Which gemstone comes to mind when you imagine a rainbow? It is told, in one Indigenous Dreamtime story, that the opal was created when the colours of a rainbow touched the Earth.

When moved in light, these beautiful gemstones can indeed sparkle in wondrous patterns with all the colours of a rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – creating a unique palette of these combined hues.

The opal is our national gemstone. According to the Australian Government, Australia’s opal fields are bigger than those in the rest of the world combined. Although opals are found around the world, The International Gem Society states that Australian opals account for 95 per cent of the world’s supply and that unique geological formations in Australia favoured the formation of the gemstone.

Modern opal mining and trading stems back to 1889 when South Australian Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston took 60 brilliant pieces of Queensland rough opal to London. Wollaston’s wares were initially rejected, but he eventually sold the stones to an international jeweller and the demand for Australian opals grew.

Most opals found outside Australia originate from volcanic rocks and have a high water content. In comparison, Australian opals form when water containing dissolved silica trickles into gaps between rocks, and tiny spheres of hydrous silicon dioxide form. It’s a fascinating creation and one that Australian company Opals Down Under continues to share globally from right here on the Sunshine Coast.

The business is run by three individuals with complementing skills. Scott Coggan, opal artisan, owns and directs the company; Jessie Burns is the assistant manager, providing support and first contact information; and Rhys Fox is the manager, photographer and creative designer.

Rhys started with Opals Down Under in 2006 to run the website and organise advertising, editorials and photography.

“Given that I had a background in PR and online marketing, that part was easy,” he explains. “It was the challenge of learning about Australian opals, how they work in jewellery, how to photograph them correctly and the sales process that I had to tackle.”

Rhys loves working with the opals each day and calls the artistic process of drawing and photographing them “dopamine” for his creative brain. Photographing the gemstones is time-consuming; however, this attention to detail helps maintain Opals Down Under’s reputation as one of the world’s leading opal and opal jewellery websites.

Rhys takes 12-15 photos per opal and creates a movie to showcase each item clearly. It is easy to miss details.

“You won’t notice the smallest bit of dust, fingerprint, or hair until you view these images on the screen,” Rhys explains. “Opal gets its colour from the diffraction of white light, so I have to work with a light box to diffuse the lighting and best represent the opal as it would be seen in a daylight situation.”

Each opal is a piece of art, and Rhys says photographing the gem is also an art form – which he’s worked at for more than 17 years.

“I’m still trying to perfect it,” Rhys says. “There’s a few more secrets to it, but I’m not willing to let those out. I do love seeing the opals come to life as their own artwork on the big screen. It’s so random and often mesmerising, particularly with the high-end gems.”

When a client visits Opals Down Under with an idea, Rhys will sketch some concepts, taking on board their requirements. For some time, these ideas were brought to life on paper, but technology has changed the process, with Rhys now utilising an app on his iPad called Procreate – which tattoo artists also use.

“I take a photo of the unset opal, sometimes on the client’s skin or finger, to give a better perspective and build the sketches around that,” he says. “Then I can just AirDrop or email through the concept to the client right there and then.”

The team cuts the opals on site and then works with outside jewellers to create the final product. “I’ll send the created sketches through to the jeweller. Then they build the model.”

Opal engagement and wedding rings are increasing in popularity, most likely due to the brilliant uniqueness of every stone. “We are dealing with a gemstone that is completely unlike the next, and there’s an ever-increasing interest,” Rhys explains.

“Designing really unusual engagement rings can be a bit of a buzz. One recent one required the use of an opal centre stone, surrounded by a halo of multicoloured gems, which did turn out to be rather spectacular and attention-grabbing.”

Word is that celebrities frequent Opals Down Under – in-store and online – with overseas visitors wanting a beautiful opal piece to take home.

“We’ve had our fair share of well-known influencers, local and visiting celebrities and even international royalty. Can’t say who, though,” Rhys laughs.

While many businesses, unfortunately, succumbed to COVID-19 lockdowns, Opals Down Under’s online sales tripled. “We’re preparing to celebrate 40 years as a business in 2025, having survived recessions, the GFC and COVID, and that says something to me.”

And so, Australia’s national gemstone continues its popularity. With its spectrum of rainbow colours and light-reflecting beauty, Rhys reasons that “the opal is not an everyday item”.

It seems buyers here and around the world would agree with him.

Australia’s precious opals include:

Black opal, for which Australia is best known. Its colours include red, green, blue, violet, magenta or yellow against dark backgrounds. The majority of the world’s supply comes from New South Wales’ Lightning Ridge.

White opal, the most common type, has vibrant colours on a white or milky background. The bulk of these come from Coober Pedy in South Australia.

Crystal opal is transparent or extremely translucent, with colours that appear from below the surface. White and crystal opal form up to 80 per cent of opals supplied to the world from Australia, with the majority coming from the South Australian fields of Coober Pedy, Andamooka, Lambina and Mintabie.

Boulder opal is the second rarest of the Australian opals and is unique to Queensland. It’s found in veins and cavities in ironstone host rock, in fields such as Winton, Opalton, Quilpie, Yowah and Eromanga.