less often in black opal country than in other opal mining areas.
Each opal mining claim is a maximum size of 50 x 50 metres and each miner may have up to two claims registered in his or her name. These days miners must complete a safety course before they can register a claim; mine management training has also been introduced.
To begin mining, a hole (shaft) of about a metre in diameter is drilled down to the level thought to contain opal. The miner then begins to dig a tunnel called a drive, searching for opal along the way. 'Opal dirt' – sandstone and clay mined from the opal level – is taken up to ground level using a hoist or blower, and dumped into the back of a truck.
The opal dirt is then washed down by tumbling it for several hours inside a modified cement mixer called an agitator. Finally, the remaining 'tailings' are sorted, with keen eyes searching for any hint or trace of opal colour.
Opal mining at Lightning Ridge is still the domain of the individual miner, or miners working in small partnerships.
Mining can be a frustrating and fruitless endeavour, with opal hard to find and the operation expense is high. But sometimes it is enormously rewarding – anyone who works hard is in with a chance. The dream of finding opal continues to draw people to Lightning Ridge from all over the world.
Getting your Own Black Opal
Time in Lightning Ridge will inevitably turn to buying Opal, and like most types of shopping, particularly that involving jewellery, it is often the ladies who lead the way with the male of the species firmly in tow. There are many options in the Ridge, Angledool Opals, Down to Earth Opals, GGS Goldsmith, the Opal Bin and the Opal Cave; but one that should be high on the list is Lost Sea Opals. Conveniently located next to a café and round the corner from a gallery, Lost Sea Opals is a jewellery shop showcasing wonderful pieces of set Opal and also specimen pieces, with all opal jewellery made on the premises produced in a viewable workshop.
If the partner is wanting but the wallet is unwilling, you can always fossick for your own Opal at the visitor centre where a regularly replenished supply of material is provided and many who try their luck have been pleasantly surprised. In fact, last year a couple found a piece of Black Opal valued at over $20,000. So it can certainly be worth it. ** A note of caution though, this is the only place in town that you can do this and fossicking in someone else's claim, or 'ratting' as it is known, is not something that is taken too kindly and should be avoided.