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Lightning Ridge Opal

Now hear this, now hear this: Lightning Ridge, Australia, the planet’s most celebrated source of opal since shortly after its discovery in 1901, is alive and kicking. Widespread reports of its demise were and still are, to put it mildly, premature. “It’s one of the biggest myths in this trade that Lightning Ridge has stopped producing to a significant degree,” scoffs New York black opal specialist Virginia Grant.

Never have epitaphs for the Ridge, as insiders call it, seemed more out of place than at present. Since 1990, it has produced more opal than it did in the preceding two decades. Couple this abundance with slackened sales to Japan, which during its boom had hogged 85 percent of annual black opal production for nearly a quarter-century, and you see why Grant and Williams want people to stop thinking of Lightning Ridge, the world’s sole source of true black opal, as a faded glory. “This country hasn’t seen fine black opal for so long,” says Grant, “many in the trade concluded Lightning Ridge was dead.”

Lightning Strikes

Lightning Ridge is a low, extended rise 500 miles northwest of Sydney in Australia’s outback, named for its spectacular electrical storms. When opal from the region was first shown to dealers in Europe around 1905, they dismissed it as either treated, or worse, gaudy. Used to light Hungarian opal with its muted dots and dashes, of powdery color, they did not know what to make of Ridge material with its deep black background against which was displayed vivid, often chunky smears and smidges of ingot red, royal blue, and verdant green.

Even seasoned Australian buyers, by then accustomed to white opal from New South Wales and Queensland, delayed enthusiasm for the new darker opal. In fact it took miner Charlie Nettleton, the first man to dig a shaft at Lightning Ridge and a legend in Australia’s opal trade, a while to make his first significant sale of top Ridge goods: 17 ounces for $30, reports Peter Bancroft in Gem and Crystal Treasures. If the stones were top-grade cuts, they would command anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 per carat today. That’s why you probably wouldn’t see them in America.

Meanwhile, Nettleton’s missionary zeal on behalf of Lightning Ridge opal slowly won the gem many converts. Besides its aesthetic merits (“European buyers determined the black opals to be the ‘fanciest’ they had seen,” Bancroft notes), the new material endeared itself to dealers because it was less prone to cracking than other opals.

As the world took note of Lightning Ridge opal, Nettleton continued his quest for a strike that could meet swelling demand for the material. In 1907, he discovered Three Mile Field, a find as momentous for opals as that of diamonds along South Africa’s Vaal River 38 years earlier. The discovery sparked an instant opal rush, drawing 1,000 prospectors and “producing more opal than all the other Lightning Ridge properties combined,” writes Bancroft. Between 1907 and 1920, Lightning Ridge experienced what George Williams calls “its first golden age,” during which it earned a reputation as the supreme source for opal.

The second age didn’t come until 1962. Dealers unfamiliar with opal mining assumed the four-decade dearth meant the Ridge was exhausted as a source. In reality, says Williams, the Ridge had exhausted the mining techniques used to extract the small nodules (called “nobbies”) of opal from beneath its layers of sandstone where they were embedded in clay-like dirt.

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Lightning Ridge Opal