Ethiopian Press Agency (Addis Ababa)

9 November 2012

Ethiopia: Opals Establishing a Brand Name in Export Market

Sources indicate that in the early 1990s opal, a typical gemstone surfaced in Mezezo, North Shoa Zone of Amhara State.

The type of gem was called Chocolate opal because of the chocolate colour inside the nodule. These opals are found in a round nodular texture within a three meters thick layer of welded volcanic ash.

Only about one percent of these nodules contain color. The colors are very striking with red being common and blue quite rare which is the opposite to Australian opals. The opal which is found Mezezo has some magnificent patterns and brilliant colors and as a result it is called Ethiopian fire opal. This gemstone is discovered by individuals who later informed the Ethiopian Mines Corporation to promote it in the world market, a Senior Geologist with Ministry of Mines Tewelde-Birhan Abay said.

Following the Mezezo opal mining, Wollo opal which is found in three districts in the former Wello province was able to compete in global market price and appears to be well competent in the international market as it has unique color patterns and is found openly in the compartment , according to the Geologist.

The spectacular look and the striking color of Wollo opal enables Ethiopia to have a brand name in the international market. Ethiopian opal will be widely known internationally like that of Australian and Mexican opal. Australia and Mexico are pioneers in introducing opal and breaking through the global market with quality products, the Geologist added.

Sources also indicate that the newly discovered Ethiopian opal near Delanta in Wello Province is quickly becoming known for some of the most impressive jewelry grade rough in the opal world. Delanta-area miners are producing a remarkable material that has incredibly bright plays of color and amazing harlequin patterns. In the last two years, the new Ethiopian opal has proven to be just as strong and dependable as fine Australian opal.

In 2010, after a two-year wait for experienced gem cutters to master the special techniques required to properly handle the new opal, skepticism and concerns about the viability of Wollo opal were put to rest at the Tucson gem show. Brilliant honeycomb harlequin and brightly polished and cut Wollo opal caused tremendous excitement. Since then, the Internet has become flooded with an increasing number of videos showing off this sparkling and beautifully fashioned jewelry-grade opal.

It is found in a plateau of 2,500 to 3,299 meters high. Only the locals are allowed to mine on this field, and the government has even supplied basic tools. A variety of crystals, brown base and even black opal have been mined from the same site A very small percentage is called gum opal for it sticks like gum when it finds a wet environment.

Jewelry grade of Wollo rough opal is available from wholesale suppliers and is currently priced below comparable Australian opal. Most wholesale dealers are anticipating price increases as more jewelers and consumers become aware of the Wollo opal's spectacular beauty and availability in recent times.

As with all opal, some is more stable than others. Regional geographical characteristics do make a difference. Opal from one province or geological formation will vary greatly from another. The new Wollo opal confused with other opals mined in other parts of Ethiopia. Found in the same type of geological formations with the Australian opal and with Brazilian opal in terms of hardness, the new Wollo opal has been proven to be both reliable and striking - a true precious opal.

In this regard, Geologist noted that Ethiopia has three types of opal namely common, fire (Shoa opal) and precious opal (Wollo opal), and their price also varies depending on spacial variations. It assumed that opal types of all countries are found in Ethiopian as the compartment and geological formations is similar with that of Australian and Mexican even though it needs further study.

Apart form Shoa and Wollo areas, opal is assumed to deposited in different parts of the country including Afar, Somali, Harar and Jimma Zone of Oromia sates. It has been mined traditionally by individuals and associations of surrounding communities. It is found at 2-3 metres deep from the surface, which makes it easier for poorly equipped miners to perform excavation. Giant companies have not yet been engaged in mining because it may incur them additional cost to build infrastructure to get close to the mining area.

According to the Geologist, opal is exported to about 12 countries that include among others America, Germany ,Canada and to those countries that have owned advanced cutting technologies such as India, Thailand and Singapore.

Although Ethiopia earns about six million USD from opal which consisted 85 per cent of gemstone export last year. Hard currency earning is still not considerable as value adding and advanced cutting technologies have not yet been employed, according to the Geologist.

"The Ministry of Mines is engaged in delivering service of packaging," set the common price and standard for around 200 licensed exporters. One gram opal sold at 200 US, but if value adding procedure has been made, it sold at a cost of more than 1000 USD in the international market much higher than gold."

According to the Geologist, opal mining has been facing problems of poor mining technologies which resulted in substandard products. Therefore, companies' venture accompanied with modern technologies in mining could hopefully raise the amount of foreign currency earning. Traditional mining coupled with the mineral's nature of susceptibility for crack has led to damage to significant amount of mineral.

Opal also needs be stored in a place where weather condition is similar to the place from where was mined, as it is easily perishable product. Reluctance of the regional states to preserve opal deposit area and failure to receive royalty payment is another acute problem which should be addressed.

Generally, in order to tap in the untapped potential of the very rare and precious gemstone, opal, adopting modern cutting technologies is vital, as the cost of a value added product is much higher in the global market.

Transforming the traditional mining system with modern technologies is also crucial to improve the quality and quantity of the products. Modernization of the mining system also enables to rescue traditional miners from fatalities of top rock collapse and land slide while excavating along the horizontal section of the steep mountains.

Moreover strict rules need to be put in place to limit the smuggling of opals by illicit traders.

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