VERNON - Most people go home from a dig at Canada’s only opal mine with a small trinket. Others, like Donna Nelson, get very lucky.
On a recent trip to Vernon, the Saskatchewan woman and her husband went on a dig with Opal Resources Canada, which operates the Opal Miners Gift Shop on Highway 97 by Swan Lake. The opal mine—located roughly 25 km west of Vernon—was discovered by accident in 1991 when its owners were searching for gold.
At first, Nelson, 54, didn’t find what she was looking for either. It wasn’t until she was taking one last photo of the site before hitting the road that something sparkly caught her eye.
“There it was, just sitting there,” Nelson says. “I had walked right past it.”
The sun was hitting it at just the right angle to reflect an array of colours, and definite sparkle. A streak of opal shone on the outer part of the rock, but it wasn’t until the miners broke open the chunk of volcanic basalt that they discovered how special the find really was. Inside was a pocket of shimmering opals.
“There’s a whack of them, so far between 19-21 opals found in it,” Nelson says. “I wasn’t expecting to find anything of any great value. I guess it was my lucky day.”
Opal Resources estimates the value at $3,000. The individual opals have since been made into pieces of jewelry Nelson intends to keep forever. At the Opal Miners Gift Shop, rings, earrings and pendants featuring the company's opals sell for hundreds of dollars apiece.
“They’ll be kept in the family, passed down to my sons and their wives,” Nelson says. “Everybody’s going to be well decked out.”
Mike Yorke-Hardy, who runs the company with his brother Chris and dad Robert, says it was the best find a visitor has had in recent years.
“They definitely don’t happen every day,” he says.
The find is valuable not just because of the number of opals, but because of the type. Nelson found crystal opals, the second most valuable kind.
With the majority of the world’s opals originating in Australia, Vernon’s mine is a rare gem. About 80 tonnes of rock was mined from the site this year, and of that around 5,600 stones of various quality will be cut, Yorke-Hardy says. The company made a prized discovery of their own not long after Nelson’s: a black opal.
“We’ve only ever found a couple of them and this is the nicest we’ve ever found,” Yorke-Hardy says, pegging its value at around $5,000.
No two opals are alike, each with its own depth of colour and fire, the brightness of the gemstone.
For more information or to schedule a dig, visit the Opal Resources Canada website.
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