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The 'Fire of Australia' Opal

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by Paula McManus (subscribe)
Photography obsessed writer and urban explorer. Lover of nature, art and long weekends. Adelaide, South Australia.
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The World’s Finest Piece of Opal
The 'Fire of Australia' opal, known as the finest uncut opal in the world, has just become part of the South Australian Museum's permanent collection.

Fire of Australia Opal, SA Museum
Fire of Australia opal, SA Museum (©paula mcmanus)

The opal is valued at nearly $900,000 and has come to the Museum via a Federal Government grant through the National Cultural Heritage Account and the enormous generosity of the Bartram family.

Alan Bartram, son of Coober Pedy opal miner Walter Bartram who found the opal, said that the opal was mined in 1946 at the Eight Mile opal field in Coober Pedy in the far north of South Australia.

Opal was discovered in Coober Pedy just over 100 years ago and the first claim was pegged in February 1915. Many fortunes were found and lost in typical mining town boom and bust times.

The mining and production of opal came to a standstill during the Great Depression in the late 1930's to 1940's due to opal prices plummeting. The industry was revived when in 1946 local woman Tottie Bryant, found a large and very valuable opal at the Eight Mile field. The find started a new and enthusiastic rush to the opal fields.

Fire of Australia Opal, SA Museum
Fire of Australia opal, SA Museum (©paula mcmanus)

Many European migrants came to the area post-WWII and the mining industry boomed again in the 1960s and 1970s.

Coober Pedy is now known as the "Opal Capital of the World" - the opal fields have the largest concentration of opal bearing ground in the world and is known for yielding big runs of full coloured seam opal.

Australian Opal fields produce 95% of the world's opal and Coober Pedy is the greatest producer by quantity in the world. Ninety percent of the world's most precious opals come from right here in South Australia. Australian Opal was officially named the National Gemstone of Australia in July 1993.

Mr Bartram could easily have fetched a much higher price for the Fire of Australia at an international auction but the family felt that it was important that the opal stayed in South Australia.

Fire of Australia Opal, SA Museum
Fire of Australia opal, SA Museum (©paula mcmanus)

It is such a piece, so outstanding that it would have been a sheer misery to see it go to another destination and be cut up for watch faces or something like that," Mr Bartram said.

The "Fire of Australia" is the finest piece of opal that has ever gone on public display in the world. It's massive - weighing in at 998 grams - and is made up of 5,000 carats. To get an idea of the size of the opal, imagine two cricket balls placed side by side and you'll get a better picture.

The opal was first on public display during the SA Museum Opals exhibition, which was the most popular exhibition ever held in the museum's history. It was after this exhibition ended that talks began to place the opal into the safe hands at the Museum.

This incredibly rare and exquisite opal will be on display in the South Australian Museum's front foyer from Saturday the 21st of January until the end of February 2017. Shortly after, it will be installed into a permanent exhibition space within the Museum. Get along and see this remarkable and precious piece of rock.

Entry to the Museum, and to see the opal, is free.

Fire of Australia Opal, SA Museum
Fire of Australia opal, SA Museum (©paula mcmanus)

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Why? See the world's finest piece of opal
When: The Museum is open every day from 10am till 5pm, including weekends and public holidays (except Good Friday and Christmas Day). On ANZAC Day the Museum opens at 12noon
Where: South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide
Cost: Free
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