July 2, 2006 – by Angie Kay.
Opals Down Under’s sparkling love story started on lonely opal fields but it grew even more precious on the Sunshine Coast.
Immo & Louise Stein’s is the quintessential Aussie love story, complete with a giant rainbow set next to the Bruce Highway for all the world to see. The owners of Opals Down Under at Palmview have led an extraordinary life in which they have travelled the world, found love in a pub called the Tucker Box near the South Australian opal fields and are now comfortably ensconced on the Coast for their semi-retirement.
With this year marking the business’ 21st anniversary the couple recently took some time to reminisce about the journey that has brought them together and while they never found “the big one” on the opal fields, Immo reckons he found an even better gem in wife Louise.
Immo emigrated to Australia from Austria when he was just 21. The year was 1962 and the former blacksmith had discovered a love of travelling and adventure. “I had heard of the Great Barrier Reef and I wanted to do some diving there,” he said. “I ended up digging holes in the desert instead.”
After a stint working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Immo went bush and arrived in South Australia’s Andamooka, hoping to find his fortune. He lived in a tent with some mates for a year and set about opal mining. In 1968, Louise and her sister decided to visit their mother who was living in the town. The family had emigrated to Australia from Zimbabwe to escape the political turmoil which had besieged the nation six years earlier.
“We had only planned to stay in Andamooka a short time but my mother convinced us to stay and we ended up getting jobs in the local watering hole called The Tucker Box,” she said. “It was not a place for a nice young lady.” Immo said he used to go to the pub about once a week for a decent meal. “But when Louise started there, I was going to the pub every day.”
Within three months the couple became engaged and they married within the year. What followed was a six-month driving honeymoon through Europe where Louise met Immo’s family before returning to the opal fields, this time in an underground dugout home in Coober Pedy.
“Before I met Louise, I was like many young men looking for their fortune,” Immo said. “It was all a great adventure. I spent quite a lot of time broke, but I had no responsibilities then. It was a big change getting married.” It was in Coober Pedy that Immo’s love affair with opals truly blossomed. “There was nothing else to do in Coober Pedy except go to the pub or go mining for opals,” he said. “So I started teaching myself how to cut them and I found I had a good feel for it.”
“So then I started mining and cutting opals, and in the end, I gave up the mining. You can mine for months and not make any money, but when you cut opal, you make a little money every day.”
Louise had also come to love the business of mining and cutting opals, saying it was like “gold fever which gets in your blood.”
“There is always that hope of finding the million-dollar stone,” she said. “A lot of people never leave the opal fields. They get hooked on it because it is an addictive way of life – you get just enough to whet your appetite.”
For Immo, the mining was more about the challenge. “You can get a rough piece of opal and you will never know what you are going to find inside it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just sand and other times it’s a beautiful opal. There is quite a lot of gambling in it. It’s not all about the money. It’s a sense of achievement when you find the opal.”
Two children later, Immo and Louise took the plunge and moved to Adelaide for a year before embarking on a three-year caravan adventure around Australia. As they travelled, they would buy opals, cut them in Immo’s mobile workshop and sell them to jewellery stores and gem dealers. The next major change in their life, after the birth of their son, was to live on a farm north of Gympie in 1980, so Immo could “live out his farming dream”, complete with sheep and cattle.
“When we first came to the Sunshine Coast, we loved it but we couldn’t afford anything we liked,” Louise said. “That was why we looked further north. We lived in this great old Queenslander home and set up our first showroom there.
“We were amazed because we thought we might sell enough to buy some groceries, but we ended up with these international tourists trotting down our driveway. They were fascinated Immo was there cutting and I was selling.
“We realised then that we might have been on to something.” It gave us that kick-start and made us realise these tourists love opals.”
The success of their home business gave the couple the confidence and the equity to make their longed-for move to the Sunshine Coast in 1985 when they set up Opals Down Under just down from the Ettamogah Pub.
“We have gone from mining the opal, to buying and cutting the opal and then on to selling them wholesale,” Immo said. “The next step was moving into retail. I love the wheeling and dealing part of it all, too: the buying and selling. There is so much involved.
“As for the business, Louise is very good with people and that’s what made us such a success. She was the one who did the selling – she understands people.”
Louise explained that Opals Down Under meant they were able to build the business around their family, with all of them living above the Palmview premises for much of that time. Their three children Danielle, Heidi and Adrian have all been employed by the business at some point.
The pair are both semi-retired with Louise working in the shop two days a week and Immo cutting there once a week. They still go on opal buying trips throughout Australia. The business has proved so successful they are now branching out with many of their sales being done over the internet to overseas customers. Some of their high-profile clients have included the Queen of Bahrain and a local woman who bought an $18,000 black opal ring.
“We are basically miners who became wholesalers,” Louise says of their success. “You have to change with the times and it is becoming clear that the internet is offering a growing market.”
With business booming and the Sunshine Coast growing, Immo and Louise believe they have finally found a place where they can spend the rest of their lives. The couple have been renovating a home at Buderim for the past five years.
“Absolutely this is where we are staying,” Louise said. “We love the Sunshine Coast with a passion. This is the longest we have been anywhere and we plan to stay.”