There has been a decade-long debate within the industry comparing the Opals from Africa and Australia, not least within the Bennett household. In 2016, after Steve’s visit to the Ethiopian Opal mines, he was adamant that these Opals were the finest in the world. However, Steve’s brother-in-law Shane (a proud Australian) was defiant – he remembers visiting the Coober Pedy Opal fields as a child and can still vividly recall the intense pinfire that dances on the surface of the Australian jewel.
Shane convinced Steve to send a team out to see these Australian Opals first-hand. Our Gem Expert David Troth was drafted in to accompany Shane, and after a few phone calls they had secured three major destinations: the Capricorn Sapphire mine, the Coober Pedy Opal field and the Paspaley Pearl farm on the Kimberley Coast. David takes up the story of this remarkable trip...
THE CAPRICORN SAPPHIRE MINE
With our cameraman, Alex, we set off. After a mammoth 30 hours of traveling, we arrived at the quaint town of Emerald and were greeted by Sumi – the operations manager at the Capricorn mine.
As I sat next to him on the drive to the town of Sapphire (yes, we really were driving from the town of Emerald to the town of Sapphire!) he shared with me that he was Sri Lankan and so Sapphire is in his DNA. In fact, Sumi was born in a mine and his surname ‘Galketiya’ means ‘gemstone’. Sumi had worked at Tanzanite One (the main mining site for Tanzanite) for over a decade before coming to the Capricorn mine. As we drove, I remember thinking how surprisingly green it was, not at all what I’d expected. There was only the odd bush-fire scorched tree and an occasional kangaroo to remind me that I wasn’t at home.
As we drove through the last gate, we were introduced to the majesty of Capricorn. This mine was awesome in every sense of the word. Coloured gemstone mines don’t look like this, at least not in my experience, they are usually modest in scale and artisanal in production. I had to question Sumi again, in total disbelief, “There are only 8 people on site?” Sumi laughed, “David these eight are the magnificent eight!”
Sumi was right and it was then, as we were introduced to his business partner Jacque, (a South African from the old days at Tanzanite One) that I realised these two had worked at the most productive coloured gemstone mining site in history and they had taken everything they learned and brought it to Capricorn. Their enthusiasm, passion and pride pulsated through the site. Everyone had an authentic connection to this gem.
Sumi and Jacque guided us through the operation. They had a geologist from Tanzanite One come up to the mining site every few months to oversee exploration and they would mark with a flag any potential sites for future mining.
When they had identified a site, they would take in the large machinery and excavate huge open pits, transporting truckloads of dirt carefully to the sorting machine, where they would sort 250 tonnes a day. This was constantly flushed with water as the machine pulses to separate the Sapphire out. At the end of every day, the machine is drained and sifted manually. The miners’ trained eyes collect any Sapphires that have evaded this sophisticated set up.
Back at the sorting house, which is where we were staying, the findings were dried out on huge tables and then passed through a magnetic separation unit that operates like a conveyer belt, pulling the ironstone out of the mix, while the potential Sapphires flow through to their conclusion in a bucket. These buckets are then put into huge round sieves that are placed over even larger buckets of water and are continually dipped by hand. This process allows the dense Sapphires to filter to the bottom of the other material.
Sumi showed us the product of this hard work, which was a layer of beautiful Sapphire. However, in the centre I couldn’t help but notice a tiny glittering pool of pink stones that were haloed by green, blue and yellow Sapphires. I asked if these were rare Pink Sapphires. Jacque replied, “We should be so lucky David, we only find one tiny Pink Sapphire every few months. This is Zircon”. I was astonished that there were these natural Pink and Peach Zircons that no one knew what to do with!
This whole meticulous process was then repeated before any of the “dirt” was taken back to the mining site, so they were sure they hadn’t missed any Sapphire. From the 250 tonnes mined each day, they only had a handful of gem-quality Sapphire to show for it!
I was astonished that there were these natural Pink and Peach Zircons that no one knew what to do with!
