In Conversation with Opal Expert Debbie

Debbie and her husband, Chris, began their opal business over thirty years ago. Based in Australia, they spend their summer months on the coast of New South Wales and in the winter in their shack on the opal field of Yowah in South Western Queensland. Chris processes and cuts opals from rough boulders into stones suitable for setting into jewellery. While they work with opals from all the opal fields of Australia, they specialise in Queensland Boulder opals, where their passion lies. 

"We are very fortunate to be able to spend our lives working with this gemstone, uncovering these unique and beautiful pieces. We are never sure from the rough boulders what form each piece will finally take. It is always a surprise." 

How did you start working with Opals? Why Opals? 

Both Chris and I share a love of travelling, and after a particularly difficult situation in Singapore, we decided that we were fed up with travelling on a shoestring. We spent seven years building a business unrelated to opals, and when we sold it, we had a sum of money to invest in something else. We arrived on the field of Coober Pedy in 1991 and immediately fell in love with the opals. We dived in head first, knowing nothing at all about the stone. It took many mistakes to learn, but over time, we gained experience and began to develop a market in England and the USA.

After we had been trading in opal for four years, we discovered through a family tree that Chris's Great Grandfather was an opal classer and buyer on the newly found field of Whitecliffs in NSW in the 1890's. When black opal was found in Lightning Ridge in 1915, he became one of the first buyers there. He supplied opals to a man called Tullie Woollaston, the man responsible for establishing the market for opals in England. We had absolutely no idea about any of this when we first began buying opals.  




How did you first start working with Pippa? 

Many years ago, I was given Pippa's name by one of our clients. I made an appointment with Pippa in her Notting Hill shop to show her the array of opals from the opal fields. She immediately fell in love with the Boulder Opals. Chris cuts each stone into a shape that follows the form of the colour of that stone. It was exciting entering Pippa's shop and meeting her. It was the perfect place to offer these pieces, as each opal is unique. Pippa's jewellery allows for the originality of the opal, and her designs enhance their distinct character.


What is the process of extracting opal, and what are the difficulties involved? 


There are three distinctly different types of opal found in Australia. White based opal, black or grey-based opal, and further North on the Queensland fields, we find Boulder opals. As we specialise in the Boulder opal, it is the mining of this that I will talk about here. 


Mining operations are small, with often only one or two miners working alone in the middle of nowhere. Opal is often found at levels of at least 30 feet in depth and, in some cases, further down. 

The many difficulties encountered are due to the remoteness of the area and the difficulty in finding the pockets where the opal is formed. The digging and the processing of these huge rocks is hard work, not to mention the costs of fuel and repairs to machinery to keep it all going. 


 "The valuation of opal is complex and takes experience."


Why do opals vary so widely in pricing? 


Opal is valued in combination with the clarity and brightness of the stone's color - red being the most expensive because of its rarity. Equally, you can have a blue-green stone with great clarity, depth of colour and pattern that is more valuable than red if the brightness of the red stone does not match that of the green-blue. The valuation of opal is complex and takes experience. However, if you compare two stones in different price ranges and compare them in terms of their brightness, clarity, and cleanness, you can easily see why one stone is worth so much more than the other. 




How have opals been used throughout history? 

Opal was held in great value by the Romans, a fact which is reflected in the well known story of the Roman senator Nonius. He is said to have possessed a very fine opal about the size of a hazelnut, and valued at 20,000 sesterces. The stone was so beautiful that the Roman Emperor demanded that Nonius hand over the opal. Nonius himself held the stone in such high regard that he departed from Rome with his gemstone, leaving his wife, family, and property behind him. 

The origins of the opals that supplied the Roman Empire were from the mines now in Slovakia, which continued to supply opals to the world until the 20th Century. The mines in Eastern Europe were believed to be the only source of opal until the Spaniards returned from the New World with Aztec Opal. 

Opals became fashionable in royal and aristocratic dress in Renaissance England. Queen Elizabeth I and members of the Elizabethan nobility wore lavish opal jewellery. 

Queen Victoria was an opal lover and kept a fine collection, which she wore throughout her reign. Opal became highly sought after because the royal court of Britain was regarded as a model of fashion around the world. In the latter part of her reign, a new mine was found in Whitecliffs in Australia, bearing a quality rarely found in the Slovakian mines, as the opal supply had been exhausted over the centuries. 


"I always advise wearing opals as much as you can. They love to be out in the air and to breathe."


Why is there a myth about Opals being bad luck? 

By the end of the 1890s, after the mines in Whitecliffs had been found, opal became so popular that it affected the sale of diamonds, so much so, that articles appeared in the English press misleading people to believe that opal was unlucky. The tactic worked and opal went out of favour in Great Britain.



When buying an opal what are the key factors one should look for? 

Buying a boulder opal is an individual choice. There is no right or wrong in what you choose. Each piece is unique, and there is little chance of repeating a particular stone's pattern or colour in the same way again. I think the purchase of a boulder opal is a personal choice. If the stone strikes you and you fall in love with it, then that is the opal for you.

Is it safe to wear your opals every day? 

Boulder opal is the hardest of all Australian opals as the rock the opal colour is contained in is very hardy. When we look at Coober Pedy or Lightening Ridge, generally, the hardness of the opal is about the same as an Agate. My father bought a Lightning Ridge Crystal from us for an engagement ring for my stepmother and she has worn it for 30 years. She rarely takes it off, and the opal looks as good today as when Dad bought it. 

It is a good idea to set the stone in a bezel setting rather than a claw set so that the metal protects the edge.

I always advise wearing opals as much as you can. They love to be out in the air and to breathe. The worst thing you can do with an opal is to keep it in a safe for long periods of time where there is no air. In a dry atmosphere with no moisture, there is more possibility for it to crack than actually wearing it.