Speaking with many opal vendors at Tucson this year, Shop LC learned that a growing number of opal miners are making the switch to tantalum. Traditionally, metals like gold, industrial metals, and gemstones make up most of the mined minerals in Ethiopia. However, tantalum has been on the rise over the last two decades.
What is Tantalum?
Tantalum is a rare and valuable metal, frequently used in laboratory equipment and electronics. Simply put, miners can fetch a higher price for tantalum than they can for opal. As a result, vendors are concerned about their ability to offer gems like Welo opal.
Ethiopia is currently the world’s sixth-largest producer of tantalum. In 2018, the country produced 70 metric tons of tantalum. Now, government reforms in the mining industry seek to increase the production of valuable minerals like tantalum. Mineral production only contributes about 1% of GDP for Ethiopia. New predictions say that changes will boost this as the country is rich in mineral wealth.
Many large Ethiopian mines already specialize in tantalum production. The Kenticha mine, in particular, is a valuable source of the world’s tantalum supply.
Tantalum Impact on Opal Mining
Some experts suggest that tantalum mining can severely throttle the future supply of Welo opal. Tantalum mining has previously shut down gemstone production in other countries. Marropino morganite is one such gem. In 2010, morganite mining operations ceased in favor of the more valuable tantalum. As a result, Marropino morganite now commands a premium when compared to other sources.
Ethiopian Welo Opal may soon find itself in a similar position. Currently, it is an affordable alternative to more expensive Australian opal. However, its growing popularity with designers, coupled with dwindling interest from miners, threatens to drive prices up.
A Short History of Welo Opal
A Century of Australian Dominance
Beginning in the 19th century, the world supply of opals were in decline. In general, the stone had developed a reputation as an unlucky stone. This is partly due to literature at the time, such as the story by Sir Walter Scott, Anne of Geierstein. This reputation was also due to the poor quality of the material. Lapidaries didn’t like working with it!
By the late 1860s, new deposits of opal were found in Australia. This new find was of high-quality, and the material began entering the market. Seemingly overnight, this revitalized the industry. Throughout the 20th century, Australian opal became synonymous with high-quality opal gems, dominating the market for over 100 years. Some estimates suggest that up to 95% of opal material originates from Australia.
Introducing Welo Opal
However, rising costs slowly priced out many from owning this exquisite gem. But, things were about to change once again! By the mid-90s, promising new opal deposits were found, this time, in Ethiopia. Between the late 2000s and 2010s, active mining of these new finds is underway.
Ethiopian opal has been slowly changing the landscape over the last two decades. Ethiopian opal accounts for about 10% of world production, by some estimates. Welo opal is, in particular, considered some of the best material. This comes from the Tsehay Mewcha mine, near the town of Wegel Tena, from the Wollo Province of Ethiopia.
Initial yields for this stone was excellent, averaging around 20 percent. However, over the last decade, yields began to decline and currently hover around just 2 percent!
Current and Future Supply
To improve local economies, the Ethiopian government has imposed additional regulations. Only 60 percent of rough can be exported. The remaining 40 percent must be preforms that are produced locally. Preforms are roughly shaped stones that are later made into finished gems. However, the artisans are not very skilled, and these preforms are low in quality. Reshaping them results in up to an additional 25 percent loss of material.
A few factors are affecting future supply and demand.
- Mines close during the rainy season due to flooding (3 to 4 months each year).
- Mines require another 1 to 2 months to dry before operations resume.
- This limits the mining season to 6 to 8 months per year.
- Formal geological surveys of the region are incomplete or non-existent.
No one knows what future production looks like. As a result, there is no way to guarantee supply. Many in the industry are concerned due to low yields in recent years, like the vendors we spoke with in Tucson this year. Prices are rising as awareness around this beautiful stone continues to grow.
Want to read more? Why not try Are Hydrophane Opals Safe for Jewelry?
Visit Shop LC to discover the exciting range of Welo opal jewelry that is available.