New Australian Opal Fields Open

October 15, 2003

New Australian Opal Fields Open

Some new mining areas for boulder opal have opened in Queensland, Australia, and it is expected that new material will reach the market in the next 12 months, reports International Colored Gemstone Association ambassador Damien Cody, who is based in Australia. This is welcome news for jewelers who sell the gem, as shortages of fine single opals from Australian sources have been evident in the U.S. market for several years.

Cody says opal production in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia [where many of the best boulder opals have been found in the past], is currently low, and this is mostly due to the continuing decline in new finds.

With the lack of larger single opals on the market, there has been a renaissance in the making of opal doublets, a process in which thin slices of opal are glued onto a base (usually dyed black chalcedony). Opal triplets occur when clear quartz cabochons are glued onto the opal slice. The result of both processes is a larger opal appearance using much less material.

Cody also reports that in Queensland and at Inverell, NSW, sapphire mining production has almost come to halt at the areas' major sapphire fields. The main reason for this stoppage is caused by Thai sapphire buyers, who usually purchase the vast majority of the Australian sapphires mined, both from the larger, industrial mining firms as well as from the smaller miners.

Reportedly, the Thais are offering between 30% to 50% less for rough goods, making mining unprofitable, says Cody. Some dealers say the drop of prices may be due to the stiff competition in world sapphire markets offered by the new sources. But other factors also come into play as well. "The Thai baht has fallen 30% against the Australian dollar during the past two months," says Cody. This means the purchasing power of the Thai dealers, Australia's principal buyers, is greatly diminished.

Australia was once the world's premier source of dark blue and green sapphires. In the 1990s, much was exported to Thailand for cutting and setting in jewelry.

by Robert Weldon, G.G.

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