In the Australian desert, opal hermits

Before traveling to the Australian village of Coober Pedy, north of Adelaide, photographer Mattia Panunzio had to wait six months. In summer, the thermometer teases 50°C, forcing him to postpone his project of going to seize this desert place, so far removed from civilization that it could easily pass for a western setting. Then, one day in June 2022, with the temperatures less scorching, the time came. The 30-year-old Italian, who has been living in Sydney since 2019 for “see bigger” than in Rome, his native city, and “surf more often”, then rented a car and drove away. “One of the most beautiful trips of my life”, he savors.

For hours, over hundreds of kilometres, he plunged into the arid regions of South Australia and drove, alone, to an abandoned parking lot at the entrance to the town. This is where a stay of about ten days began during which Mattia Panunzio captured, with a digital Sony camera, Coober Pedy, an astonishing town, renowned for its opal mines for a century. Its 1,500 inhabitants live there in troglodyte houses, sheltered from a harsh climate, weighed down by dust and heat. If the supermarket, the golf course and the shooting club are located outside, the inhabitants have built a bar and two churches underground. In Coober Pedy, part of life is underground.

Handled with care

It is a 14-year-old teenager who is said to have first unearthed an opal in 1915, while he was turning over the rock hoping to find gold. Composed of silica spheres between which water has carved veins over thousands of years, opals diffract white light and break it down into the colors of the spectrum, giving the impression of a magical, almost unreal, marbled stone blue, green, mauve, orange and sometimes red. For a long time, it was considered cursed, associated with bad luck and excluded from jewelry collections. The fault, they say among jewelers, is Anne of Geierstein (1829), a novel by the Scotsman Walter Scott, who associated the opal with the death of one of his heroines.

Gradually, the stone gained respectability. Today, on the contrary – the phenomenon is increasing as diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds become rarer – opals are coveted by jewelry makers, from the most common (white or grey) to the most precious ( the bluish ones dotted with almost fluorescent green, the black ones or the rare ones with red veins). The most daring creators of Place Vendôme, in Paris, the epicenter of world jewelry, such as Victoire de Castellane at Dior, Claire Choisne at Boucheron or Elie Top, are crazy about singular varieties to spice up acid adornments, poisonous earrings, rings psychedelics. And you should have seen, during the presentation of its latest high jewelry collection, Beautés du monde, in June 2022, in Madrid, the enthusiasm that Cartier, the sector leader, put into praise the quality of its opalswith a lot of virtual reality videos.

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