Opal Fossicking: Finding A Gemstone

What an interesting country we live in! Australia has a rich history of mining for gold, diamonds and for other gemstones too of course. Although large scale mining for many top quality gemstones is nearing the end of its life here in Australia, it is still possible to find some great gems. Fossicking is a popular pastime for Aussies and tourists alike. Sapphire fossicking occurs along the east coast, with deposits in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland. You can look for opal in several towns in NSW, Queensland and South Australia. The most well known towns are Coober Pedy, Andamooka, Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs.

The Opal Mining Town of White Cliffs

The recent story in the ABC series “Back Roads” by Heather Ewart about the NSW town of White Cliffs was absolutely fascinating. White Cliffs is a small town in the far west of NSW, about three hours east of Broken Hill. The locals call it the “place not to be seen”, as most of it is underground.

Dugout Homes

White Cliffs is home to about 130 residents. They live in dugout homes that often utilise the town’s early mines by incorporating them into the floor plan of their houses. These unique homes can make some people feel a little claustrophobic, as being underground of course they have no windows!  The mine shafts date back to the 1890’s, and are considered to be very stable.

What the early miners were looking for in White Cliffs is opal. At it’s height, the town was home to some 5,000 residents. That was a lot of people looking for opal. Opal mining in White Cliff, Australia

And you can tell. Look what they did to the landscape! Of course this is just what we can see from above ground – imagine the underground labyrinth that the mines created – perfect for building your very own dugout home!

Many have come to White Cliffs and loved it so much that they have made it their permanent home. Some of these homes are very luxurious and beautiful. Lots of residents also live in the town part time, spending summers in their regular homes, and enjoying warmer winters in their dugout homes.

Despite outside temperatures often being around 40 degrees in the shade during summer, the dugouts remain at a constant year round temperature of around 19 – 23 degrees.

Prize Opal

Aside from the lifestyle and close community, fossicking for opals is a pastime that attracts both locals and tourists alike. The most notable opal found in the town is a beautiful opalised fossil of a plesiosaur. Ken Harris found it in 1976. Ken is working on creating a museum to display the rare piece to the public, after having knocked back an offer of over a million dollars for it a few years ago!

Rare pineapple opal unique to White Cliffs Some search for opal to make jewellery, but now the great hunt is for “pineapples” that are unique to White Cliffs. Pineapples are usually oval in shape and have sharp opalised spikes. Pineapple opal forms in molds of such things as fossil bone, teeth, shell fir cones and sea lillies.

White Cliffs is known especially for its specimens of opalised marine life from when Australia was covered by a vast inland sea. Pineapples are highly sought after by collectors. Collectors will pay anything up to around $150,000.00 for a really great specimen.

In times past, gem cutters and jewellers used to cut these pieces and make opal jewellery from them. These days this is not done as pineapples have their own intrinsic value just as they are.

Does Ellissi Make Opal Jewellery?

People sometimes ask us if we make jewellery using opal. Generally we don’t, as we specialize in making engagement rings that are usually diamond engagement rings or sapphire engagement rings. There is a very good reason as to why we use these gemstones in particular. A ring that you will wear every day, such as an engagement ring must be set with gemstones that are hard enough to withstand a few knocks and bumps. Wear and tear is inevitable, even when great care is taken with the ring.

Diamonds and sapphires are gemstones that are hard enough for an engagement ring. Opal, whilst extraordinarily beautiful, is too soft for use in an engagement ring.


Many thanks to the following websites for the information in this article:

http://www.whitecliffsopal.com and the article from The Australian Gemologist Magazine (November 1986 Edition) quoted by the website
https://www.gia.edu/ in the article entitled “Gem Fossicking: Recreational Mining in Australia”

and to the ABC program “Back Roads”

The photos in this article are from the website www.whitecliffsopal.com (the pineapple) and from www.whitecliffsnsw.com (the photo of the mines surrounding White Cliffs)