What Are Opals?
Opals are non-crystalline precious or semi-precious stones, and some of the best of them are Coober Pedy Opals. A silica-based relative of quartz, opals have a reflective quality that gives an amazing array of colors as light strikes the stone. There can actually be quite a lot of water in an opal, up to 21%, although most contain around 9%. The structure of the opal together with the conditions in which it formed (and possibly the water content) are what gives opals their ‘opalescent’ appearance. No other stone has this shimmering, fluid quality, with so many interplays of color.
Depending on the immediate surroundings where the Coober Pedy opal developed, the stone can be red, blue, yellow, magenta, black, pink, green, or orange among many other hues. Few other gemstones will encompass so many colors. The opal can be translucent, allowing some light to pass through it, or opaque.
Finding The First Opals At Coober Pedy
No one suspected that this barren section of the Outback contained opals until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when a young man on a gold prospecting expedition found an opal instead. He and his dad abandoned the search for gold and starting mining for opals. It was not long before word got out and miners began showing up in this desolate area in search of the beautiful stones. And thus began the fame of Coober Pedy opals.
Because of the extreme heat found here, the miners began digging into the hillsides and ground for cooler places, called dugouts, to live. As the temperatures here can reach 125 degrees F, these dugouts provide a real refuge from what would otherwise be nearly intolerable conditions. These are called dugouts and the Aborigines were so astounded by this behavior that they called the place kupa-piti, which means “White Man in a Hole”. Subsequently the name was changed to Coober Pedy.
Mine Shafts Everywhere
As the Australian government wants to prevent large mining concerns from taking over operations in Coober Pedy, basically anyone can stake a claim to an area of 165 square feet. To date, there are over 250,000 entrances to mine shafts in this small town. In fact, many of the homes and businesses in Coober Pedy are made from abandoned mines.
Although opals have been taken from Coober Pedy right from its discovery, it was not until later in the century, during the 1960s and 1970s, that opals became really big business here. At that time, miners from almost every European country showed up to stake their claim and try for that big strike. Millions of dollars of opals have been taken out of this desolate area of the Outback in the intervening years.
Most of the mines in Coober Pedy are small one or two man operations. Basically, a shaft is dug down into the earth, a ladder is installed and mining operations will begin. The tools used for mining by these prospectors are the usual associated with this sort of work: shovel, pick axe, pneumatic drill. Many times, a hole will be drilled into the rock face, the explosive set, and after the blast, the miner will go down to see if anything worthwhile has resulted. Coober Pedy opals have been a draw for those interested in opals and those who mine them for nearly one hundred years.