Australia’s famous opal fields are located in three states - Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia. Around 150 million years ago, the area was covered by ocean (the ‘Great Inland Sea’), and when the water receded, the sandy silica minerals from the seabed flowed into the rocky cracks and cavities and solidified over time into multi-coloured gemstone - opal. A process which some say takes 5 million years!
Mining areas that produce the world’s best opal include Coober Pedy, Lightning Ridge, Grawin, Opalton and Mintabie. They are wild, desolate places where people fight against inhospitable conditions in their quest to find these valuable gemstones.
Coober Pedy is situated in South Australia, between Adelaide and Darwin, and is known as the ‘Opal capital of the world’. This dusty hot outback town was first discovered in 1915 by a syndicate of gold prospectors, who accidentally discovered the mesmerising gemstone now known as opal. After many ‘boom and bust’ periods, the mining region expanded into a multi-million dollar industry in the 1960s. Today, it’s a town of approximately 2000 people, with 70 opal fields covering an area of around 50 kilometres.
With year-round temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius, the majority of Coober Pedy residents live in underground ‘dugouts’ to escape the heat. This novelty extends to tourists, with the small outback town offering underground hotels, shops, and even a ‘dugout’ church.
Coober Pedy produces mostly ‘seam’ opal (opal that forms in horizontal seams in the ground), and the region is the main producer of white precious opal (including milky and clear opal). In 1956, the largest and most valuable opal ever found was discovered in Coober Pedy. It weighed 3.4kg and has been valued at around $2.5 million AUD!
Lightning Ridge is a small outback town in north-western New South Wales, and produces almost all of the world’s most sought after black opal. Even though there is a recent decline in opal production, it is still the largest producer of opal by value.
Opal was first discovered at Lightning Ridge in the late 1880s, and 100 years later in the late 1980’s, black opal was being mined in this region in record amounts. Lightning Ridge is home to a population of about 2,500 residents, although this is ever accurate due to the transient nature of the opal miners. ‘The Ridge’ hosts 90,000 visitors per year, either fossicking for fun, looking for their fortune, or to see what an outback mining town is really like.
Located just 40 minutes south-west from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, the opal mining fields of Grawin predominately produces opal in seams. A large percentage of Lightning Ridge black opal actually hails from the Grawin opal fields.
The area boasts a collection of small mines, scattered throughout a dry and desolate ‘moonscape’.
Opal was first mined at the Grawin fields back in 1905, and in 1928 the famous ‘Light of the Worlds’ opal was discovered, spearheading a rush of miners to the area in the hope to find their fortune. In the 1980’s, the ‘Opal Rush’ produced mammoth finds, which continued for the following 20 years. Grawin is still actively mined and now, and is most renowned for its valuable black opal.
The Queensland opal fields are renowned for producing the world’s best boulder opal, and at the heart of this mining region, Opalton is home to largest of all opal fields.
The Opalton mining field was one of the most extensively worked opal deposits in Queensland, and in 1899 the largest piece of opal ever recorded was mined from here, a pipe opal said to be more than three metres long!
The Opalton gemfields are spread across almost 1000km of desolate landscape, and are known for producing the superb quality of opal mined. The area is a good example of typical Outback opal country, and today offers the visitor the opportunity to experience first-hand the remoteness and tough conditions suffered by the opal miners.
Mintabie is located in far north South Australia, 180km south of the Northern Territory border, and 300km north of Coober Pedy. Discovered in the 1920’s, Mintabie is the newest opal field, although it wasn’t worked until 1978, when high quality opal began to be found.
The Mintabie opal mines are famous for producing a range of precious opal types, from white opal to some very fine prized black opal.
In its mining hey-day, the population of Mintabie grew to around 1500, and was second only to Coober Pedy as an opal producer. Today the township of Mintabie lies derelict after all residents were evicted due to the government claiming the town was a hub for drug running. Permits are now required to visit the area.
Take a look at Opals Nation’s precious opals and opal jewellery from the famous Australian opal fields: