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She Says: Symposium and the future of Opal

Hi! It’s Ruth here and I wanted to report on the future of opal. By now I’m sure you have watched Justin’s video on the Lightning Ridge Festival for 2018. If not you can watch it here. NOTE: This is a long post – you might want to settle in!

I wanted to talk more about the Opal Symposium – especially for those of you who couldn’t make it. The opinions contained herein are my own. Firstly a big thank you to all of the committee who put the event on. I, along with the rest of the committee couldn’t have done the job without our fearless leader – Maxine O’Brien of the Lightning Ridge Miners Association. It was a big job but we all had our parts to play and the event was full of good vibes and people really seemed to be having a great time.

Day 1

The talks on the first day centred around mining, geology, opal formation, the future of the mining industry and community. We heard all about the governments plans to impose multiple pieces of legislation on the community and whilst it all seems extremely onerous, I think the government bureaucrats walked away with a deeper understanding of the complexities of small scale mining.

We also heard from the Queensland Boulder Association and the challenges they have on the boulder fields. Sadly, the government representative from Queensland pulled out at the last minute which spoke volumes of how opal mining is treated by government in that state.

Australian Opal Centre

Closer to home Jenni Brammall, Manager of the Australian Opal Centre updated everyone on the Centre and the progress made in getting funding for this amazing building. She detailed the size of the collection of opal and opalised fossils held as well as the financial progress made in raising the money. So far over $800,000 has been pledged for the building from the wider community and the New South Wales State government is looking closely now at assisting with the full funding to get the centre built out on the opal fields. For more information on the Australian Opal Centre and it’s world class design, visit the AOC website here.

Lightning Ridge Management Reserve

We heard from government and from Jerry Lomax, a miner, former LRMA President and now trustee on the Lighting Ridge Management Reserve. This reserve trust holds the rights to manage the land that the opal fields inhabit. Under the new arrangements the trustees (which have representatives from government, from mining and from the community) will manage the land and the access to it. The hope from this Symposium is that it is clear to government that not only do we need to allow the trust to manage the opal mining land but also the farming land (currently owned by government) that surrounds or is intertwined with it. If you are interested in this subject, please contact the LRMA and get on their mailing list for updates.

Strategic Planning

My favourite presentation of the day was from Gary White – Chief Planner for New South Wales. He gave an inspiring talk on the global mega trends for the future and interwove the place that the opal industries and communities inhabit within these trends. It was a talk about big global concepts but he gave so many examples of how our communities can engage and also start to develop strategic plans and visions of our future towns. For many miners in the room who are grappling with rising costs, reduced access and the lack of new miners coming into the industry, Gary gave an alternative way forward. To paraphrase him, “the issues must be reframed as not just mining issues but deeper as community issues. Talk about how these affect communities and you are more likely for governments to listen and to help”. Brilliant advice.

Day 2

The second day was focussed on marketing and the increasing regulations coming our way. Highlights included Andrew Kemeny of Down to Earth Opals getting everyone reved up about tourism and promoting the town (leave business cards and magnets everywhere you go!). As always he was excited, passionate and engaging. Justin then spoke about social media and marketing online. His talk was filled with helpful advice  – so much so that people couldn’t wait to the end to ask questions and he effortlessly answered these questions thought his talk.

Following on was Damien Cody from Cody Opal talking about the global environment (more on that in a minute) and then Annette Condello, as Architect from Perth talking about luxury and the place that opal has historically inhabited. It was a fascinating talk and I look forward to really looking at her slides because there were so many cool images from the past she put up!

Classification

The morning was rounded out by Terry Coldham, Patron of the Gemmological Association of Australia (GAA), Tony Smallwood, Opal Valuer and GAA lecturer and myself. Along with Damien earlier Terry talked about the world bodies trying to regulate the colour stone industry and bring more accountability and ethical behaviour to it. He continued in the vein that Damien started, talking about the world’s need to set suitable standards of all things and consequently the issues we will face if we don’t be proactive in formalising certain aspects of our opal industry. We need to come up with a workable classification that can be accepted and taught by all so that there is trust in the product we sell.

Tony Smallwood continued the thread by talking about the journey to classification and why we need it even more today. He pointed out that most of the hard work was done in the mid 1990’s and that we had the basis for a clear and concise classification. He also talked about the changes and new opal finds since then and what damage they have done to consumer perception.

Then it was my turn to talk about the new revised classification that the GAA and Opal Association (OA) are proposing. Boy was I nervous! My talk, on behalf of these 2 committees was on the detail of the revision. Basically the main change is to give hydrophane opal (mainly found in Ethiopia) it’s own category – seperate from the type of opal commonly found in Australia. I also went through the next steps of this revision and the ultimate aim which is to have the classification adopted by CIBJO (World Jewellery Confederation) – which would then see all its members who include the GIA, Gem-A and the ICA, along with country governments, adopt this classification. Afterwards there was robust discussion and whilst the room understood the need for classification and most had no issue with what is being proposed, the issue of origin was a primary concern.

For anyone working with Australian opal, origin is of utmost importance and when we see other opal being passed of as Australian we quite rightly get very annoyed. People, particularly townspeople want to see origin be part of classification in the hope that governments and eBay and the like can legally deal with those trying to pass off inferior opal as Lightning Ridge or Coober Pedy material. I totally understand their position but unfortunately origin cannot be definitively proved and therefore cannot be part of the classification. It can however be part of everything we do as an industry to market our opal.

The revised classification will now enter its final stages and a working party will finesse the wording and terminology. Once this is done, I hope to share it with you all.

The Symposium ended with a marketing workshop around what the next steps might look like. To say that everyone participated is an understatement! The entire room was buzzing with ideas and it was gratifying to see all delegates putting their thoughts to paper and sharing them with the room. Without going into the finer detail there was a consensus among most to start looking at a marketing campaign to promote AUSTRALIAN OPAL – building on the idea of origin and provenance.

Final Thoughts

So after this 2 day talkfest, what does the future of the opal industry look like?

In one word, exciting!

Whilst we are small, we have such a broad range of experience and depth of knowledge that isn’t going away too quickly. There are issues with attracting more people to mining but Gary White showed a creating way to reframe the conversation – as did Andrew Kemeny.

The direct community of Lightning Ridge will benefit from the Reserve Trust and we are hopeful for the surrounding farming land to be included in that Reserve to future proof the quality of the land. The Australian Opal Centre is really moving forward and now with concrete costings and regional dollar benefits being mapped out it has its best chance yet of getting funded. Imagine a world class facility to study not only opal but also the rich dinosaur history of our ancient land!

I think all delegates got a sense of our unique chance to shape how coloured gemstones are viewed and regulated globally. By taking the lead with classification we can be instrumental in providing the roadmap for other gems from around the world.

The event was a totally worthwhile exercise and I encourage all of you to seriously consider coming along to the next one to be held in Coober Pedy in 2020!

If you have any feedback or questions I’d love to hear them so comment below.