Published: July 2013
by George Williams, Senior Gemstone Buyers
The discovery of precious opal in Ethiopia at the turn of the century has made a major impact in the gemstone industry. Opal with play of color has always been considered one of the most desired gems in the marketplace, earning it the undisputed title as "Queen of Gemstones." During the heyday of Australian opal mining from the 1950s through 1980s, opal was always in the top 3 selling colored gemstones in the US, only falling from reign as the Australian productions slowed down.
With the discovery of opal in Ethiopia's northern Welo District, and its prolific bounty, this remarkable gem has reclaimed its throne and rules again as one of the highest demanded gemstones in the American marketplace. It's been decades since we have seen a production quite like this, and after the recent "drought" of opal production, the world is lapping it up!
In fact, it is VERY unusual to have a precious gem able to satisfy a world market the way Ethiopian opal deposits have. Put into perspective, only about 2% of all gems for sale in the current market have been mined in the last two years. Most of what is available for purchase was either purposely stockpiled or comes from the re-selling of pre-owned product mined anywhere from three to over a hundred years ago! This will always be the case with rare products that have unlimited lifespan because of durability and desirability factors.
While Australian opal mines are producing maybe a third of what they once did, Ethiopia has been mining at a rate equal to Australian production during its best years. The "easy digging" experienced during the early years of Ethiopian opal production is something that historically has occurred about twice a century with opal and accounts for the very low price. Now digging must stretch deeper requiring safety measures and equipment not readily available to the region at this time.
Not only has Ethiopian opal been able to satisfy a very demanding market, it is able to do so in ways beyond what we could dream. Not only do we have access to good quality gems, but the varieties among different deposits are able to replicate precious opal found almost anywhere else in the world! Our buyers have seen stones rivaling gems found in famous locales like Australia's Coober Pedy, Lightning Ridge and Andamooka mines, Brazil or Mexico. These older mines have slowed production, but all of Ethiopia's best opal fields are less than a decade old!
Just like many other large mining areas, specific mine areas become known for their own quality of production. There are various mines located in the same region, each with its own characteristics. Most of our Ethiopian opal is from the Delanta (pronounced Duh lawn tuh) area, where some of the best quality is taken. We look for Delanta's telltale crystalline-bodied opal with distinctive play of color and extra brilliance.
Our buyers recognize the superb quality of opal mined in Ethiopia and, frankly, are convinced that it is sold WAY too inexpensively! According to their judgment, fine quality Ethiopian opal in the current marketplace should be sold for about DOUBLE what it is currently going for; and even if it doubled, it would still be considerably less expensive than a similar quality Australian opal. These amazing gems are retailing at extremely low prices—a trend that cannot be guaranteed to last.
Based on the sheer amount of potential opal-bearing ground, there is huge opportunity to discover more precious opal– perhaps varieties never before encountered. As opal mining and export figures have skyrocketed, the Ethiopian government is becoming involved, announcing that they intend to create new legislation banning the export of rough opal. This is in order to attain "added value" by increasing opportunities for other sectors surrounding the gem like cutting or jewelry making to take place.
This is the trend in all developing nations as their residents demand that a larger share of their country's depleting mineral resources be spread more evenly within the population. Unfortunately, the infrastructure required in Ethiopia to meet the existing cut-and-ready finished gem supply chain is less than 5% of where it needs to be. Our hope is that, the plan will be delayed or partially implemented until enough expertise and machinery can be put in place.
This change will most definitely put a strain on the market as cutting facilities must be created and an army of lapidaries must be trained. If the ban happens too soon, the supply of processed Ethiopian opal to the world market will trickle down to an estimated less than 15% of the current flow once stockpiles overseas are consumed. Governing bodies are negotiating this ban, so the when and how is still unknown, but our sources predict that it will come to be in some fashion before year end.
Although this will mean price increases and shortage of supply, the rough export ban is not entirely unwelcome. At JTV, we strive to back positive changes in all of our gem sourcing. The intent of this legislation is aimed at betterment of the miners and handling our opal and, if handled correctly, it will keep a fairer share of profit in Ethiopia, helping the country create safer mining and growing industry for processing. This is why JTV has joined hands with organizations like CIBJO who push for and monitor these changes.
Faceted opal is something that simply did not exist before the low cost of Ethiopian opal allowed for it. They are now our biggest seller as the market keeps absorbing this unusual fashioning of opal– one which adds more twinkle and lends itself to formal or special occasions. But for everyday wear, the traditional opal is fashioned en cabochon, which truly is the perfect way to showcase the dimension of the play-of-color. The higher cabs that Ethiopia is renowned for best display the unique patterns and colors unique to each stone. You can "roll" the gem in the light, and see a show of color gracefully dancing not only across the surface but throughout the body—truly a sight unique only to opal.
Not only does cabochon fashioning display a different visual affect, but it actually helps protect your stone. Should you choose to set it in jewelry, the arched form of a dome offers strong support during wear, making your gem less susceptible to dings and nicks. The dome shape adds stunning depth to your opal, maximizing its visual appeal. The stability of cabochon opals make them perfect for everyday wear and gorgeous display of the gem's inherent beauty.
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