History of the Opal
The Greeks and Romans
The name opal, in its modern form, is derived from the the 16th century word ‘opale’ (or oplaus in Latin) and is believed to be based on the Sanskrit upala which means 'precious stone'. Going further back, many believe its origin is from the ancient Greek ‘opallios’ (ὀπάλλιος). Sometimes, the meaning of the word is transliterated as 'to see change in colour';but most believe its meaning is more along the lines of a 'precious stone' or 'gem'.
Onomacritus, a 5th Century BC oracle, wrote, “the delicate colour and tenderness of the opal reminded him of a loving and beautiful child” but it was the romans in the 1st Century AD who popularised the precious stone initially through the works of Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire. He wrote: “For in them you shall see the living fire of ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green of the emerald, all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light”.
Down through the ages, opal has always had majestic appeal with many of the European emperors and the first known/recorded opal mining lease occurred during the late 15th Century in Slovakia.
Australia, from a European perspective, first appears in the timeline of the opal in 1869 when the first recorded opal discovery occurred at Listowel Downs near Adavale in Queensland, but the history of the opal in Australia goes a lot further back with many references to the colourful stone in Dreamtime stories.
While known and sought after during the 1870’s, it was not until the late 1880’s that tireless efforts by Tullie Wollaston to introduce the Australian opal to the rest of the world when he and two others (Herbert Butterfield and an Aboriginal boy named Tomtit) embarked on an 1,100km journey from Adelaide to south-west Queensland to find out more about this gem that was becoming passionate about.
Through some misadventures and searing heat, Wollaston successfully sourced some opal and immediately returned to Adelaide, leaving the two others to commence setting up their mining venture.
The day after his arrival back in Adelaide, Wollaston set sail for England but was not greeted with the same enthusiasm he held for the opal. Through persistence, the firm Hasluck Bros, of Hatton Garden, saw some potential in the Queensland gems, agreed to trial the stones for European and America markets.
The foundations were laid and before too long, the likes of Lalique, Cartier and Tiffany started including Australian opals in their pieces. And so began the world’s love of Australian opals.
Tullie Wollaston died in 1931 and is considered to be the father of the Australian opal industry, which today accounts for 95% of the world’s market.
Opal and the Dreamtime
For the Aboriginal countries around Andamooka in South Australia, opal was created when their ancestral being was conveyed to earth via a great rainbow. Where the rainbow connected with the land, great rocks and pebbles formed and glittered in the sun with all the colours of the rainbow and opals were born in the Dreamtime.
With tribes gathered, the Dreamtime creator explained the laws of the land, the people, and the land, laws that needed to be followed to establish their way of life. The outcrops of opal were sacred and, due to their mystical properties, were to be used for ceremony in the belief that the rainbow would appear again one day.
Wallangulla (Lightning Ridge):
For the Yuwaalaraay people from around the Wallangulla (Lightning Ridge) area of NSW, their dreaming involves a crocodile named Gurria.
The supreme sprit Bhiamie and his two wives Birring Ooloo, mother nature, and Cunnum-Biellie, law maker/teacher, went for a swim in a spring while travelling through the outback but were unaware Gurria followed them as he coveted their spirits.
Gurria swallowed both women and swam down the Narran River but Bhiamie tracked Gurria to a lake, speared him at Weetalibah water crossing, and as Gurria lay dying, rolled over and his squirming created two holes one by his tail (Coocoran Lake) and one by his nose (Angledool Lake).
As Gurria lay dying, it rained and a rainbow appeared. The colors of the rainbow were trapped in the crocodile’s scales, and with it, opal was formed in the ground. Bhiamie freed his wives from Gurria amd with the help of Ghee-jar, a little black ant, brought them back to life.
A dreaming from Central Queensland tells the story of the ‘weeping opal’, and comes from a time when a giant opal ruled overt the land and its people when the world was young. This Aboriginal ancestor came to being after two tribes had been warring for so long that their weapons were either broken or lost so the warriors started to hurl boulders at each other.
One warrior threw a boulder so hard that flow skyward and got stuck in the sky. The boulder started to expand until it burst and revealed the colours of a huge opal. As the opal sprit saw the ravages of the war between the two tribes, tears streamed down as a rainstorm. When the sun shone to reveal the colours of the tears, the survivors of the war saw their first rainbow.
Since then, to the Aborigines, when a rainbow appears, it is a sign that someone had committed a crime against the tribal laws and the tears of the opal were falling in sorrow.
Developing Australian Opal
The major opal mining areas of Australia include White Cliffs, Lightning Ridge, the Grawin, Coober Pedy, Andamooka, Mintable, Lambia, and the Queensland Opal fields. White Cliffs, about 100lm north of Wilcania in Outback NSW, commenced commercial Opal mining in the late 1880’s and the town boomed as the European market sought the quality seam opal that White Cliffs produced, but its life as the epicentre of seam opal petered out and the boom ended by the 1930s.
The vast area of the Queensland opal fields, which spread across 1,000km, was the main supplier of Boulder Opal with its characteristic ironstone host. The areas of Winton, Quilpie, Jundah, Eromanga and Yowah were the main centres for production.
It was not realised until the late 1800’s that the ground on which Lightning Ridge sat was richly laden with opal and in 1905 the first shafts were dug by some opal pioneers, one such person was Charles Nettleton who most regard as the father of Ridge Opal mining.
The news of the early discoveries of the new and unique Black Opal at Lightning Ridge soon spread to the established opal town of White Cliffs and many thought the Black Opal held a greater potential due to its unique nature. Charlie Nettleton walked 700km to the Ridge in the drought of 1902 to see the black variant first hand. Believing in its commercial potential, a year later he walked the 700km back to White Cliffs to develop a market. Through his early efforts, Charles Nettleton is considered to have been a major force in developing the industry.
Lightning Ridge produces the majority of Australia’s Black Opal and despite recent declines in production, by value, Lightning Ridge is still the biggest producer of opal.
About 40km south-west is the Grawin opal fields which includes Glengarry, Sheepyard, Mulga Rush and Grawin.
During the 1980’s, opal was discovered at Lake Coocoran, thirty kilometres north of the Ridge, and it was the biggest boom since the early days and due to the record prices, Lightning Ridge swelled to over 8,000.
In South Australia, on the north-western bank of Lake Torrens, seam Opal was discovered in 1935 at Andamooka and by the 1960’s, its population peaked at 3,000. Today, only small amounts of opal is mined as the field was mined out during the 1970’s.
About 400km north of Andamooka is Coober Pedy which mines the majority of the world’s seam opal from a 50km long Opal field. Reaching its peak during the 1970’s, Coober Pedy swelled to 4,000 people hailing from fifty nations and it was a bit like a ‘wild west’ town complete with illegal gambling joints.
Black Opal was also discovered at Mintabie in the mid-1970s, 250km north-west of Coober Pedy, as well as some seam opal. Big operators moved in with an extensive array of heavy equipment and mined out the limited supply within ten years. Today, only a limited number of operations exist today.
- Ainslie Roberts - The Weeping Opal - ainslieroberts.com
- Tullie Wollaston [B 16758] - State Library of South Australia
- Pliny the Elder - HSTRY