A Kaleidoscope of Colour at Opals Down Under

Image source: IN Noosa Magazine

Opals Down Under has steered the opal industry on the Sunshine Coast since 1985. Speaking with master artisan Scott Coggan, Georgia Beard reveals the secrets of opal artistry from the outback opal fields to the showroom, just off the Bruce Highway. 

When Scott Coggan holds an uncut opal to his diamond-sintered saw, the world beyond his workroom blurs. All he can see is the seam of iridescent blue running through a piece of ironstone, and the hidden face waiting to be exposed.

Scott’s team at Opals Down Under know once he enters the opal-cutting zone, no one can speak to him until he comes out. The art of orientation – revealing the finest colour and pattern of an opal – requires absolute focus. All it takes is a grind in the wrong direction to turn a $1000 stone into a $100 stone. 

“Nature gives you the shape,” Scott said. “I take what nature provided, trim it and refine it into the best quality stone. 

“Opal cutters like myself are called artisans because we’re using a flair or an artistic value to get an end product.” 

Opals Down Under have laid opals in a variety of frames, from engagement rings to knife hilts to guitars – any jewellery inlay you can think of and beyond. 

“One of my greatest joys is seeing a stone that I’ve cut – and either I or our jeweller have designed – made into a finished product and then seeing a joyous reaction from the client,” Scott said. 

For more than 35 years, Scott has known the delights and disappointments of the opal industry. 

As the Director and Opal Artisan at the iconic Opals Down Under, he spends most of his time bartering for raw opals in the outback mines and cutting his opal stock for sale back in his studio just off the Bruce Highway in Glenview.

Scott’s journey with opals began in the 1980s, when he and his father travelled to Winton for work in the boulder opal fields. After he experienced the thrill of discovering precious opal, he taught himself the art of cutting. 

In 1990, his work brought him to Immo and Louise Stein, the founders of Opals Down Under. After subcontracting his cutting skills, he helped manage the business and eventually took over ownership in 2017.

“One of my favourite parts is dealing with the opal miners,” Scott said. “I’m quite a reserved sort of person. I don’t like to get in people’s faces but when you’re dealing with opal miners one-on-one, they can be overbearing in negotiating prices. 

“But I still enjoy the adrenalin rush of the buying process.

“People say I’m a gambler. But I’m not. I take calculated risks. I use my gut and past teachings to help me negotiate a price or analyse a piece of opal.”

The real risk happens out on the opal fields. From autumn to spring, miners travel to outback Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia and live off-grid in congregated camps – caravans at best and corrugated iron sheds at worst. Their rough existences depend on striking it rich in the mines. 

The supply of raw opal is decreasing, but not for lack of stone. 

One of the industry’s greatest challenges is encouraging younger generations to learn from the ageing miners and dig up their own fortunes – drilling mine shafts, searching for opal-bearing strata and revegetating the land once opals have been extracted. 

Opal fields such as Quilpie, Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy sit on the shoreline of an ancient inland ocean, once filling the Great Artesian Basin around 100 million years ago. As water moves over sandstone, it collects silicon dioxide and deposits a silica solution into underground cracks and crevices. This solution solidifies into a gel, leaving behind precious opal.

Store Manager Rhys Fox said while a large portion of precious gems needed faceting, polishing, and external light before they displayed colour, opals produced a unique play of colour the moment they emerge from the ground. 

Between trappings of stone, the whole colour spectrum catches fire. Boulder opal, black opal and white opal contain infinite hues and patterns – the cutter’s job is deciding which section of the stone to intensify. 

Once Scott exposes the opalescent seam, he chooses the side for the opal’s face and shapes the stone for a balance in colour and pattern. 

“There’s a myriad of things that can go wrong underneath the skin,” Scott said. “There could be a sand spot in there or a crack running through it. A professional cutter has an understanding and a restraint, knowing they can only grind to a certain point, and that’s as good as it’s going to get.”

Content with the shape, Scott refines and polishes on three grinding wheels. Hunching over, squinting through magnifying glasses, wearing a mask to protect his lungs from silica dust – it’s all worth it for the final product. 

After refining, an opal’s value increases dramatically from its original state. While other jewellers may receive stones already cut and processed, Opals Down Under purchases cheaper rough opal to cut with a personal finesse, offering the customer access to quality opals at lower prices. 

“A lot of emotion goes into buying opal,” Scott said. “Forget about the value – it’s the uniqueness and the feedback clients get from a particular stone, whether it’s the colour, the pattern or the brightness.”

Scott plans to remain in the opal industry for the rest of his life, weathering struggles and meeting demands as they come. It’s not surprising – every day, he holds a rainbow in his hands and still feels the rush. 

“To me, opals are nature’s artwork,” he said. “We’re just releasing it.” 

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