Opal enthusiasm: Starting down under, couple comes up with online business gem
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette StaffSteve Newstrom holds a large piece of opal above a pile of ungraded stones. Newstrom and his wife, Darlene, travel to Australia yearly to purchase uncut gems which they then sell as uncut or cut stones on their Billings-based Web site.Above left, opals show their fire – sparkle and color – even before cutting. Right, opals can be made into triplets. A thin layer of opal is placed over a black background and then covered with a clear top layer to bring out its fire.

Story by JOHN FITZGERALD Photos by BOB ZELLAR Of The Gazette Staff

If you want to do business with the government, go to Washington, D.C. If you want to do business with bankers, go to Wall Street.

If you want to do business in opals, go to Coober Pedy, Australia. More than 95 percent of the world's opals come from Australian opal mines, and Coober Pedy is the epicenter of the business.

Opal lovers call themselves "opal-holics," and Billings is home to two who have frequently bellied up to the Coober Pedy opal bar.

Steve and Darlene Newstrom have made three trips during the past four years to Australia to buy rough opals, which they transport back to Billings and sell on their Web site - www.villagesmithyopals.com. Steve also finishes some opals and sells those on the site as well.

"It's kind of like gold fever," Steve said.

Steve became a rock hound after receiving a book on rock and gem collecting when he was eight years old. He was intrigued by a picture of an opal.

"But photos don't show what an opal really looks like," Steve said, so he and his father, also a rock hound, went to Hudson's Jewelers in downtown Minneapolis to see a real opal.

"That's when I fell in love with opals," he said.

When he was 13, his father bought him a small gem cutting machine. A few years later, Steve used his earnings as a busboy to buy his first parcel of opals.

Over the years, Steve has turned opals into jewelry and sold them on consignment. In the meantime, he got a "real" job as a hospital imaging engineer. He currently works at Deaconess Billings Clinic, where he services and maintains X-ray, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, and CT machines. Darlene is a special education teacher at Burlington Elementary.

While opals can be found in Mexico, Brazil and even Idaho, the vast majority of quality opals are found in several spots in Australia. Of these spots, the most productive is Coober Pedy, found on the edge of the Australian outback north of Adelaide. Steve and Darlene made their first trip to the town in 2000.

"It really is a dirty little town, but the food is great," Darlene said.

"They have 40 different nationalities in a town of, what, 2,500? And they each have their own restaurant," Steve said. "Greek, Serbian, you name it. And the seafood is incredible. Once a week a truck comes up from Adelaide with fresh seafood right out of the ocean. Oysters on the half-shell, huge ones. Calamari in huge rings. And dozens of fish you've never heard of before."

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But after having something to eat, it's down to business.

Steve said the Australian government has kept corporations from monopolizing the opal mines, and the opal veins are neither long or deep. Resting along cretaceous bulldog shale, the opal veins and pockets can be reached with a one or two-man mining crew.

Therefore, to buy opals, you have to haggle with the miners themselves. "It's all done on a cash-only basis," Steve said.

All prices are subject to negotiation, an art Darlene leaves to Steve. "I have a hard time with it. Just tell me the price and either I can buy it or I can't. Luckily, Steve's pretty good at it," she said.

Once mined, the rough opals are gathered into parcels depending on their size and quality. Parcels can cost up to $1 million.

"We might see five parcels in a day," Steve said. "Some are high quality and high priced, some are not. Sometimes you can get a screaming deal because the guy's wife is leaving tomorrow for Greece and he needs the cash."

Opals are judged on three criteria: size; color or "fire;" and brightness. The fire is the amount of glitter, shine or character the opal shows. Brightness is the amount of light reflected by the opal and is graded on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very rare, Steve said.

Once back in Billings, Steve and Darlene will sort the rough opals, putting them in piles to be sold for $10 an ounce all the way up to $5,000 an ounce. Opals are a light stone, so an ounce goes a long way, Steve said.

They will also take thin opals and make them into triplets or doublets. A triplet has a black glass bottom, a thin layer of opal and then a quartz cap on top. A doublet is the same without the quartz. Doublets and triplets are cheaper than a solid opal.

Then they advertise the opals in Rock and Gem Magazine, the Lapidary Journal and through the American Opal Society. They also have about 500 subscribers to their newsletter, and they maintain their Web site.

And, if he sees a particularly beautiful opal, Steve may finish it himself and make it into jewelry. Darlene has several opal necklaces that Steve has made for her.

Working nights and weekends, Steve and Darlene have done well with their opal business even if they put all the money made back into the business.

"We'd like to do this for a retirement business," Steve said. "I don't want to sit around when I retire. There are six major gem shows in the U.S. Maybe we'll get a fifth-wheel and travel around."

After spending years traveling in the Australian outback, seeing the United States might be a nice change of pace.

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