Andrew Kemeny and Vicki Bokros’ journey to the opal region of Lightning Ridge NSW is an enchanting love story full of inspiration and success. Not only did they find each other, they fell in love with opals and found their forever home.
The first of the pair to be seduced to the region was Vicki, who left Surfer’s Paradise QLD at the age of 19 after falling in love with Australia’s national gemstone, and decided to seek her fortune in the opal mining region of Lightning Ridge NSW. She soon settled and became a ‘jack of all trades’ gaining experience in all aspects of opal mining, opal cutting and wholesaling the finished stones initially within Australia then to the world. To this day, she has continued to expand her impressive skill set to include retail, bespoke cutting edge jewellery design, qualified gemmologist and registered opal valuer with the NCJV.
Vicki opened a retail storefront in 1990, and in 2000 purchased what is now the newly renovated and revamped Down to Earth Opals world headquarters, retail store and gallery.
Andrew met Vicki as a client at his private mortgage broking business, having previously worked in the corporate property and retail world for 20 years. It took this chance meeting for him to give it all up for the allure of following Vicki to Lightning Ridge. Andrew started as an opal cutter and carver, finding a mentor in the world famous opal carver Daniela L’Abbate.
Today, Andrew runs the operational and administrative aspects of the retail business, along with teaching opal carving for the Australian Opal Centre. “The most rewarding part of passing on the skills of opal carving is to see perfection after an intensive four days’ work from students who have undergone an emotional journey of taking a piece of rough opal and crafting it to a scratch free mirror finish” says Andrew.
Retail showroom and gallery
At the end of December 2020 after nine months of meticulous planning, design and forward ordering critical componentry, Andrew and Vicki closed up shop and commenced their long dreamed task of renovating and expanding their retail store.
“Our goal was to take the lead and create a world class retail space where we could finally exhibit our best treasures in a secure environment that would become a ‘must visit’ destination within Australia. We utilised fixtures, finishes and technology that were cutting edge, were determined to incorporate opal education and hands on experiences to visitors, and motivated to provide employment opportunities for new team members.” says Vicki.
Renovating a retail space is a daunting task at the best of times but to consider this town is 800km from Sydney or Brisbane, and they were in the middle of a pandemic with the constant threat of COVID induced lockdowns and travel restrictions – it takes an exceptional duo to pull this task off. “Remember that our nearest Bunnings is 360km away in Dubbo” adds Vicki “you can’t afford to overlook something critical as down the road and back takes a day! ”.
“We are proud that well over half the renovation budget was spent in our region with builder, painter, plumber and lead electrician all living in Lightning Ridge; and all other works save for cabinetry, floor and lighting supply came from Walgett, Dubbo, Orange, Moree and Tamworth” says Andrew.
Every detail of this world class retail space is deliberate and considered. The lighting features alone took 6 months to perfect – the pair eventually sourcing the ideal lighting from the USA. To mimic naturally sourced light as much as possible, the lighting used in store has a wide colour temperature envelope, created by LED hybrid chip technology. Andrew explains, “We considered lighting to be critical because opal viewed in the showroom must look exactly the same when taken home.”
Digital Print Vinyl Floor
Even the flooring at Down to Earth Opals is a work of art in its own right and beautiful to behold.
Inspired by the environment and by products of the mining process, the floor displays random geometric patterns and features that form in the settling pond of a mining tail-out site as water evaporates and the waste clay slurry naturally cracks as it dries and hardens. Vicki’s innovative idea enables locals and visitors immerse themselves in a landscape that most people would not ordinarily have the opportunity to experience.
For this vision to come to life, individual high resolution drone shots of the cracked earth were combined to create one massive image which was sent to the Netherlands to be printed on commercial vinyl. Another 6 month project with considerable risk. Andrew and Vicki had to commit to the printing of their image sight unseen, then trust the floor will make it onto a ship which would travel successfully to Australia within the required timeframe. Luckily, this risk paid off and they are now proud owners of a one of a kind, 3D image printed retail floor. An ode to the beautiful landscape and obsession of the region and opal mining that emanates from this couple.
“Immediately upon opening we were received with great acclaim from locals and visitors alike. Within a few weeks, word of mouth began to spread quickly amongst travellers up and down the Castlereagh Highway who were encouraging others to visit us as a must see destination in Lightning Ridge” says Vicki.
Fire and Ice Gem Black Opal
A stunning one-of-a-kind double sided black opal and a massive drawcard to the region is the 34.90 carat Fire and Ice opal discovered in July 2020 at Lightning Ridge by local miners Peter Cooke and Sam Westra, who mined the stone during filming of the popular television series, Outback Opal Hunters.
After the initial offer from Vicki of $50,000 was knocked back, Andrew was commissioned to carve the stone to optimise its yield, and achieve maximum play of colour and contrast from the distinctive double colour bar which expresses a multicolour floral flash pattern face on one side and deep blue pinfire on the other. “We have displayed it since April 2021 upon reopening the new shop and in late July 2022 the stone was sold to Australian investors at a value in excess of $160,000” says Andrew.
Part of the stone’s magic is the ability to draw people in and allows for conversation, education, building relationships with customers and visitors alike through its unique story and exceptional natural beauty. “This is largely thanks to the Discovery Channel series of Outback Opal Hunters which is now in its 8th season, and has elevated Australians’ knowledge of opal to the benefit of all the opal fields” says Vicki. “The new owners have indicated that they are happy to leave the stone in our care and on public display for the foreseeable future which is a win-win for the opal and for Australia”. The new world class retail space of Down to Earth Opals is the perfect setting to showcase such a unique and once in a lifetime stone.
Andrew and Vicki conclude, “the most rewarding experience for us is to have someone who has absolutely no knowledge of opal that has walked through our door and we can educate, inspire, enthral, and seduce into the magic and mystery of opal, with the added benefit of making amazing new friends with opal as the common denominator.”
The love for opals, the region and each other is palpable from this pair. The effort, time and consideration spent on their retail dream contributes to its world class presentation, style and design. Having the Fire and Ice opal on display in Down to Earth Opals in addition to the comprehensive array of over 10,000 opals in stock, hundreds of jewellery items, authentic First Nations art and many other complementary product lines, is testimony to Vicki and Andrew’s collective talents and reputation in the industry.
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