Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Fire Down Under

A new find of fire opal in Australia may be a game changer.

By Mark Lepage

Down Under Designs
Five years ago, a prospector named Peter Piromanski was trucking the bush in Western Australia when his vehicle got bogged down to the axles and could not move. He decided to camp for the night, lit a fire, saw things sparkling and realized he was sitting in the middle of an opal field.
   Fast-forward to the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) GemFair in Tucson this past February and Piromanski’s company, Down Under Designs, is introducing this accidental discovery of Australian fire opal to the gemstone market. Alan Chapman, worldwide distributor for the Australian firm, was initially approached by Piromanski 18 months before GemFair to help publicize the stones. In Tucson, Chapman and designer Jason Wallett were making the introduction from a half-booth exhibit containing 1,400 carats of fire opals in sizes ranging from 2 millimeters to 27 carats, and such colors as tangerine, lemon yellow, cobalt blue and burnt orange.
   The Australian fire opal field in Laverton is only three feet deep, but extends over 60 square miles. “It could only have been found by someone traveling on foot,” says Chapman. Wallett came on board in September 2013 and advised Chapman to bring the stones to America, where he said there exists a ready-made market for fire opal. Wallett upgraded his AGTA membership, secured a last-minute booth at GemFair and sped up the stone-cutting schedule.

Getting the Word Out
   The marketing task for Down Under Designs is to compare and contrast the new Australian material with the far more established Mexican fire opal and identify the superior qualities of the newer gemstones. One stumbling block for the firm is that Mexican fire opal is comparatively ancient and well known. Appreciated by the Aztecs in the fourteenth century, who called it “hummingbird stone,” fire opal was rediscovered by Don José María Siurab in the 1840s in the Santa Maria del Iris Mine in Queretaro, northwest of Mexico City. Today, fire opal is Mexico’s national gemstone. “From a gemological standpoint, most of it is common opal,” says Kambiz Sabouri, of fine colored gemstone importer Gem 2000 Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. “It doesn’t exhibit a play of color.” Indeed, the name fire opal refers not to play or flashes of color, but to the iron oxide in the gemstone that provides its translucent orange or red body hue.
   “The Mexican material was formed by a secondary deposit of geyser water washing over lava flow and depositing in the voids,” says Frank Farnsworth of Parle Jewelry Designs in Pocatello, Idaho, a colored gemstone designer and manufacturer who supplies 2,000 independent jewelers across the country. “The difference between Mexican and Australian, from my understanding, is that the material in Australia was formed under an ancient sea bed. Water went through sand, gathered silica and deposited it. If the heat was correct, the molecules would line up.”
   The differences in formation lead to differences in extracting. In Australia, some of the opal is already on the surface, and is never found more than three feet below it. First mined with pickaxes, it is now extracted by water jet drilling. Traditional drilling is not an option, Wallett says, because “the vibrations would shatter” the stones. In contrast, opaline rock in Mexico is mined in open pits near extinct volcanoes and can be found 60 feet below the surface. “The Mexican mining now is small scale,” says Sabouri, but still involves some dynamite blasting and extraction with jackhammers.

Pricing Issues
   According to Farnsworth, “The prices of Mexican opal have gone up considerably in the past two to three years — to $80 per carat to $120 per carat — because there’s less material coming out. My suppliers tell me the amount has been trending down for about ten years.” Chapman admitted that his firm was still working on valuation of the Australian stones when they arrived at GemFair. “We went to the Tucson show not knowing how to price it,” says Willett, “because, despite the fact that we feel our stones have better clarity than the Mexican ones, they have no play of color, so we had nothing to compare them to. We’ve brought the price way down, to $10 per carat for smaller stones, to $360 per carat to $390 per carat for 20-carat-plus stones.”
   Tim Roark, a wholesale gemstone and pearl supplier in Atlanta, Georgia, has been dealing in Mexican fire opal off and on for 20 years. “As other things become more expensive, fire opal becomes more attractive,” he says. Roark says he has sold $30,000 worth of fire opal in the past six months. “Generally, people buy it for the color; it’s a good red-orange. And it’s a natural stone, so that’s another plus, and less expensive than some other gemstones. It tends to attract a more eclectic type of designer. It’s less hard than some other stones and more delicate, so it’s probably not a good idea to put it in a ring. But it’s great for pendants and earrings.”
   Wallett remains bullish on his new fiery opal. “The high-quality Mexican fire opal is becoming harder to find and we’ve got high-quality Australian fire opal,” he says. “We’re having studies done on its water content and they may conclude ours is the driest and most stable fire opal there is.” That would provide another positive point in the marketing message for the new gemstone. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2014. To subscribe click here.

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Tags: Mark LePage