Opals have long been seen as the slightly naff cousin of expensive gemstones, but the success of hit TV show Outback Opal Hunters is threatening to change all that, inspiring a boom in sales and leading to a range of new opportunities for local jewellery designers.

While opals are found around the world, the vast bulk of them (over 95 per cent) are mined in Australia, which has become synonymous with the opal industry.

But in terms of jewellery, opals in Australia are more associated with tourism and tourism shops, and past rebranding exercises have failed to shift this perception.

The Discovery Channel programme, however, may be changing that – awakening a new interest and creating a new demographic of fans.

“I can certainly say that anecdotally, all of the miners across the board have said that it has done a lot for the opal industry, both domestically and internationally, in terms of them being able to expand their markets internationally online,” said John Cherry, the series’ director.

The gem is found mostly in the Australian outback, with Coober Pedy, in South Australia, as the main producer of white opal, Quilpie, in Queensland, the main producer of boulder opal, and the New South Wales town of Lightning Ridge as the world’s sole producer of the rarest and most valuable opal, the black opal. Exceedingly rare and boasting breathtaking colours, opals can possess a price tag of over $15,000 a carat, driving miners to work for months in dangerous conditions in the pursuit of opal riches.

Leading opal artisan, and director of Sunshine Coast based Opals Down Under, Scott Coggan believes the TV show created a “perfect situation for the opal industry”.

“It’s also given Australians a new respect for their own national gemstone, with more and more opting to either buy rough and start learning how to cut opals for themselves, investing in higher end gem-grade opal, or using Australian opals in engagement rings,” he said.

[The show is the] single largest mass marketing and education media event in the history of Australian opal.

Coggan has over 35 years of cutting experience and took over the business from its founder, Austrian emigrant Immo Stein, after managing the business for 15 years.

Opal cutter and award-winning opal carver, and director of Down to Earth Opals, Andrew Kemeny moved to Lightning Ridge in 2011, and describes Outback Opal Hunters as the “single largest mass marketing and education media event in the history of Australian opal”.

“Domestically Outback Opal Hunters has achieved what the industry has not been able to achieve, which is education through commercial TV, and there is direct evidence over the past two to three years, in particular, of visitor numbers and demographics not seen before increasing in measurable volumes across all Australian opal fields,” he said.

Established in 1991 by Kemeny’s partner Vicki Bokros, Down to Earth Opal’s both domestically and internationally retails, wholesales and showcases their opal inventory, which includes over 10,000 loose Lightning Ridge cut opals, opal carvings and opal jewellery.

A similar trend was revealed in the Opal Auctions’ opal trends report, highlighting that Coober Pedy opal sales increased by 276 per cent, “due to the Outback Opal Hunters Discovery TV show which showcased mining in Coober Pedy”.

First airing in 2018 and with Season 9 of the show now in full swing, the show follows various Australian miners as they search the Australian outback for opals, and currently airs in over 100 countries worldwide, with a viewership of around 180 million. A ratings success both domestically and internationally, the documentary series ranks as the number 3 factual show on Australian television where it was nominated for an Australian Screen Producers Award in 2018, the number 5 show on Quest TV in the UK, and is popular in mainland Europe with its United States following growing, according to Cherry.

However, when Prospero approached Lightning Ridge’s Chris Cheal in 2017 about joining the show, he immediately “flat out said no”.

With over 25 years of experience in the opal industry, Chris had been mining opals in Lightning Ridge to sell to wholesalers.

“They wanted to pair me with another miner for the show, but you can’t just pair up with anyone in this business; it’s got to be someone you can trust,” he told Central News. “So, I wasn’t keen at all.”

His son Oscar, however, thought differently, encouraging his father to join the show with Oscar as his partner. He told his dad, whom he describes as a “charismatic and hardcore opal miner”, that the show was just what the opal industry needed.

However, 17-year-old Oscar, pictured at top, saw the potential also to promote his own jewellery brand with a youthful and minimalist perspective.

A year later, out of his University of Sydney college dorm room, “aged 18 and with nothing to lose” and equipped with six pieces of jewellery, Oscar searched online how to register an ABN, walked to the bank down the street and opened an account. And just like that, his jewellery brand, Cheal Opal, was born.

I’ll hang off a shovel for 10 hours looking for raw opal in the ground, and then I’ll go upstairs, flick off an email to a customer, then go back to the mine and jump on a jackhammer again.

A full-time university student studying business and marketing, Oscar lives a ‘double life’, balancing the social activities, sporting, and university commitments of a normal 20-year-old, with filming for Outback Opal Hunters and the 60-hour work week it takes to run his business.

Until last month it was run entirely out of his bedroom and he attributes the “take off”of his business to the exposure from the show.

“I’ll hang off a shovel for 10 hours looking for raw opal in the ground, and then I’ll go upstairs, flick off an email to a customer, then go back to the mine and jump on a jackhammer again, and then I’ll be back at Sydney at rugby training the next day,” Oscar laughed.

Chris said selling your own product as a miner, without any platform, is very hard to do, particularly being as remote as most miners are. So, most miners sell to wholesalers. He believes Oscar’s access to, and knowledge of technology, paired with the show’s exposure has allowed the family to follow their opals right through to their final sale to the customer.

“Oscar’s taken on a full workload, and he’s done an unbelievable job,” he said.

Rings by Cheal Opal.

“He’s added a whole new dimension to my business, and you know, it’s not my business anymore, it’s our business, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Since the business’s inception, Oscar has launched multiple jewellery collections, including bespoke jewellery, through a website he created himself, and uses Instagram and the TV show to market his products.

Now, a mere two years since its creation, Cheal Opal has just over one hundred pieces of jewellery in stock, ranging in price from $300 to $40,000, with an expected revenue, based on its first quarter 2022 numbers of $500,000.

Similarly, according to Kemeny’s experience, customers from the United States, Europe and Asia are now “better educated with regard to gems” and seek out Australia’s top end opal offerings through education that builds knowledge, and thus stokes desire.

Outback Opal Hunters is therefore achieving an incremental lift in international interest remembering that during COVID, most Australian gem dealers were unable to travel to international [gem] shows,” he added.

From a tourism perspective the show has also shone more light on the attractions of Australia’s outback and culture, highlighting an industry full of both individuals who visit and fall in love with opal fields and never return home, or those who have had their expertise handed down to them from past generations. This is turn has prompted a surge of international and domestic visitors to areas in which opal fields are present.

Sherman Opals has been wholesaling and exporting Australian opal for over 108 years specialising in Lightning Ridge black opal and crystal opal. Owner and eldest grandson of founder ‘Ernie’ Sherman, Peter Sherman has been involved in the opal industry since his teenage years and also acknowledged the “enormous” impact of Outback Opal Hunters.

“It brought thousands of Aussies who didn’t know much about Australia’s national gemstone to hop in their cars and caravans and travel to the opal mines in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland and that put an enormous cashflow into these mining towns,” he said.

Main images supplied.