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Black Opal Ring

An opal's 100 year journey to visit ‘home’

Black opal and diamond ring
The well-travelled opal and diamond ring.

In 1986 an elderly lady called at our business (Alan Hodgkinson the Jeweller) and asked if we were interested to purchase her opal ring. I was in my small laboratory, working with gemstones which were compiling into what would finally become my book, ‘Gem Testing Techniques‘.

Charlotte knew I did not like to be interrupted, but she still came through and said, ‘I think you will be interested in this’ (holding out a closed ring box).

My eyes popped when I saw the contents and I came through to tell the lady what a lovely ring it was and that I hoped I might manage to buy it from her. We gave her a cup of tea while I considered the price I would pay to ensure I could obtain the platinum set black opal ring made about 1920.

Finally I came through and made the offer, but insisted that she should first go five miles into Glasgow and see if she could obtain a better offer. Meantime, we would keep the offer open for her in case she should return.

This strategy was one my staff knew was applied to all people who brought us jewellery to purchase. It ensured that no one would ever be able to accuse me of taking advantage of a customer, especially an older person. It also meant I slept soundly at night.

First I showed the ring to all the staff, such was the quality and rarity of such an opal. After she left I told the staff we would never see the ring again, as a jeweller in Glasgow would surely offer more for the ring.

Early the next morning the lady returned and her words were music to my ears, for she said, ‘Mr. Hodgkinson, we all know of you and your reputation here in Clarkston (suburb of Glasgow) and I am happy for you to have the ring.’

Once the ring was paid for, I told the lady that I had been anxious to purchase the ring, not to resell, but to use in my practical Gem Identification Courses, as it was such a good example of a fine black opal from Lightning Ridge, which few jewellers and gemmologists see. I wanted it for its educational value.

A year later the lady returned to ask did I still have her opal ring. I was delighted to retrieve it from the safe and show it to her. The following year (1988) she again returned to ask to see her ring. She was obviously upset when I told her I did not have the ring, but I quickly reassured her by explaining that while I did not actually have the ring there on our premises, I had incorporated the opal into a design which was on display in the crystal pavilion of the Glasgow Garden Festival, the showcase next to DeBeers diamond display but that's another story!

The lady was obviously so very delighted by the story of her ring. She then explained that the ring had been purchased by her husband for her in the 1920s. Her husband had later died, and she put it in a bank vault to await the 21st birthday of her niece. Sadly, the young lady died in her 20th year in a car accident, and so the ring lay in the bank vault until the lady felt her days were drawing on and she felt the need to dispose of the ring. She and I were so pleased to oversee the transfer of the precious content of the ring box and I felt in a small way that I had given the lady some small compensation for the sadness she had suffered.

Postscript - Being in the early days of the mine, the opal was retrieved close to the surface. This proximity to the surface had the effect of stabilising the silica over several million years. The benefit of this was that, here it was, a century after its discovery, without a single crack or crazing.

The Reunion

In 1995 I undertook a 12 week gemmology lecture tour of Australia. Part of the tour enabled Charlotte and I to visit the famous black opal mines of Lightning Ridge where I gave a lecture to the miners. This area produces the largest proportion of Australian opal in terms of value.

This was, after all, the original location of our opal so it was quite emotional to have the miners handle the ring and admire it. The comment was made, that such a quality was rarely encountered today and that such quality opals had been a feature of the mine's early days in the 1920s, though the first sporadic finds had occurred half a century before. However, the situation was too remote and inhospitable to develop further at the time.

Lightning Ridge has now expanded from those early days, as the quest for opal spread beyond its original confines and today that activity can be encountered 20 or 30 miles distant. We were treated to a first hand experience of mining in the outback when the Baker Brothers took us out to their mine at Coocoran, which also lies in the same geological belt as Lightning Ridge, formed in the cretaceous period some 110 million years ago.

