Opal, the world’s most widely mined gem, has a history of turning to crime, and it is now facing another one as thieves are increasingly targeting the diamonds and other precious metals.
The criminal element in Opal is still very much at the heart of its business.
For now, however, Opal jewellery is on the back foot, and its prospects for the future appear bleak.
The Opal crisis has seen a dramatic drop in the price of the gemstone.
It has been cut in half since mid-2017, when it had a price tag of $1.2 billion, but is now trading at just $735,000 per ounce.
The drop in value has coincided with a sharp fall in Opals supply, which has meant the value of the jewels is falling fast, according to the New York Times.
In fact, according, in some cases, it is not the price that has plunged, but the quantity.
In April, Opals had a supply of just over 7,000 pieces, but now there are only about 4,000 left.
This is a massive decline in supply, as the jewellery industry needs the diamonds to be made and sold to fulfil orders.
“Opals supply is being severely constrained,” says Stephen Farrar, a senior lecturer in gem and mineral sciences at the University of Manchester.
And while there are currently about 100,000 Opals in production in China, the rest of the world is facing a shortage, he says.
“[The criminals] are targeting the Opals and they are targeting jewellery, but it’s not necessarily Opals,” he adds.
“They’re targeting jewels, they’re targeting gold, they are trying to get their hands on jewellery in Australia and the rest.”
Opal, also known as Opal-24, is the most widely-metricated of the Opal gemstones.
Its value is pegged to its purity, the purity of which is measured in the platinum and diamonds that make up the stone.
But its value is also tied to the purity in which the diamonds are cut.
To make diamonds, the diamond-makers use platinum and diamond-cutting equipment.
At the time of the crisis, it was not clear if Opals would become more valuable, or if the quality of the cutting equipment would improve, says Farral.
But by April, it appeared to be a matter of time.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the value per ounce of Opals fell from $8,000 to $5,000, a decline of 75 per cent.
Meanwhile, the price per ounce for platinum dropped from $3,600 to $1,000.
So what are the criminals trying to steal?
“There are a number of possibilities,” says Fargar.
For example, the thieves are using the technology to cut out diamonds from the Opens and then cut the diamonds into smaller pieces, he explains.
“There are also smaller pieces that are cut in a different colour and with a different pattern.”
And then they are cutting the diamonds from smaller pieces with smaller diamonds, so that when they cut a larger piece, they end up with a smaller piece.
Then there are other methods of theft.
“The criminals may be able to use technology to make the diamonds appear to have the same size as the Opales, so they are able to take out a large piece of Opal from a smaller Opal and then the diamonds would be in a very small size and appear to be the same colour and the same pattern,” Farrac says.
“These are techniques that have been used by criminals to steal Opals before.”
The thieves have also been able to create large pieces of Opales with different shapes, and then steal them from a jewelry store.
These pieces are then sold on the black market, and as Farras explains, it’s an incredibly lucrative business.
“We are talking about a lot of money for them.
The Opales are the most valuable Opals, so these people are making quite a lot for themselves, and this is all very profitable.”
Farrar adds that Opals have also become a target for criminals because they are a high-value gemstone that is often seen by collectors as a luxury item.
“The opals are often the jewel of choice for luxury jewellery buyers, so this makes them very attractive for criminals to target,” he says, noting that the criminals could also target other valuable Opal stones, such as diamonds from gold and platinum.
However, the criminals are not just targeting Opals.
They also target the other Opales in the world, like the Aga, a rare gem that is a member of the Sapphire family.
Agas are also a relatively rare opal, but they are now often sold as jewellery.