Most people who cut opal do it as a side hobby or started cutting agates and other stones before transitioning to opal. My situation was a little different than most. I had been selling opals for almost two years and made a decision to partner up with an Australian who happened to be professional opal cutter. Together we bought a parcel of rough opal from Coober Pedy, South Australia. With his guidance I learned opal cutting, and although the partnership did not last, I was able to start buying rough opal and cutting opal on my own. When our partnership broke up, I had a plastic container of chips with which I had no idea what to do. Eventually I started cutting those tiny little opals and amazingly they sold just about as fast as I could cut them, so I cut a lot of them, thousands.
Over the years, I have changed and modified my methods of cutting opal–some of it due to necessity and some of it through invention. When I started out cutting opals, it was with silicon carbide grinding wheels and sanding belts. Later I began using spongy wheels for smoothing out ripples in opals and pumice wheels for preparing the opal for polishing. I used cerium oxide on felt wheels for the final polish giving the opal a mirror like finish.
When I was in Illinois I had room for two setups, one with silicon carbide and the other diamond. I preferred the silicon carbide method as it gave me a better feel for the opal. When I moved to Wisconsin, I did not have the available space to maintain two separate opal cutting setups. Since I was cutting a lot more boulder opal, and I found diamond was better at finishing boulder opal with it’s varying hardness due to the boulder stone. I decided to use diamond almost exclusively and I have gotten pretty used to this method of cutting but if I ever get the space again I’ll go back to both opal cutting setups. Each have their distinct advantages.
I define the title of professional opal cutter as “one that cuts opal for a living.” As a professional opal cutter I concentrated on speed especially since my entire inventory at the time consisted of about 100 opals, not really enough to make a living selling them. I also wanted to carry a large variety of opal. Most everyone thought opal was only white so I set about to prove that it wasn’t. With the Lord’s prodding I worked long hours and my cutting speed and knowledge of the opal increased.
Almost every type of rough opal is a little different and you have to be careful that the opal doesn’t fool you. Some opals face one way only, some both ways, others on the side some at a diagonal, some grow gypsum, some develop white spots, sometimes the opal will lift off the host rock, mainly boulder, some will chip in cutting, some will absorb water like a sponge and turn a completely different color usually transparent and when it dries out will turn white but still with beautiful color, some rough will look great with water and turn pale white when it dries out. Opal is Queen of Gems because they are so beautiful, entrancing, captivation and you can fall in love with them.
At my peak, many years ago, I was cutting over a 1000 opals weekly while working up to 20 hours a day or more. You could say I was a bit driven, but I loved it! It was like opening Christmas presents you just kept wanting to see what the next opal was going to look like from the saw to the grinding wheel to the finished product. I would fall asleep standing at the cutting wheels before I would realize I needed to rest, even then i would grudgingly lie down for a rest. Later I leveled out my cutting production to around 600-700 opals a week. With age comes wisdom and experience but the eyes aren’t as good as they were once were and now they get sore if i use magnification to much. which I’ve had to do, plus my legs just don’t like standing for 20 hours a day anymore, how odd is that! Any more my cutting is closer to 200 a week but I don’t need to build stock as much as maintain what I have and besides I need to get out and walk and I like golf As a professional opal cutter, I have cut somewhere over 150,000 opals, but a good many of them have been those tiny little opals that are fast to cut. Boulder opal is a lot slower because there is a lot of rock and usually not to much opal, so it takes a while to get to where the opal is.
You would think after almost 40 years I would be tired of this, but to be honest with you I probably have more appreciation for opal now than ever. God has created in this stone an array of colors and patterns and brilliance that have no end and no equal. I’m as excited now at cutting a new parcel of opal as I ever was. There is beauty in every opal whether its very expensive or very inexpensive, high grade of low grade opal appeals to the heart and the emotions. it’s brilliance can knock you over it’s soft colors can make you cry. Truly, opals are like windows by which you can see into the kingdom of heaven because it just doesn’t seem possible that they could come out of the dirt.