A New Shade of Australian Opal

Urban Boulder: inspiration and creative process from Urban Boulder on Vimeo.

Adelaide born Remo Carbone originally came to New York six years ago as a Sales Manager for a US Software and Technology company, but the opal business has always been in his blood. He co founded Urban Boulder with his friend Lisa Simpson and here he gives Billabout a lesson in all things opal and launching Australia’s national gemstone in America.

Urban Boulder is a stark contrast to software sales, how did that happen?
Jewelry and opal has been the family business for over 30 years — I know a lot about the stone and grew up with it. My family is from Adelaide, my uncle got involved in it first and then my dad fell in love with the stone.

People that mine it, they’re not really in it for the money because not a lot of them make a lot of money because it’s such a tough gig, it’s for the love of the stone.

What are your earliest memories of opals?
My dad, my brother, my uncle, my cousin and me, we did a trip into the mines and I remember seeing them for the first time. It was brilliant, I was amazed by it.

Can you explain the Australian opal?
There are three types of opal in Australia — white opal from Coober Pedy and Andamooka in South Australia, black opal which comes from Lightening Ridge and Boulder Opal from Queensland. White opal is the most common form and is the stone you find in your grandmother’s jewelry, black opal is the most precious and expensive of all opal. You can also find opal in Ethiopia and Mexico, but the most precious form of the stone is found in Australia; something like 97% or 98% of the world’s opal is found in Australia and it’s Australia’s national gemstone. We only use Boulder opal which you can find in Winton, Opalton, Quilpie, Cunamilla and Yowah.

What else should we know about the opal industry?
Centuries ago it was the stone of choice, it would be equivalent to the diamond of today. It basically changed through myths of it being bad luck. So certain parts of Europe, Eastern Europe and even certain parts of Italy, they consider the stone bad luck. The whole basis of the story has been made up and it goes back to people trying to change make other gemstones popular. The opal industry is very different from most other gemstone industries, there are no corporate establishments, there is no De Beers. It’s not being used a great deal today and then the other association is using quasi-fake opal or really low grade opal for tourist tack. Sticking it on a koala bear and selling it in a duty-free shop.

Why are you launching in America?
We wanted people to the gemstone with a fresh set of eyes. When people see it, they genuinely are amazed by it, which is quite cool, so we’re trying to redefine the stone.

From the outset you’ve aimed to be different?
My partner Lisa and I talked about it for a few years back and neither of us were in the jewelry business. We talked about it for a long time and we did a lot of research and we spent years learning everything from the backend — manufacturing and design. We wanted to be really deliberate and set out our mission to reinvent the stone and to create great jewelry. We’re geometric, we’re contemporary, and we’re trying to do something that’s very sophisticated and slick.

What’s the response in America been like?
People are amazed by the quality of the stone and its diversity in colour. It’s the only gemstone in the world that they can have every colour in the rainbow. No two stones are the same, so you and I can have the same design, but the stones within them are one of a kind. Today, people want things to be artisanal and unique.

Talk us through the design process.
We meld natural stone with the urban inspiration of New York City — that’s what Urban Boulder is all about. If you look at the Gehry building, it’s very textured and it’s made of titanium, and then you look at the Freedom Tower and the towers are geometric and have triangles, and they have a lot of different facets to them. We took them as well as the texture and finishes as inspiration on the silver.

We create molds of those to see what a master would look like, make sure that in a physical 3D form that it makes sense to us, then we start working with the opal cutters in Australia and if we’re happy with that, then we’ll go into production. It’s a pretty involved process and it takes months and months.

How is opal graded?
The range in pricing for opal is not ranged in karats like a diamond is; it’s priced per piece. It varies depending on the clarity, what kind of color you see in the stone, but some colors are rarer than others — red being the rarest of them all or the more expensive it would be. Full-faced means that when you look at the stone front on, the entire face of that stone would be color. I’ve seen stones the size of my pinky fingernail that are $80,000-$100,000 dollars. It has a full range of pricing and it can get very expensive.

What do the miners make of opal jewelry?
They don’t like the stone being cut, for them the beauty of it is seeing it in the actual boulder. They don’t want you to touch it after it gets found in the ground, but that’s because for them it’s about the discovery of the stone. They don’t really get why we cut it, but they appreciate it.

Any opal mining stories for us?
There’s a story of a claim in the boulderfields where a guy was mining for years and found nothing. The machinery costs you a lot of money to find opal. Their cost of living is pretty low, they don’t really spend much apart from beer and peanuts. Anyway, he had about $30,000 in machinery and a guy asks him “Do you want to buy this claim off me?” And he said “Alright, why not, I’ll have a crack at it!” And he literally started mining five feet from where the had guy finished and they said he stopped counting at $10 Million. I’ve been to that mine and they’re still mining it and still finding opal!

Let’s talk ‘the geology’ of opal?
The colour is silica which is a deposit in iron stone that forms over millions of years. Where sandstone meets clay, boulder is formed through time and pressure. Where there’s sandstone is a good sign of a potential boulder, so they will then start mining in those areas first. When you find the boulders, you aren’t guaranteed to have opal inside, you can break a hundred boulders and not find color in any of them. It’s a gemstone, it’s strong, but not as strong as diamonds.

Where is your jewelry made?
We do all of the opal cut by hand in Australia, some of the silver is done in the States and some in Bali.

Which jewelry designers do you admire?
Hannah Martin from the UK makes brilliant, amazing and beautiful pieces, they’re contemporary and sexy. I really like Fathom and Form’s stuff as they’re really geometric. I’m a fan of Phil Crany, he’s got a really good aesthetic.

Where do you live in New York?
I live in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn after living last year in TriBeCa and the West Village. I moved to Brooklyn because I bought a place and I wanted more space.

What tips would you give an Aussie coming over?
Don’t stay too long! [laughing] No, I love it! You’ve got to get a good burger into you while you’re in NY. Corner Bistro is fun for a lo-fi cheap burger with a good atmosphere. If you’re here for the summer and enjoy the outdoors, go for a ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, make sure you hit up the rooftop bars and concerts — live music.

What are your favourite music venue?
Music Hall of Williamsburg is brilliant, Bowery Ballroom is great or Joe’s Pub – you might see someone in Joe’s Pub and then next year he’s playing at MCG.

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