A rare gem of an opal miner

It’s a hard slog for opal prospectors in Lightning Ridge, battling both the heat and the local farming community for access to the land. But one family has made a living off the gems for generations.

Ormond Molyneux doesn’t think much of diamonds. “Diamonds? No mate -- a good opal wouldn’t blow up its arse.”

No, I’m not sure what that means either, but let’s agree it’s quite dismissive. Ormond is a third generation opal miner at Lightning Ridge who’s addicted to opals. The family company, Molyneux Rush Pty Ltd, now has the fourth generation -- Ormond’s two boys, Ben and Tim -- working in it as well.

Lightning Ridge is in northern NSW, near the Queensland border. It’s stinking hot and the work is hard, but Ormond Molyneux says he wouldn’t do anything else.

“Even if I struck it rich I’d keep doing this. What else would I do? The thing is, once you’ve seen the stone, you fall in love with it.”

And apart from the beauty of the black opals, it’s a good life in the Ridge too: “Mate, you’ve got to come out here. You’ll never go back.”

Hmm, not sure about that. Ormond Molyneux doesn’t have a mobile phone or access to the internet. He gets up at 7am every day and goes down a three-foot hole and then along a six-foot tunnel, where he operates a jackhammer for five hours. Not my idea of a good life.

What’s more, he says that 95 per cent of those digging for opals in Lightning Ridge don’t find anything; 4 per cent make a decent living and 1 per cent make a killing, because he or she was lucky enough to put a hole down in the right spot.

The Molyneux family is in the 4 per cent.

Is it a business? “Oh shit yeah, mate. I go to work every day and dig till it’s too hot – usually five hours or so. In winter it’s longer.”

They haul the ore up in big buckets and then wash it in a cement mixer till the opals appear in the slurry … or not.

What opals they find are polished and cut at home, and then weighed and priced, before being sold to the buyers who come to Lightning Ridge regularly and set up shop in local motels. For the Molyneux’s, though, the buyers come to them.

Some of the opals are sold to local tourists, but most are exported. It used to be to Japan, but “they went broke in the 90s” and now it’s China.

In 1989, before Japan went broke, the price was $8,000 per carat; now it’s $6000-7000 and steadily rising back towards the old peak price, thanks to demand from China.

The Molyneux business started in the late 1920s when Ormond’s grandfather, Arthur, and his two brothers Bob and Tom, rode their bikes 100 miles to Lightning Ridge to check it out and stayed there.

Arthur went to war and when returned he settled in Lightning Ridge with Mary, where they had one son -- Ormond’s father John.

John met Jenny (her father was a tin miner) in Lightning Ridge and they married young (Jenny was pregnant) and had seven kids by the time they were 26 (“no contraception in those days mate”). Five of them are still in Lightning Ridge.

The family company, Molyneux Rush Pty Ltd, was incorporated in 1988 and Ormond’s father John died two years later, from leukemia. These days it’s owned 50/50 by Ormond and his brother Joe.

Ormond is also president of the Lightning Ridge Miners’ Association, and they’re in court at the moment fighting the local farmers for access to the land. It’s a fight that’s been going on for years.

The Australian did a story on it last year, quoting a local farmer, Kevin Parkin: “Lightning Ridge is full of criminals, drug addicts and dole bludgers, and opal mining is like the tobacco industry – they are the two industries that offer no betterment to mankind whatsoever.”

Well, that’s a bit harsh. Black opals are very nice objects indeed and, according to Ormond Molyneux, the holes have minimal impact on the land. And anyway, he says, it’s all crown land – “the farmers are just tenants, and we have just as much right to it as they do”.

Whether you’re farming the land or digging it for opals, it’s a hard slog out there in outback NSW, but there are families that love it enough to do it for generations.

Will the fourth generation of the Molyneux family take on the business, scratching for black opals under Lightning Ridge?

“Definitely.”

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