Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2022, Vol. 58, No. 1

Conversation with True Blue Opals and Gems

A 13.12 ct black opal from Lightning Ridge.
Figure 1. A 13.12 ct black opal from Lightning Ridge, 19.7 × 14.4 × 7 mm. Photo by Robert Weldon; courtesy of True Blue Opals and Gems Inc.

At the AGTA show, we spoke with Natassa Patel, who along with her mother, Salma, owns and operates True Blue Opals and Gems (Tucson and Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia). While they typically specialize in black opal from Lightning Ridge (figure 1), the closure of Australia’s state borders during the pandemic prevented them from traveling there. Canceled trade shows and the inability to see clients face-to-face also limited business, but their online sales increased and they began sourcing from Queensland’s Yowah and Koroit boulder opal fields. The majority of the stones at the booth were Yowah and Koroit boulder opal, with only one showcase of black opal.

“Circumstance made us specialize in Yowah and Koroit,” Natassa said. “I think my mom has taught me that, to make the opportunity. We could have just left it at home because everybody’s chasing black opal, but we didn’t. We believe in it.”

According to Natassa, buyers don’t want “generic” stones anymore, and opal is “very non-generic.” She said boulder opal (figures 2 and 3) is “like a bouquet of flowers” with its immense variety of colors and patterns. “I think it appeals to the uniqueness we all want to feel, with our imaginations running wild in trying to see landscapes and faces and paintings that are so prevalent in the patterns of boulder opals,” she said.

A 312.6 ct Yowah boulder opal with detail shown on the right.
Figure 2. A Yowah boulder opal or “Yowah nut” weighing 312.6 ct and measuring 74.6 × 67.3 × 22.6 mm (detail on the right). Photo by Robert Weldon; courtesy of True Blue Opals and Gems Inc.
73.53 ct “Rainbow Jungle” and 188 ct “Red Lantern” boulder opals.
Figure 3. Boulder opals: “Rainbow Jungle” (left), 73.53 ct and 52 × 25 × 7 mm, and “Red Lantern” (right), 188 ct and 54.8 × 41.4 × 22.0 mm. Photos by Robert Weldon; courtesy of True Blue Opals and Gems Inc.

Natassa said that despite the common belief that anticipating customer demand is the way to success, it’s important to her and her mother “to stay true to ourselves and sell what we like.” She added that if you focus on persuading people by sharing knowledge rather than on trends, you can create a trend. “I like to pave the road. I don’t like to follow: I want to go first.”

When True Blue began exhibiting in Tucson in the early 2000s, they often had to educate customers on black opal. Natassa estimated that the number of opal dealers at the Tucson shows has increased perhaps tenfold since, which has increased customer understanding of the gem. Boulder opal has become more popular, but they still have to inform people about Yowah and Koroit boulder opal.

“No matter if we sell one stone or a hundred stones, the focus, for me, should still be the same,” Natassa said. “To bring something new, to educate people. What’s the point of doing all this, if people still misunderstand opal or they don’t see the value in it?”

Natassa noted that while many more designers use opal now, customers are still coming to terms with pricing. She attributes this to a lack of understanding of opal mining: The cost of opal is difficult to standardize because there are too many variables in its mining. “If you find one pocket in five years, and you’ve spent half a million dollars in mining, then that parcel is half a million plus,” she said. “And sometimes there’s a drought—no water to wash the dirt to see if there’s opal trace.”

True Blue celebrated their 20th anniversary last year, but Salma’s passion for opal goes back further. After the Patels moved from Vanuatu to the Gold Coast in 1988, Salma was free to wander the shops while Natassa and her siblings were in school. She became fascinated with the black opals that were so different from the familiar gold and diamonds. After learning they were from Lightning Ridge, she traveled there with an opal dealer friend in the early 1990s. “I think it’s something that she was called to,” Natassa said. “I think what happened to her was what happened to me.”

In 1995, Salma bought a small store on the Gold Coast, initially focusing on small parcels. Natassa helped her mother on nights and weekends while attending university, although she wasn’t interested in gemstones at first. “I’m assertive, but I’m not aggressive,” she said. “I didn’t know how to push them.”

Salma’s first visit to Tucson was in 1995, and a few years later she exhibited at the Globex Gem and Mineral Show (now held at the Red Lion Inn). In 2002, after Natassa finished her master’s degree, she went to live with family in New Jersey and look for a job in finance. Salma asked her to help at that year’s show, but Natassa was still reluctant about selling. Salma promised she only had to stand behind the booth and rely on set prices. Natassa made a good salary based on commission over the two-week show. “It took her a while, but she convinced me to join the business,” she said.

Soon Natassa started going to the opal fields with Salma and doing the smaller trade shows in Tucson. “I’m a good listener, I think,” Natassa said. “And I believe I’m a good observer. So I learned quickly. It just kind of started rolling off my tongue eventually.”

Since then, Natassa has only missed the Tucson shows twice, once while completing the Accredited Gemologist program at the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS) in Bangkok. “I felt that opals weren’t in the mainstream,” she said. “There was so much misinformation.” She wanted to be able to explain opal in gemology terms “because it’s this mysterious stone to most people.” She found she loved gemology and being in the lab. “I love the microscope,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to see opals under microscopes.”

True Blue’s first AGTA show was in Las Vegas in 2005. Natassa got a call on opening day offering them the booth of an exhibitor who hadn’t showed. “Back then we didn’t have any money,” she said. “We used to put stuff on credit cards.” The cost of the booth was $7,000—the cost of the entire trip. “I’m thinking, how are we going to do these two booths? Is there enough stock to spread around? Plus seven grand. Plus it’s already opening. Then we said okay—we’ll just do it.” Their first big sale that day wasn’t an opal but a giant clam (Tridacna gigas) pearl they’d bought a few days prior, for which another exhibitor paid $10,000 cash. “So we covered our booth,” Natassa said.

“We’re blessed, because there have been difficult times for us personally and financially over the last 28 years,” Natassa said. “For my mum, even more so because she was on her own before me. All these things I’ve learned from her, day in, day out.”

Natassa recalled that in the early years some customers, expecting a male dealer, would ask where the owner was. “They just assumed that we weren’t. A client would say, ‘Go ask your boss if I can get a better deal on this.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I am the boss, and this is the price.’ It’s easier now.”

Natassa and Salma try to find niches in the local market, such as opal beads (figure 4), which they began selling in the late 2000s. The beads use the precious part of the opal as well as the potch. “The really dark potch is jet black,” Natassa said. “If you can wear a black spinel strand, you can wear a potch opal strand.”

45.15 carats of faceted black opal beads from Lightning Ridge.
Figure 4. Faceted beads of black opal from Lightning Ridge totaling 45.15 carats. Each bead is 4 × 4 × 3 mm. Courtesy of True Blue Opals and Gems Inc.

Natassa revealed that she never intended to stay in the opal business this long. “But I think it’s God’s plan for me,” she said. “I don’t think I could do anything else.” She hopes someone in the family will take over and operate True Blue when she and her mother no longer can.

The Patels (figure 5) have been discussing what to do when they return to Australia. They have considered splitting their stock fifty-fifty between black and boulder opal. “Black will always be king of all opal,” Natassa said. “That’s our favorite. We grew up on black opal, so we can’t help ourselves.”

Mother Salma and daughter Natassa Patel of True Blue Opals and Gems of Australia.
Figure 5. Salma and Natassa Patel of True Blue Opals and Gems at their AGTA show booth. Photo by GIA Staff.

Erin Hogarth is a writer and editor in Learning Design and Development at GIA in Carlsbad, California.