The History of Opal

FAQ :  What is the history of opal / opals? Who discovered opals? When was opal first found?

In a cave in Kenya, Louis Leakey, the famous anthropologist, uncovered the earliest known opal artifacts. Dating back to about 4000 B.C., they most likely came from Ethiopia. Historically, opal discoveries and mining progressed similarly to the ways diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire were produced. As early humans found various gemstones, they slowly learned to work them into decorative shapes. As communities developed, gems became symbols of wealth.

Ancient painting depicting jewellery
In the Old World, Hungary mined opal for Europe and the Middle East, while Mexico, Peru, and Honduras supplied their own native empires with the gemstone. Conquistadors introduced New World opal to Spain when they returned with stones in the early sixteenth century.

Since the late 1800’s, Australia has dominated opal production with more than ninety per cent of the global output. Opal of differing qualities occurs in more than twenty other countries, including Zambia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Poland, Peru, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, and Mexico.

The modern name of the gem opal is derived from ancient sources: the Sanskrit Upala – which means “precious stone”; the Latin Opalus; and the Greek Opallios which both mean”to see a color change”.

Early races credited opal with magical qualities and traditionally, opal was said to aid its wearer in seeing limitless possibilities. It was believed to clarify by amplifying and mirroring feelings, buried emotions and desires. It was also thought to lessen inhibitions and promote spontaneity. The early Greeks believed the opal bestowed powers of foresight and prophecy upon its owner, while in Arabian folklore, it is said that the stone fell from heaven in flashes of lightning. To the Romans, it was considered to be a token of hope and purity.

Ancient Romans provided the first real market for opal. With a rich powerful empire, wealthy citizens acquired disposable income and a passion for gems. Opal, whose colours changed with every shift of light, was rarer than pearls and diamonds and destined to be the stuff of myths and dreams.

Mark Antony loved opal. Indeed, it is said that he so coveted an opal owned by Roman Senator Nonius that Mark Antony banished the Senator after he refused to sell the almond sized stone, reputed to be worth 2,000,000 sesterces. (US $80,000) Mark Antony is said to have coveted the opal for his lover, Cleopatra. Legend states that one Roman Emperor offered to trade one-third of his vast kingdom for a single Opal.

Writing before his death in 79 A.D., the Roman Pliny wrote of the opal as “Having a refulgent fire of the carbuncle (ruby or garnet), the glorious purple of amethyst, the sea green of emerald, and all those colours glittering together mixed in an incredible way.”

Pliny thought the opals came from India, but the gems so eagerly sought by Rome probably came from open cut mines in Hungary, situated near Cervenica or Cernowitz (now Czechoslovakia). He had been deceived by dealers who had probably hoped to capitalise on the appeal of “oriental” imports. Hungarian opals have a milk-white background, usually with a pin-fire, small-size colour display. During the Middle Ages, more than three hundred men worked the mines in Hungary. The mines in Eastern Europe were the only source of European opal until the Spaniards returned from the New World with Aztec opal.

In the Middle Ages, the opal was known as the “eye stone” due to a belief that it was vital to good eyesight. Blonde women were known to wear necklaces of opal in order to protect their hair from losing its color. Some cultures thought the effect of the opal on sight could render the wearer invisible. Opals were set in the Crown jewels of France and Napoleon presented his Empress Josephine a magnificent red opal containing brilliant red flashes called “The Burning of Troy.”

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, opal began to fall out of favour in Europe. It was wrongly branded as bringing ‘bad luck’, and was associated with pestilence, famine and the fall of monarchs. Queen Victoria, however, did much to reverse the unfounded bad press. Queen Victoria became a lover of opal, kept a fine personal collection, and wore opals throughout her reign. Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, gave an opal ring to her niece Queen Victoria in 1849. This opal ring had been previously owned by Queen Charlotte since about 1810.

Queen Victoria’s friends and her five daughters were presented with fine opals. Opal became highly sought after because the Royal Court of Britain was regarded as the model for fashion around the world and fine quality opal had recently been discovered in far-off Australia. In the latter years of Queen Victoria’s long reign, various Australian opal fields were discovered and worked.

Discovery in Australia

The first discovery of common opals in Australia was made near Angaston (SA) by the  German geologist Johannes Menge in 1849. Both the Queensland Boulder Opal and Lightning Ridge fields attracted miners in the 1880’s. Production of precious opal began at White Cliffs (NSW) in 1890, from Opalton (Qld) in 1896, and at Lightning Ridge (NSW) in 1905.

Before 1900, rough opal was sent from White Cliffs, the premier NSW opal field, to Germany to be cut and polished. Gradually, professional cutters began appearing on the fields. They rigged up old treadle sewing machines or bicycles, designing innovative cutting/polishing gear. In 1907 at Old Town, on the Wallangulla Opal Fields (later known as the Lightning Ridge Opal Fields), the first recorded cutter was Charles Deane. When the 3-Mile broke out in 1908, cutters worked at Nettleton on 3-Mile Flat. Lorenz had learned to cut in Germany. He used horizontal wheels with a hand crank and was an expert. He made doublets, jewellery, and was one of the first to buy opal by the carat. Many miners cut their own opal, and often very roughly.

