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'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.