Alan Hodgkinson at mine head
The author about to be winched down the mine at Coocoran by the Baker Brothers.
Potch opal nobbies
Opal nobbies from the Coocoran mine - unfortunately these were only potch.
Condensation on mine roof
Surprise condensation on the roof of the Coocoran mine when water is such a scarce resource.
Alan Hodgkinson with pick axe
The author using a pickaxe to scrape at the claystone while listening for the ‘clink’ of opal.

The opal was deposited as non-crystalline silica in two forms - seams, or nodules known as Nobbies. Above ground all is arid and water has to be taken there in oil drums. Charlotte and I were winched about 30 feet down to the workface. As it was cool down there, the warm air precipitated its water content onto the cool rock roof, a foot or so above our heads, and these showed like diamonds in the light from a generator. Not hard rock, but a soft white claystone, overlain by a sandstone. Using pick-like scrapers, we scraped at the soft rock which produced no sound. But occasionally, there was a ‘clink’ as our tools struck an opal Nobby. We were allowed to keep our finding of 7 nobbies, but sadly when opened, our own specimens were solid grey potch with no hint of opal's play of colour, but what a wonderful experience.

Alan Hodgkinson holding large opal slab
The author with a fragment, one fifth of the valuable ‘Koninderie’ opal.

One of the gemmologists on my hands-on practical gem identification workshops in Perth was a farmer cum jeweller, with so much land, that he needed a plane to cover the area. He took us to a local bank in Perth and down in the vaults we were introduced to ‘Koninderie’ aboriginal for rainbow. The large specimen I am holding is only 20% of the total size. Apparently an employee at the opal mine site (I believe it was at Coober Pedy) was ordered to level the ground after the particular mine area was worked out. Working on at the end of the day, the driver of the digger struck a large rock. He immediately recognised that the impact had knocked a piece off to reveal it was all opal - precious opal. His personal problem was to realise its value without blowing his cover. Unaware of its extreme value to a large museum, he proceeded to break it up so that he could perhaps offload it in smaller pieces. What is not shown is that the other 5 ‘pieces’ covered an area of about 8 feet along the bank floor, so work the whole value out for yourself!

Charlotte Hodgkinson in a mine
Charlotte labouring in the Coocoran opal mine.
Dummy of a Ratter hanging from a tree
A dummy strung up to deter Ratters at the mine.

Security at these mines is minimal, and it is a temptation for a few to go out at night to see what they can find. It is not unknown for someone discovered in a mine to have the top caved in on top of him and left there for a suitable period of time. Meantime, above ground, an obvious dissuasion comes in the form of a body strung up with the legend ‘RATTER’ round the neck.

But I digress. Did I keep my promise to the lady? Well, Yes and No. For I had explained to her I would keep the ring for as long as I ran the business and ran the gem identification courses. Last year I decided I would no longer undertake long lecture journeys, nor run the two day practical gem identification course which had brought Charlotte and I into contact with so many people, lay and gemmological around the world. And so the ring has now passed into the ‘Somewhere in the Rainbow’ collection, curated by Shelly Sergent in Phoenix, and will therefore continue its journey by fulfilling my mission in life - gemmological education.

Alan Hodgkinson - Gemmologist, Tutor and Author

Author

  • Alan Hodgkinson FGA
  • Gemmologist & Author
  • Portencross, UK

Topics

  • Gems / Gemmology (primary)
  • Jewellery
  • Mining

Intended Audience

  • Consumers (primary)
  • Gemmology Students
  • Academics

Content

  • June 2020
  • 6 mins reading time
  • Dale-Chall readability level:
    Easily understood by an average 12th Grade Student (US)
  • 9 mins speaking time
  • 0 Comments

About the Author

Alan Hodgkinson - Author and Gemologist

Alan Hodgkinson, FGA

Alan Hodgkinson has lectured in many countries on gemmology and is the recipient of several awards relating to his dedicated study of the gem world. He is the author of the world-renowned book ‘Gem Testing Techniques’, the gemmologist's ‘Bible’ of the 21st century. He is the President of the Scottish Gemmological Association, holds a Honorary Membership with many major gemmological associations worldwide and is a Freeman of the City of London.

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