Fancy Hunting for Boulder Opal? Start at Winton
If you’ve ever fancied yourself striking it lucky on an Australian opal field but felt it was daunting, the annual Winton Opal Festival is your chance to get the lowdown on all things Boulder Opal.
In July 2021, the Winton Opal Festival and Trade Show had everything for anyone interested in opal, Australia’s National Gemstone, and future years promise the same.
The Queensland Boulder Opal Association organised a line-up of 10 speakers to talk about opal mining, mines compliance, cutting, designing, valuing opal, jewellery, and more.
Stephen Tasic from Winton Opal Gems said visitors had the opportunity to liaise directly with miners, buyers and jewellers and even meet a genuine Outback Opal Hunter.
The Winton Opal Festival and Trade Show, which is open to the public, is the first event on the annual circuit for Australia’s eastern states, with shows in opal producing areas such as Winton, Yowa and Lightning Ridge.
This year, QBOA will hold a second Opal Festival in September, coinciding with Winton’s famous biannual Outback Festival.
The festival usually attracts hundreds of people, so it is wise to book your accommodation well in advance.
For more details visit https://www.qboa.com.au/opalfestival/
Stephen Tasic’s Opal Journey
Second-generation opal miner and part-time jewellery designer Stephen Tasic said his family came to opal mining in the mid-1980s.
“I came out here to Winton as a kid on school holidays from the Atherton Tablelands,” he said.
“My father was mining and buying opal off other miners. My family then sold the opal at the Kuranda markets through the 80s and 90s to visiting Australians, Americans, Japanese and other internationals.
“I found my first opal about three feet deep when I was about 16 years old. I think that memory pretty well hooked me, I got the fever, but it lay dormant for a few years!”
Stephen’s shop carries all kinds of opals including Queensland’s Boulder Opal, White Crystal Opal from Coober Pedy and Andamooka in South Australia, as well as Black Opal from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales.
“I even have some Mexican and some Ethiopian Opal. I like all opal no matter where it is from.”
Stephen said his ongoing opal journey takes him from Winton in the winter months to wholesaling with opal and jewellery shops around Australia in the summer months.
“Eight years ago, this journey led me to the biggest gem show in the world in Tucson, Arizona, selling and showcasing Australian opals to American designers. I’ve done many trips to the US in the past eight years.
“It has been an exciting journey. There is so much to learn and there is a new challenge every day. It’s a constant learning curve from exploration to mining, cutting, wholesaling, designing and retailing.
“This isn’t like working a normal job, for me anyway. There are so many aspects to the opal industry that many people rarely realise.”
Boulder Opal Fossicking Tips
Stephen Tasic’s top tip on how to fossick for opal is: “Eat your carrots so you have good eyes!”
“You can go to Winton’s Waltzing Matilda Centre or to the bush park at Opalton and pay for a permit to fossick at the designated fossicking area in Opalton. Then take a spray bottle and go for your life,” he said.
“When you pick up the stone and have a look, it pays to spray them with water in order to see the colour hidden in the boulder.
“We have a fossicking pit in front of our shop so we can show people what to look for.”
Stephen said some of the “gemiest” opal was often inside the rock.
“It’s a fine gem line, like the one I found when I was 16 years old.
“That was the finest, smallest line and I didn’t think much of it, but once cut, you could see it was a top gem. I wish I had it now. It would definitely have appreciated in price.”
Opalton to Jundah Run
Some of the best Queensland opals come from the run between Opalton and Jundah, which is more than 200km long by 60km wide.
“This run is prolific for producing some of the best quality opals,” Stephen said.
“The trinity of Australian opals is the Boulder, Black and Crystal opals, and we get all of it out here on the Queensland fields.
“Over the years, Crystal Opal coming out of Opalton, 120km out of Winton, has been prolific in volume and quality.
“But out here we mainly get the beautifully patterned Boulder Opal, which can often be brighter, more durable and better value than other opals.
“It’s mostly open-cut mining out here. I’m not a fan of underground mining, but over 800 old-timers during the Opal Rush before World War I were digging underground at Opalton for the spectacular Crystal Opal.
“Outside of the hand-mining area, we use excavators, bulldozers and drills to search for the opal.
“There’s so much potential here. There’s so much still under the ground. The only issue is there’s so much dirt with it, that it comes down to the economics of it.
“You need to be a jack of all trades, an operator, a bush mechanic, and above all, very patient.
“But if the old-timers did it, why can’t we? We just have to spend the time out in the bush.”
Getting into the Opal Industry
Anyone interested in a career in the opal industry could start with doing apprenticeships in mining, as a machine operator, or in cutting opal, Stephen said.
“Opal mining is largely small-scale mining and not all of us are doing it for the money.
“It’s more about small family businesses or partnerships than it is about full-scale industrial mining.
“It’s a passion, and about uncovering Australia’s National Gemstone and presenting it in the best light we can to the world.
“Ninety-five per cent of the world’s sedimentary opal comes from Australia. We’re pretty lucky with that.
“If this resource was in any other country, 100 per cent of our opal fields would be claimed, or pegged, and being worked.”
Valuing Boulder Opal
Stephen Tasic said the value of Boulder Opal was largely in the eye of the beholder.
“It often depends on what you’re attracted to, but a general guide, the brighter or darker the opal, the more colours it has, the bigger the stone, or the cleaner the face, the more valuable it is.
“Then, there is the trump card, which is its pattern. The rarity of the pattern can change an opal from $100 a carat to $1000 a carat.
“The rarer the pattern, the more desirable and valuable the opal is.”
Boulder Opals as investments
Stephen said buying Bounder Opal was a wonderful investment, not only for its appreciation value but also for sentimental values.
“We have what we call fun stones at the lower end of the market. Then there are picture stones, the commercial-grade, and then the high grade.
“Then there’s the super-high investment grade, which rarely gets showcased in Australia.
“Super-high investment-grade opal is available in Winton, Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy with certain dealers and shopkeepers. You just need to ask for it.
“It helps that you have done your research first and have a budget in mind when talking with an opal dealer or shopkeeper, but when you find that special piece, sometimes the budget goes out the window! ”
Boulder Opal Jewellery
Having your opals made into jewellery is a popular way to showcase your stones.
“Our award-winning jeweller has worked with Opals for over 30 years,” Stephen said.
“He’s very experienced. There’s a real art to it.”
Stephen also designs some of the jewellery and enters annual design competitions.
“Every piece of opal has a story that can lend itself to its own special one of a kind design.
“If someone has a special piece of opal jewellery they would like advice about including how to look after it or have it valued, they’re welcome to bring it to our shop while they’re visiting Winton.”