For all of us amateur opal cutters getting a regular supply of reasonable quality is one of the major problems. As opal mining slows down due to rising costs and lack of new finds, it is getting harder and harder to access.
I have been lucky living in Australia with relatively easy access to the opal fields, although it is a 2 day drive to get to the closest of them. In my twenties I went on a number of trips to Lightning Ridge and the Queensland boulder opal fields of Duck Creek and Yowah. I found many pieces of boulder opal and I still have some of them today. It was also possible to scour the opal dumps and pick up pieces of opal left by the early miners. It is extremely rare to find any today as most of the dumps at Lightning Ridge have been picked up and put through concrete mixing trucks fitted with sieves and all of the opal extracted. At Andamooka most of the dumps have been put through noodling machines with the same result.
So how then can we access opal for our own collections?
There are a number of options but they all have their own pitfalls. Some that I would like to discuss from my own experience are:
(a) Buying on the local Internet.
(b) Buying from overseas on the internet.
(c) Buying from miners on the opal fields.
(d) Buying from dealers or lapidary Club members at Gem Shows.
One thing we all need to remember when buying opal is that a good quality opal is very expensive so that it is unrealistic to think we can buy a big parcel of good quality opal at a low price. It just will not happen and we need to lower our expectations. That doesn't mean we can't buy some beautiful opal even if it is not the best quality. We do however have to be careful. The opal seller is out to get the best price he can and some of them can be quite unscrupulous and are not adverse to misrepresenting the quality of the opal. In my opinion it is really advisable to see and handle the opal before buying it. Of course if you are buying from the Internet this is not possible and you have to take the risk. I would also add that even when you can see and handle the opal it is still very easy to make mistakes especially with rough opal that has not been faced or pre-formed. I will talk about that later.
(a) Buying on the local Internet.
This includes buying on Ebay or directly from websites advertising opal for sale. There are two risks here. Are you getting what is shown in the photo on the website? Some photos show a large parcel of opal and you get a portion of that parcel when you buy a specific amount. The photo often shows some nice colours but you do not necessarily get them in your purchase. The second risk is that the description is not accurate, especially in describing the extent of sand and other irregularities in the stones. Photos are always taken from the best possible angle showing the least amount of impurities as possible.
As an example of this I will relate an experience I have had. I was asked to cut a parcel of opal rough purchased on the Internet. When I received the stones they all appeared to have nice colour and no doubt the photos of the opal would have indicated they were a good buy. But almost all of the stones had large amounts of sand in the opal. It was very difficult to get a reasonable sized cut stone from such a parcel and I am sure the person for whom I had cut the stones would have been disappointed, as I was. This is always the risk when buying stones from photographs on the Internet but we sometimes have no option. All you can do is study the photographs carefully and ask as many direct questions as you can. Remember also that people selling the stones have examined them carefully before offering them for sale and if they are cutters themselves will have taken the best for their puposes.
It does sound like I believe it is impossible to purchase a nice parcel on the Internet but it is not if you are careful. There are a number of reputable sellers with their own web sites where you can buy good opal, often with a guareantee of returning it if you are not satisfied. You will probably have to pay a bit more for it but at least you get some nice cuttable stones. I also find that buying parcels of rough opal at a price per gram or ounce is a better way to go than buying say a jar of mixed opal rough for a fixed price. I have bought parcels of opal at $200 - $600 per ounce with all stones being cuttable but have bought jars of opal rough at around $100 per jar and found most of the opal unsuitable for cutting even small stones.
(b) Buying from overseas on the Internet.
My experiences doing this have not been all that good. I have bought Ethiopian opal on a few occasions but a few months after receiving it it cracked badly before I even had a chance to cut it. I am sure it is not all like that but there is a need to be careful.
(c) Buying from Miners on the Opal Fields.
This is where I have been most successful, but even here you have to be careful. Miners are out to get the best price they can which is most understandable as there are considerable costs in mining these days. About 10 years ago Barbara and I were in Andamooka and I was looking to buy a small parcel. We looked in the opal shops but I did not see anything of great value. We went to the local pub for dinner and asked there if any of the miners had any small parcels to sell. We were introduced to "Otto" one of the well known miners. He was a very amiable person, slightly under the weather and said he had a real bargain for me. We talked for a while and agreed to meet at his home the next day. Otto , at that time , had a noodling machine. He would load the opal dumps into his machine, sieve them and then sort the opal from the other stones under an ultraviolet light. All the stones that fluoresced were then carefully sorted and the better stones removed. The potch and lesser quality stones were then put in a sugar bag and sold. It was a bag of this that Otto wanted to sell me. I had a quick look and agreed on a price. I had a lot of fun sorting carefully through these rejected stones and found a few with really nice colour so I was quite happy. Otto then introduced us to his partner and we were invited to see their current mine. This too was very interesting as they had opened up a large tunnel and were excavating in it with a large front end loader.
