A Brief Overview of the Hunt for Opals

A Brief Overview of the Hunt for Opals

Of all the semi precious and precious stones in the world, only 12 were chosen as birthstones...one for each month of the year.  Among the better known and obvious gems: Diamonds, Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds and Sapphires, one finds the Opal -- October's birthstone.

(And note that all but pearls and Opals have to be precision cut with multi-facets to enhance their value. Opals just need shaping, sanding and polishing. )

Prized for thousands of years, the first opals were found and mined in east Africa and Eastern Europe. When those mines played out, centuries elapsed and opals grew so scarce that the leading markets would not even deal with them.

Come the late 1800s, out in the vast wastelands of Australia, new huge sources were discovered and commercial interests moved in. By the early 1900s, the availability of opals brought about demand on a global scale. In 1932, Australia burst into the lead as the major producer of opals worldwide and some believe it actually remains so to this very day.

The traditional method       

If you love watching old Western movies and Cowboy TV shows, traditional opal mining fits right in your mindset. The vision of that crusty old miner, with his trusty old burro, packed up with basic prospecting tools – shovel, pickax, oil lantern, sluicing pans, etc. - fits the bill precisely.

Opal was most commonly mined by a handful of individuals. Sinking the shaft, then tunneling along to the opal ‘level’ using picks and shovels, physical labor was slow and tedious. Perhaps, a crude hand operated winch might be installed to slowly and painstakingly haul buckets of excavated material up to the surface. In the Badlands of Australia, where the overwhelming amount of opal is still currently mined, workers prefer to stay deep underground, to avoid the blistering triple digit temperatures during the day, and the frigid single-digit temperatures at night. The personal touch enhances the perceived value in the finished product.

Today Australian opal production is transformed into a highly mechanized industry, but is still operates in the hands of individuals who work within small mining leases or claims. And yes, all of it is controlled by a whole set of different state mining regulations. For example, except under special circumstances, only underground mining is allowed in New South Wales, whereas in South Australia both underground and open-cut mining are permissible. In Queensland, open cut mining is the norm with bulldozers and massive 40-ton excavators clearing a wide swath of territory. Thus, many people pride themselves on obtaining Opal that is much harder to obtain than something bulldozed out of the ground separated by gargantuan machines.

Exploration is undertaken by surface prospecting and drilling. Yes, a great deal of super sophisticated, computer driven, digitally magnified, geology based scientific instruments, using satellite and aircraft produce images and spectral data to target areas. Once targeted, the ground crew sets into the area, with even more precise, sophisticated tracking, scanning, probing, evaluation tools, to further evaluate the area, the potential, and the volume and quality of the opal hidden beneath the surface.

Once a primary target is selected, it is time to dig. The use of 9-inch auger drills is the favorite choice for opal miners, as these drills are capable of recovering fairly large samples within various opalized zones. Many of these rigs are equipped with wet (puddlers) or dry (rumblers) rotating screens to separate harder drill chips which may include opal from the enclosing softer sediments. Because precious opal occurs in well-defined stratigraphic and structural geographic traps, geophysical surveys using magnetic, resistivity, shallow seismic and ground penetrating radar are often called in to evaluate, with varying success.

Recently it was discovered that in some Australian locations the entire “opal level” as well as opals themselves are slightly radioactive. Gamma ray logging of drill holes can then be used to provide indication of the presence of this “level” which may contain precious opal, even if the drill hole was a ‘near-miss’ and failed to bring opal fragments to the surface. 

If all the preliminaries show positive, then mining is undertaken by drilling one meter diameter vertical shafts using large diameter bucket drills. These will produce a bulk sample of about one cubic meter or more of material that is brought to the surface and carefully examined, usually by washing and sieving, to extract any opal fragments. If potentially economic opal is found, then drives or tunnels are dug using jack hammers or underground hydraulic excavators. The excavated material is either sucked to the surface using ‘blowers’ or by automated bucket winches or conveyors. You can imagine all this industry tearing up the Australian Outback. Opal may be considered the national gemstone, but when you look at an Australian opal...that is what you can envision behind it.

After commercial mining venture have exhausted the deposits in Australia state governments have set aside former opal mining areas and a “fossicking license” is usually all that is required to carry out hand mining and noodling 'Noodling' is when regular people search through old mullock heaps for pieces of opal that might have been missed in the initial mining operation. For health and safety reasons it is illegal for visitors to enter mine mining leases or claims without specific permission of the owners. That means you can make arrangements to come up during a few precious weeks of summer and personally dig for your own precious Opal.

But what about Canada? Here in glorious, green, forested British Columbia. There has been a discovery of a rich deposit of Precious Opal. As yet it is a very small operation, but, it is the only commercially viable opal mine in all of the great nation of Canada. The geology is different than that in Australia (another story in itself) but the Precious Opal is every bit as beautiful and valuable. This October, on Thanksgiving Day it will be the thirtieth anniversary of the discovery of the first precious opal on the Klinker Opal property. The property has hardly been disturbed and the deposit remains to be fully developed; thousands of Opals remain to be unearthed.

Now, here is where YOU come in... spend a day to find your very own opal in the Okanagan Outback west of Vernon, BC

That truly is something to treasure! Contact us today for details and to make your reservation.