Sorting was a family affair. Jacque and Sumi’s wives sat alongside another lady (it only took three people as the Sapphire yield was so low) and went through three very small containers at the end of each day, ensuring that the grades were adhered to.
I asked Sumi and Jacque why the leftover ground was transported back to the site every day and he explained their whole ethical process. First they back-fill sites, then they are covered with topsoil and planted, leaving the land in better-than-original condition. The area has a huge abundance of wildlife, from eagles to cattle, kangaroos and even dingoes, it is a truly varied and thriving ecosystem.
The thing that has left the biggest impression on me at Capricorn is the people. I expected to be blown away by the Sapphire and admittedly I was, in fact I would go as far to say that it is without question the finest Sapphire I’ve seen, but it was the people that left their mark.
Click here to browse our Australian Blue Sapphire range
THE COOBER PEDY OPAL FIELDS
After a three hour flight, we arrived at Coober Pedy and were greeted by some of the four million holes that lay here in the Opal fields. The miners' names were proudly carved into the dirt, proclaiming their love for this rainbow stone like initials carved into the trunk of an ancient oak.
We managed to track down the vice president of the Coober Pedy Miners Association, John Dunstan, who was out on his claim in the Shell Opal Field (all of the fields have different names) – so named because of the fossilised Opal shells that have been found there.
He opened two matchboxes full of colour, top crystal Opals and told us the price – $180,000!
John mines differently to the other 100 artisanal miners (just a fraction of the thousands that were out here in the ‘80s). He chooses to open pit mine with 25-tonne excavators, a costly practice that has served him well in the past. However, he hasn’t had a significant strike in 12 years and his machines cost $1000 a day to run, which puts into perspective some of the financial risks involved.
John took us back to his shop, ‘John and Yoka’s’, to showcase some of the Opal he has mined over the years. He opened two matchboxes full of colour, top crystal Opals and told us the price – $180,000!
He said the price of Opal across all grades had doubled over the last six years and warned that it will never come down since production is down and demand is up. John explained that around half of Coober Pedy’s residents live underground. After a brief, but fascinating, look at some of Coober Pedy’s underground houses and mines, many of which were dug by soldiers returning from the French trenches of World War One, we were off on a plane again to the Kimberley Coast.
Click here to see our stunning designs featuring Coober Pedy Opal
SOUTH SEA PEARLS AT BROOME
We arrived in Broome airport, which was essentially one room, to a tropical climate distinctly different to anything else we had observed during our time in Australia. We were driven to the pier (the bay of this tropical turquoise sea is actually shaped like a Pearl!) where, for security reasons, we had to hand over our passports. Here we were greeted by Rick Williams, who headed up the Pearling operation aboard the flagship boat ‘Paspaley 4’.
The ship was like a small cruise liner, with state of the art technology. The team on board ran an incredibly sophisticated operation, all in a bid to produce the world’s finest Pearls.
The location is one of the most pristine environments in the world, selected for having the best feeding waters for the shells. Every third week of their two year cycle, the oysters are cleaned to ensure they are healthy.
The care taken when handling the oysters is testament to the level of care it takes to increase the yield for the prized South Sea Pearls. Constantly kept in fast moving water to simulate the current, even when they are on the ship, the level of husbandry afforded to these shells is second-to-none.
Rick told us that only 3% of the annual yield are top grade Pearls, so they constantly refine the process, adapting continuously to strive for that extra 1% difference.
Everyone aboard the Paspaley 4 is passionate about Pearling and they spend nine months at a time stationed out at sea. Rick told us that only 3% of the annual yield are top grade Pearls, so they constantly refine the process, adapting continuously to strive for that extra 1% difference.
Click here to see our range of incredible South Sea Pearls
Although I won’t forget the people I met and the vast and beautiful landscapes in a hurry, the most striking thing about this Australian trip was seeing how much effort and care goes into the mining or harvesting of these treasures and just how rare they are.