Famous Opals

By Margaret Burgon Klemp

Australia has a love affair with opals. Even the Australian women.s basketball team is fondly called The Opals. A number of famous opals have come from the mines in Australia. The most famous and widely known opals are Australian black opals. Black opals exhibit hues that can run from dark grey to jet black. The arrays of colors, however, that appear in the opals are not related to general body tone of the stone. In other words, the gem is not completely black. The color that arises from the black background of the opal is one trait that makes it more valuable. Black opals have a good amount of carbon and iron oxide in them which gives a darker appearance, and causes the spectrum of colors to stand out better. The lighter opals have beautiful colors, but they are not as striking as those in the black opal. Black opals quite regularly have a natural layer colorless opal known as "potch" on the back of it which causes even more brilliant hues. Black opals are found at the Lightning Ridge opal mine in New South Wales.

Some famous opals found in Australia were discovered by very ordinary people. A miner named Charlie Dunstan brought the "Aurora Australis", the world's most valuable opal to the attention of collectors and scientists. He is also credited with finding "The Fire Queen" in 1906 at the Angledool Diggins. He really didn't know what he actually had, and sold some of his findings for a fairly small amount. Apparently, he led a very colorful life, and had a taste for good ales. It is reported that he was the first suicide chronicled at the Lightning Ridge mine. The Fire Queen was eventually sold to John D. Rockefeller for 75,000 pounds, but Dunstan sold it to a buyer for only 100 pounds.

The Coober Pedy mine in the Australian outback near Adelaide in Southern Australia was actually discovered by a 14 year old looking for water. William Hutchison was the youngest member of an Adelaide prospecting syndicate, and he found the first opal at Coober Pedy in 1915. This mine today is one of the major sources of the world's opals.

The Pride of Australia was found in 1915 by two miners, Tom Urwin and Snowy Brown at a place called Phone Line. It is said to be shaped like the continent where it was found and is colored by black, blue and red streaks and veins. It was taken to several world fairs with a billing that said that it was "the greatest opal of Australia". Dr. Hubert Eaton was owner of the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, and an avid gem collector. He purchased "The Pride of Australia" in 1954 and added it to his large group of gems. It was, however, later stolen from Dr. Eaton, along with some other members of his esteemed collection in 1961, and never recovered.

There are a lot of very famous opals from Australia. There is a wonderful web site that gives a brief history of a number of them. It is called Opals Down Under. The site is written in a comfortable style that really appeals the average reader.

There are a lot of fine opals in other parts of the world, most notably the famous fire opals that are found in Mexico and Mesoamerica. However, more opals are being mined in the United States. The state of Nevada is well-known for the precious opals found in the Virgin Valley region. The first opals there came to light in 1906. It has become a source for highly prized opals because of their size. Some stones are reported to weigh 3 kilograms. Opals found at the site are of a fossilized nature because often they replace wood, and the replacement is so perfect that the original material is no longer visible. Other areas in the United States that produce opals are Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, and Oregon.


Gems: A Lively Guide for the Casual Collector, Daniel J. Dennis Jr., 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, New York

Gemstones: Symbols of Beauty and Power, Eduard Gubelin and Franz-Xaver Erni, Geoscience Press, Tucson, Arizona

Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore Revised Edition , Bruce G. Knuth, Jewelers Press, Thornton, Colorado

Opals Down Under

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