Bespoke fine Australian opal jewellery

Australian fine opal jewellery company, Opal Minded, vertically integrated throughout the entire mine to end-user process, adopts a sustainable approach in its mining operation. The…

Australian fine opal jewellery company, Opal Minded, vertically integrated throughout the entire mine to end-user process, adopts a sustainable approach in its mining operation. The family company is helmed by second generation miner, John Bernard and his wife, Dr Renata Bernard, who designs and gives creative direction for all pieces in the Opal Minded range.

Designer and Creative director, Dr Bernard first arrived in Australia from Eastern Europe in 1994 but her career as an academic lecturer would take a different path after she met John, who founded Sydney based Opal Minded in 1989. He was following in the tradition started by his father who was the first in the family to become involved in opal mining and trading.

An ambitious adventurer, John Senior, deserted from a British Merchant ship in Fremantle in 1948, and set out for the Australian Outback. Mining for gold, nickel, chrysoprase and other metals and minerals in the rugged outback, he discovered opals in Coober Pedy in the 1960’s. Enchanted by the rainbow gem, he moved his young wife and family from their family-run carnation farm near Canberra to a dug-out in Coober Pedy. John Senior then amassed the largest collection of Australian opals and Aboriginal artefacts known at the time while his wife became the best boulder opal cutter of her time, as the family finally settled in the opal fields of Quilpie in Queensland.

His son, John Bernard oversees the running of Opal Minded’s remote, artisanal, open pit mine in Jundah-Opalville in Queensland. At first, Dr Bernard was disinterested in her future husband’s involvement with opals, seeing them as little more than tourist souvenirs. This changed when one of his close friends visited them during the first year of their relationship, bringing with him several parcels of outstanding opal. “I will never forget these gems. I was absolutely mesmerised and turned into an opal magpie. I was hooked for life,” she recalled.

Focusing on her lecturing and research career, Dr Bernard kept her enjoyment of opals to herself, until three years later when she was expecting her first child. With more time on her hands, she started to regularly drop into the Opal Minded store at The Rocks, Sydney and began contributing to the store while on maternity leave. Step by step she began to be fully immersed into the world of Australian opals.

Dr Bernard first focused on learning the business ropes to help steer Opal Minded out of the global economic crisis that had begun. She then moved to formalise her understanding of gemmology and jewellery design. In 2014 she received a “Business Leader” award from the NSW Business Chamber. 

“I was already designing and giving creative direction for all our new pieces of jewellery, so this was taking my practice to new depths. Essentially, in short, I fell in love with a man, who was in love with the gem. I doubled my passions,” she said. 

Established in 1989 by John Bernard in its current permutation, Opal Minded comprises the mine at Jundah-Opalville and a design studio based in The Dymock’s Building on George Street, Sydney. A retail boutique is located in the historic precinct of The Rocks. 

“The studio is more substantial in size and types of activities and is our behind-the-scenes space, where most of our team work, including two gemmologists and two valuers. It houses a cutting workshop, photo studio, and all the background work that goes into creating our collections. This is also where I often receive our bespoke commissions from clients,” Dr Bernard said. 

“We mine the majority of our opals and cut and polish them. I design one-off and limited edition jewellery around individual gems and we offer them online and from Sydney locations to our international and Australian clientele. For these three reasons, we are able to guarantee our gem and craftsmanship quality across time. 

“We mine the majority of our opals and cut and polish them. I design one-off and limited edition jewellery around individual gems and we offer them online and from Sydney locations to our international and Australian clientele. For these three reasons, we are able to guarantee our gem and craftsmanship quality across time. 

“As far as I know, Opal Minded is the only fine opal jewellery business in Australia focused exclusively on opals. I am also not aware of any other fine opal jewellery company of our size to have gemmological and valuing credentials, earned from GIA, GAA and NCIV,” she said.

The best quality JundahOpalville opals are in a league of their own, according to Dr Bernard, who finds their brightness in low light conditions striking. She first became aware of this quality when she started to remove two white Jundah opals from a safe in a semi- dark room. With no direct light, she observed that the two gems in the half open safe were glowing.

“They captured all the light available to them and sent it my way. The effect was incredible. I checked them for fluorescence straight away – fluorescence is suppressed by the iron content of the host-rock in boulder opals – and of course, there was none.” Since then, she runs every Jundah-Opalville stone she likes through her own private “under-the-table” test to see how much brightness it gives in limited light.