Over the years we visited Andamooka a few more times and always called in to see Otto. Most times he would sell me a small parcel or introduce me to a friend who had something to sell. In this way I managed to buy a reasonable quantity of good opal and matrix. Of course it wasn't the best quality but it gave me a lot of pleasure in cutting and allowed me to build up a nice collection of opal. It was very sad to find out on a recent visit that Otto had passed away. He was always cheerful and happy to see us so we feel we had lost a friend.
On another visit and while we were in the pub again, we were introduced to "Biggus Dickus". He was a genial young man and told us about his opal mining. He took me to a large piece of quartz with opal all through it. It was amazing to see and he said he had been offered $50,000 for it, but thought it was worth more as it was quite rare. He said he would probably take it to Germany to sell it. I never found out if he sold it as on our next trip, when we enquired after him, we found he had passed away also. His grave is in the Andamooka cemetery with a large sign saying "Biggus Dickus. A picture of this, together with other graves is in the post about Andamooka graves on this web site.
I have also bought a nice parcel of opal from a miner at a pub in Grawin, not far from Lightning Ridge.
This has been my preferred way of buying opal. You get to see and handle the opal and can decide to buy or not. In many cases it is the safest but not always so as I will now relate a recent experience.This will also show how careful you need to be and to not always believe what you are told.
On a recent trip to an opal field I asked around to where I could go to buy a small parcel. I was told to go to a particular miner who had some for sale. We met up with him and he took us to his house where he told us basically how honest he was and showed me some parcels of opal he had for sale by the ounce. he had asked me what quality I was looking for and I said I would spend say $200 - $300. he bought out some appropriate opal which looked ok and also a jar of brilliant looking crystal opal and just sat it there . Of couse all the rest looked drab and I could not take my eyes off this jar. I asked him much this was and he said $400 per ounce. This seemed to me to be a bargain as the colours were exceptional. You could only see the edges of the opal as the larger faces were covered in sand or a non transparent layer of dull opal. I explained that I had once had to cut a stone for a friend which had similar bright colours when viewed from the edge but when the larger face was ground down there was vey little colour from that direction and the stone had to be cut with the edge facing up thus resulting in smaller stones. He assured me this would not be the case with this opal. He also assured me the stones would not have cracks. At this stage I should have been wary as there were a large number of smaller pieces of opal among the larger stones. But I was mesmerized by the brilliant blues, greens and orange flashes on the edge of the stones. The upshot was I purchased two ounces of this opal for $800. At this stage I was very happy with the purchase, so much so that on our return trip I called in again and bought the remaining two and a half ounces for a friend.
When I got home I started to cut some of the larger pieces and was quite dismayed to find they were full of tiny cracks. Also when faced the colours were nowhere near as good as when looking at the edge. I managed to a few moderate sized stones with lovely colour and a lot of small stones with beautiful green dazzling flash but was unable to cut anything with the orange flash as the stones were not thick enough. While I am relatively happy with the stones I have been able to cut I was disappointed because the seller had been so adamant they would not crack. I am sure he knew because when we went back the second time he asked had I cut any of them and seemed very relieved when I said no, as we were on holiday. I don't regret buying the parcel as the small stones are very beautiful and the very small chips are stunning so I am sure I have got good value but nowhere near as good as I believed, having listened to the miner.
Another story I will relate as was told to me by a friend who was also trying to buy a small parcel at a different field. He went into an opal shop and asked if the owner had any rough to sell. He was advised yes and looked at a parcel which he thought was reasonable. He agreed on a price and said he would have to go to the bank to get the money. He was gone about 15 minutes and when he returned he asked to see the parcel again. A number of the better quality stones had been removed and the cost had been increased. Needless to say he just walked out and the shopkeeper had lost a sale.
Not all sellers are like these but it does show you have to be very wary and not to eager. I am a bit gullible and ready to believe most of the miners aand in most cases it has not been an issue. Also I believe it is the buyers responsibility to accept full responsibility for their purchase.
(d) Buying from dealers and owners at Gemshows.
This, I believe is a good way to buy opal. You can see and handle the opal and get advice from gemclub members on the value of the opal. The downside is that there are not that many Gemshows and not always much opal on sale anyway.
I hope these experiences help in some way if you are trying to buy opal.