Danger opal sign
A study of the many written accounts of the time suggests that most of those early Australian discoveries were accidental – a horse’s hoof kicked up opal-bearing rock, a boundary rider’s wife discovered a pretty pebble in a creek bed, a flock of sheep was struck by lightning during a rainstorm and the run-off from the storm uncovered opal at ‘Lightning Ridge’. A number of Queensland locations also came into their own during the Depression years, when men without work were willing to chance their luck.

When Australian opals appeared on the world market in the 1890’s, the Hungarian mines spread the idea that it was not genuine, probably because gems with such brilliant fire had not been seen before. By 1932, the Eastern European mines were unable to compete with the high quality stone being produced in Australia and ceased production, allowing Australia to assume the mantle of premier opal producer of the world, becoming famous for Lightning Ridge’s colourful and rare black and crystal stone.

In South Australia, Angaston was followed by Coober Pedy in about 1912, Andamooka in about 1930, and then Mintabie. During the depression of the 1930’s the industry declined until new finds in 1946 stimulated mining and, since then, there has been a spectacular increase in production. Now over 50% of world production comes from South Australia.

A History of Opal Mining in Queensland

The history of opal in Queensland is one of heartbreak, frustration, determination and at times success at incredible odds. Rich in myths and legends, Queensland is the birthplace of the Australian Opal Industry. Opal was first discovered in Queensland on Listowel Downs, south of Blackall in 1869. The first registered mine was in 1871 south of the present town of Quilpie. Among the early miners were Berkelman and Lambert, who worked a deposit on the Barcoo in 1872-1873, and whose opal attracted great interest at the Queensland Annexe of the London International Gem Exhibition in 1873.

Yowah opal fields
By 1875 there had been a number of wonderful finds and interest began to grow, but it wasn’t until, 1888 that Tullie Wollaston , a young surveyor turned entrepreneur from Adelaide made a determined effort to market the gem. In so doing he engraved his name forever across the annals of history. It was due to his sheer determination in convincing the gem merchants of the world to accept the gem that we now have a viable industry.

Opal gougers of last century were mostly shearers and station-hands who had little or no geological knowledge. George Cragg, a young stockman, discovered the northern opal fields on Warronbool Downs 100 kilometres south of Winton where the Opalton Field exists even to this day.

Two World Wars and droughts slowed the progress of Boulder Opal realising its full potential on the world stage. Although mining on a small scale continued it was relatively dormant. It was not until 1967, when Des Burton , a pharmacist from Quilpie become involved with Boulder Opal, unwittingly through his efforts, helped revitalise an industry. In the 1970’s he introduced modern opal cut mining techniques which revolutionised the opal mining industry.

Boulder Opal and the people that mine and deal with opal have supplied the industry a rich and colourful history, which has become part of Australia’s heritage. Opal has been discovered in Queensland from the Southern Borders of Western Queensland to as far north as Kynuna, this probably would be the largest opal field ever known, with opal mining centres in Winton and Quilpie.

Today the Queensland opal miner still exists, supplying the markets of the world with this most exquisite product, Queensland Boulder Opal.

Timeline – A History of Opal Mining in NSW

  • 1877 – Mining for precious opal in igneous rocks begins at Rocky Bridge Creek, a tributary of the Abercrombie River, in the Central West.
  • 1881 – Opal is discovered at Milparinka, near Tibooburra in the Far West.
  • 1884 – Opal is discovered in sedimentary rock at White Cliffs in the Far West.
  • 1889 – Precious opal is discovered at White Cliffs.
  • 1880s or 1891 – Opal is discovered in sedimentary rock at Lightning Ridge (Wallangulla) and other localities in the area, but its commercial value is not recognised.
  • 1890 – Precious opal mining begins at White Cliffs (continuing to 1915 then going into decline).
  • 1896 – Opal is discovered at Purnanga and Grenville-Bunker Field. These occurrences are near White Cliffs and so extend the size of that opal-bearing district.
  • 1897 – Opal is discovered in igneous rock at Tooraweenah, near Coonabarabran.
  • 1901 – Opal is discovered in igneous rock at Tintenbar, on the Far North Coast.
  • 1901-1905 – Opal mining begins at Lightning Ridge. The first shaft was put down around 1901 or 1902 by Jack Murray, a boundary rider who lived on a property nearby. Some time later, possibly a few months, a miner from Bathurst named Charlie Nettleton arrived and commenced shaft sinking. It was he who in 1903 sold the first parcel of gems from the field for $30, not a fiftieth of the price that could have been obtained five years later.
  • 1908 – Opal mining begins at the Grawin-Sheepyard Field in the Lightning Ridge area, increasing the importance of the opal fields in the district.
  • 1919 – Opal mining begins at Tintenbar, continuing to 1922.
  • 1920 – The Newfield opal area is discovered.
  • 1985 – Seminal work by the Geological Survey of New South Wales leads to better, more scientifically controlled exploration for opals.
  • 1989 – The Coocoran opal area is discovered in the Lightning Ridge district.
  • 1998-1999 – The estimated value of opal production in the State is about $44 million. New South Wales (and Australia) is a leading world producer of opals.


Sources :

  • “Opal in South Australia”, Mines & Energy Resources, SA
  • “Opal”, Qld Dept. of Mines & Energy
  • Minerals NSW
  • “Make your own Luck with Opal”, Jewellery World, June 2000. 
  • Queensland Boulder Opal Association
  • “Opals”, by Fred Ward, Gem Book Publishers, 1997.
  • “Australian Precious Opal”, Andrew Cody, 1991.