Dr Bernard explained that Jundah-Opalville was most likely the site of the first black opals discovery in Australia before they were found in Lightning Ridge, which later became their centre.

”Black opals from Jundah form in the boulders normal for that area, yet their base is darkened, most likely by the manganese content. These usually small and unusually bright gems exhibit an incredible range of colour with an exquisite colour play.” 

Pipe opals are also mined on the site, ranging from 1mm thick to large 30cm bricks of clean light opals. The Jundah-Opalville site is harsh with scorching temperatures and suited to only a few. 

“There aren’t many miners in the area, as life is particularly tough there, without the comforts that residents of Coober Pedy or Lightning Ridge can take for granted, such as grocery stores or fresh fruit and veg. Consequently, the output and market penetration is relatively low, but what it lacks in quantity, it definitely makes up in quality. Overall, Jundah-Opalville opals at their best are beyond exceptional,” she said.

John and his brother Ron ensure the Opal Minded mine is run sustainably with a strong emphasis on a holistic and ethical approach.

“Considering the wildlife and long-term environmental implications of our actions have been on John’s mind for much longer than the current trends or regulatory practices. At our own mining practice, my husband’s favourite life-long motto is: “Do your best always to leave the earth at least as good as it was before you landed.”

Dr Bernard pointed out the Opal Minded mining camp is built almost entirely from recyclables. “For a long time we operated off the grid, until it was no longer feasible given the poor durability of the current solar energy hardware,” she said. 

Earlier this year Opal Minded was recognised as best Ethical Jewellery Brand in the AsiaPacific by the acclaimed UK based 2021 LUXlife Global Excellence Awards. An email delivered the news to the Bernards and it came as a surprise.

“We did not expect or know about it, so it was doubly thrilling. Australian opals by default set a high bar for ethical gemstones as they are mined by small-scale miners, with a strong regulatory emphasis on doing the right thing by the environment,” she noted.

The pandemic brought new challenges to Opal Minded, which had been relatively spoiled by the success of its bricks-and-mortar business until it hit. In March 2020, the company went through a steep learning curve.

“We practically did not exist as an online business. The beginnings were the hardest. To face a business pretty much wiped out by lockdowns and border closures was devastating. When it comes to the level of destruction, we were on par with the airlines, or worse,” Dr Bernard recalled.

“We learned that a good e-commerce website is not built in one day. Then, soon after we unveiled its first edition in October 2020, we suffered a fraud attack. The site withheld it, stopping 2,500 fraudulent transactions before they happened, but it was a rude awakening to us. We stepped out of the game for a couple of months to build in more security, and test and retest, and do it again and again, before our e-commerce was operational again,” she explained. 

The company went online with a renewed e-commerce focus in April 2021 and since then has delivered hundreds of one-of-a-kind and bespoke pieces to fine jewellery lovers around the world.

“It is rewarding to me to see that we’ve garnished enough trust online to break the industry threshold of average online sales which, based on anecdotal evidence, stands at about $1,000-1,500,” Dr Bernard said.

International travellers made up 90 per cent of Opal Minded’s clientele prior to Covid-19 but recently the firm has seen an increase in local purchases, often by returned expats who appreciate Australian opals. It has also seen an increase in the local purchase of opal engagement rings and special anniversary gifts.

Dr Bernard believes that the problem for fine opal jewellery is not so much demand as supply and points out there is not enough exposure to good Australian opals. 

“With such a limited supply of precious Australian opal gems, it is a privilege of the few to witness the dynamic nature of their best play of colour firsthand. Those who do are usually hooked for life.” 

The company is now preparing to share more of its opal expertise online. “There is so much opal information on the internet, and not all of it is factually correct. Keeping the end users’ and industry’s interests in mind, we want to contribute more of our gemmological and professional valuing experience to the online conversations,” she said.

Opal demand in the future looks rosy, maintains Dr Bernard. “The recipe for it is to give support to opal miners (supply), entertain (online presence) and provide outstanding customer services (reliable information, product guarantees). And, at Opal Minded, we have every intention to do our bit.”

For more information about Opal Minded, visit www.opalminded.com.

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