“Where does opal come from?” “Can I ‘rock hunt’ my own?” These are questions frequently asked by new enthusiasts to the gem hobby. It never takes long for the glamour of opal to catch the imagination of the sharp-eyed newcomer or the jewelry designer.
The early Roman reports of the charms of opal were probably inspired by the gems recovered by the famous Hungarian opal mines (World War I revisions placed these mines inside Czechoslovakian boundaries). For several centuries, these mines were the primary source for the opal treasures to the gem coffers of the world. Hungarian opals can still be found in musuems and treasure houses, although there is little or no mining activity from this source now. In the early 1900’s, Australia became the world’s prime producer of gem opals and remains the unchallenged champion today. There are important mining areas in three of the five Australian territories. The most famous of those – which are commercially active today are Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy, and Andamooka. These Australian fields now produce approximately 90 percent of the world’s gem quality opal. Most of it is the familiar white-based opal. Australia is also famous for other types — black, matrix, boulder, etc. In a future column, we will discuss more fully these various types.
Opal from Brazil has become more important in the past several years, as they have started producing larger quantities of gem quality. We may all hope that that gem rich land will continue and increase in producing opal. The beautiful flame orange and red-based fire opal found only in Mexico has been continually mined there for over 100 years. Many large producing mines have been depleted, but fortunately there have been new mines located with sufficient regularity to produce enough gem quality Mexican opal to make it available in today’s gem market.
We are also lucky enough to have found fine gem opals in several locations in the United States. So far, there hasn’t been enough of it to rival the commercial mining sources we have mentioned above. The beauty of some of this opal, however, will often rival the finest gem opal found anywhere in the world! Some of the United States locations are (1) Virgin Valley, Nevada (near Denio in Humbolt County, near the Oregon border); there have been several other deposits in northern Nevada; (2) Spencet, Idaho; (3) Red Rock Canyon, California (the Nowak mine, north of the Mojave, in Kern County); and (4) the relatively new find of blue precious opal in Arizona. All of these mines are under claim and worked by the mine owners. Some have made digging arrangements for fees. One can check with the mines for these details.
There have also been precious opals found in a number of other places including: Fort Baynard, New Mexico; Crook County and Lake County, Oregon; near Alpine, Texas:
in Owye County, Nez Perez County, and Latah County in Idaho; near Death Valley, California. Many or most of these finds have been only random pieces or pockets of the gem&, making any commercial production impractical.
The fact that precious gem opal has been found in such divergent areas should certainly be a note of encouragement to the adventurous spirit of all true rock hunters. Most of the precious beauties are no doubt still in the ground probably nearer than you think. It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that one could find a new deposit. No doubt someone will.
Meanwhile, however, let us be thankful that there are many hardworking miners “noodling” (as the Australian call opal mining) for this queen of gems, and that rough and cut opals abound wherever gems are sold!