It’s not often that you meet someone who’s had 50 years’ experience in the Australian opal industry. Bill Johnson certainly knows his stuff. He’s a talented opal cutter and polisher who has spent a lot of time at the outback opal mining fields, and more importantly he’s one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet.
On a rainy winter morning over a warm cuppa, Bill tells us more about his journey into opals.
How did you become involved in the Australian opal industry?
"My love of opal began whilst on a building job in early 1971. I was waiting on a delivery of slate to a new swimming pool build, and there in the dirt I saw something shining that really caught my eye.” He was amazed to discover tiny offcuts of opal in the mud - something like he had never seen before. Bill was mesmerised, he had no idea what it was, and asked the property owner. “It turned out they owned an opal mine in Quilpie.” Bill immediately fell in love with the precious stone and wanted to know how he could get involved. “They gave me a 44-gallon drum of rocks - Boulder opal - and I was told to ‘go home and have some fun’.” Not knowing what to do with it, Bill thumbed through the Yellow Pages and found a local opal cutter. He came to Bills house with his cutting equipment and kindly gave Bill a basic lesson in how to cut and polish opal. With Bills building knowledge and engineering mind, he built himself a cutting machine, and the rest is history.
Becoming a skilled lapidarist
Bill continued his journey into lapidary, a hobby he thoroughly enjoyed and something he could do alongside his building career. He was relieved to discover rough opal from Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy, which was much less messy to cut than Queensland Boulder opal. After making contacts within the mining industry, Bill bought parcels ‘in the rough’ direct from the miners, and as a self-taught lapidarist he gradually became a renowned opal cutter and polisher.
“In the early years during the 1970’s when the economy was bad, opal cutters earned just $3 per carat to cut and polish the stones. The money was not great, however when the building industry was in major decline my lapidary hobby substituted my salary. Selling opals helped me to support my family through the harder times”. Bill noted that miners today often cut from the rough themselves to save paying the ‘middle man.’
A journey to Lightning Ridge
In 1972, Bill and two of his builder mates headed to Lightning Ridge to try their luck at opal mining first hand. The mine itself was owned by a friend (nothing ventured, nothing gained), and with all hopes of finding their fortune, Bill realised after just one day that being down a mine shaft was simply not for him. His comrades lasted one week underground, however only found two small pieces of opal. “The trip itself was not the best financial success, but it was an excellent experience.” In the years that followed, Bill continued his trips to the outback opal mines, making great contacts, great mates, and buying parcels of rough opal.
What do you love about opal?
“There is no other gemstone in the world like opal. Not even a diamond can match an opal. Its range of colours are unlike anything else. There is absolutely no comparison. It’s the only multi-coloured gemstone on the planet and it's just beautiful.”
How do you value your opal?
“No two miners will value the same stone for the same amount of money” says Bill as he explains that there is no definitive way to value opal and no industry body that does it either. “The consumer is the one who defines the beauty of the opal and decides how much they will pay for it.” Bill openly admits that he has gotten himself into trouble by disputing certain opal values with miners and opal traders. Unlike diamonds or other gemstones, the variations in opal are so different and there is no clear valuation procedure.
Who buys your opal?
“My finished stones are sold wholesale rather than to the public. They have ended up in jewellery shops after being made into rings and pendants, including a regular supply to a Duty-Free shop. Most Australian opals find their way overseas to America and Europe – it's rare to find much opal in Australia’s jewellery shop chains. I don’t just sell my opals - I have often traded parcels of finished opals for bigger items like my son's dirt bike and my boat.”
Is there a favourite opal that you have cut?
“Yes, I clearly remember a beautiful pipi or cockle shell. I bought it in the rough and slowly started to clean it. At 40ct-50ct I was in no rush and took my time. I ended up with a stunning gem-quality shell which sold for $8k approximately 8 years ago. It was a beautiful piece.”
Do you have any regrets about the opal industry Bill?
“I have one regret from the time that I was given my 44-gallon drum of rough Boulder Opal. Back in the early days we didn’t value opal as we do now. The tiny opal offcuts were just left in the garden and became buried in the soil. We sold that house, and when the new owners built a shed, they contacted us as said “You’ll never guess what we found?.” Lucky from them! There's not much I can do about it now.”
What advice would you give someone entering the opal industry?
“Look at it as a hobby. ENJOY it. If you're lucky enough to make money out of it, see it as a bonus, but always remember to see it as a hobby.”
Are you still doing lapidary and what else do you do in your retirement?
In his retirement, Bill continues his lapidary today. He also has another hobby - building lapidary machines which he sells Australia wide. “There's a lot of work involved” says Bill, “from the initial fabrication of the body, to the motors and wheels.” His machines take two weeks of full-time work to build from start to finish and he often throws in a free lesson on ‘how to cut.’ If you’re interested in Bill’s lapidary machines, send us an enquiry. (link to contact us)
More about Bill Johnson
Bill was born in 1944, raised in Sydney, and it was there he married Terry and became a registered builder. “I needed a good income so that I could support my family.” They eventually moved to the Gold Coast, where Bill continued his career in building - in fact, he remained a successful builder all his life until retirement.
Besides his involvement in the Australian opal industry, Bills life has indeed been interesting. He was President of the Gold Coast Canine Club for almost 7 years; skipper of the Southport Air Sea Rescue, and has been involved heavily with the VMR. Now living in Bundaberg, Queensland, Bill and Terry are happily married more than 60 years later.
Bill still practices opal cutting today. You can view some of his beautiful opals here.