The Year At Lightning Ridge

by Christine Roussel

Editor’s Note: Christine Roussel cuts and carves opal in Lightning Ridge. If you’re in Canada, you may well have seen Christine on television. She is the cutter in the “opal” episode of the Canadian Discovery Channel series “Stones of Fate and Fortune.

An aerial overview of Lightning Ridge.

On The Ridge the year 2004 began with a very hot and dry summer, temperatures over 47 degrees Celsius for weeks on end during Jan and Feb. Motors on the mining machinery are affected by the intense heat as much as the miners themselves are so most miners who can afford it head to the coast (8hrs drive away) for the worst of it and those that can't stay home and mine intermittently early in the day before the heat gets too intense.

Last year there was a general mood of despondency in the air. It took longer for the miners to get up and running. Nobby opal was in short supply. While this led to higher demand, it did not seem to bring prices up.

Field prices tended to be a little firmer for small red on black and bright commercial sized stones {2 to 5 cts}, but in general the prices are not good especially for low grade cut stones, the demand is not there. With less mining going on there is less rough available for buyers to purchase and people will find that there will be a general shortage of rough opal for sale at Tucson in 2005 which will lead to higher prices. As well, the Aussie dollar is stronger against the greenback than it was last year before Tucson and this makes our opal more expensive to Americans buying. Of course all of us in the gem industry are all hoping for stability in the world as this insecurity has a bad effect on the prices of all gemstones and gem trade industries.

A Vial of Lightning Ridge “angelskin” opal; photo courtesy Tibara-Opal (  

At present a lot of mining is happening in the seam opal fields, about 40kms from Lightning Ridge. So the opal I have been cutting and carving has mostly been seam opal with only a few of my clients finding nobby opal. Most of my own cutting has been commercial oval cabs as well as undulated free shaped stones and carvings. By this I don’t mean figurative carving but rather undulating free forms, sometimes suggesting figurative shapes. The reason I carve Lightning Ridge black opal is to preserve material and then try and present it in the most pleasing and balanced shape so the jeweler who sets the piece can do so without too much trouble. Black opal is way to scarce to grind away into oval shapes. I have had some lovely pieces to carve this year as a lot of my clients have nice opal that just begs to be carved. My hope is that carved Lightning Ridge opal will come to be more generally accepted in the market place and that carved opal may even become the norm as the market realizes that our product is a very rare gem and much too valuable to waste even a single carat. Mother nature is done with making opal, it is now up to us to make the best use of what is found and do all that is possible to preserve this precious gem.

Gossip of big finds
There have been rumors of large plates of seam opal found but as usual a lot of this is hearsay. There has been some good material found but the miners finding this material are sitting on it and waiting for the prices to pick up and are only selling the low to med grade and the odd nice piece for running expenses, I think this is a good thing in a way as this will steady up the prices and stabilize things a little. An old friend of mine who passed away recently was a miner for about 30 to 40 years always said the best position a miner can be in is to have a good stock of all grades of opal as then he can sell all his opal for a premium, plus the buyers are keen to buy from a miner who has a steady supply of opal and will always pay that little bit more to these miners.

Lightning Ridge opal; photo courtesy Tibara-Opal.

Breaking New Ground
The Lightning Ridge Miners Association has been lobbying for new ground to be opened up for prospecting but this has been held up with a few farmers wanting more restrictive conditions with conditions and dragging in environmental issues. It is very hard to please all sides and it is getting to the stage where you will need to have a permit to inhale and exhale on a mining field let alone anything else more damaging. So we are all hoping that reason prevails and things will get sorted in 2005.

The Big Carved Black
The most memorable opal to come through my workshop recently is a huge plate of black seam opal from Mulga field at Grawin I carved two years ago. To be honest it scared the daylights out of me. I had never carved anything this large, so I studied it for quite a few weeks before I even began to clean it up.

Finally I started with removing all the sandstone which encased the plate and then proceeded to carve back the black patch to expose the color bars. This took many weeks and wore out lots diamond burrs. Even with my exhaust fan system on and a mask I still managed to cover my workshop and myself in sludge and slurry from the bulking out stages.

With opal you can never guarantee what will be under any layer, so the whole time I was expecting to come across a huge sand pit in the center or something equally undesirable. The better it looked as I went on the more nervous I got. The finished carving is 12" long 9" wide and 3" thick at the top tapering down to 1" thickness at the bottom. The color bars go right through and out the back of the piece.

I finished the piece in about 5 months and I kept track of some of the hours but I stopped counting after 120. All the while the guys who owned it would come and check on its progress and encourage me to keep at it, as this was the first time anything of this size had ever been carved in Lightning Ridge black opal.

Radiant with a rainbow of color and very close to twelve inches along the bottom, the huge carving weights 1.2 Kg or 6,000 carats, making it the largest freeform black opal in the world. Photo courtesy of Christine Roussel, copyright Christine Roussel.

I was on tenterhooks how the opal industry would react. In the upshot, it proved a highly popular piece when it made its debut at the 2003 OJDAA (Opal Jewelry Design Awards) held in Lightning Ridge biennially.

This piece will be on display and for sale at the Tucson Gem Show in February at the new GLDA new show site. Look for Lightning Ridge Designer Miners . You can meet the guys who own the piece and drool over their very impressive display of cut and carved opal.

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