Demand for opals and opal jewellery in mainland China has surged dramatically these last few years, albeit from a small base, with high-end customers especially partial to black opals driving the growth.
In separate interviews with JNA, opal wholesalers and jewellery manufacturers expressed their optimism regarding growth prospects on the mainland.
Sam Carbone Opal
Australia-based Sam Carbone Opal Co Ltd believes the mainland Chinese market holds great potential for the gem. “Opal is a new stone to the Chinese market. We have done a lot of work in educating Chinese buyers about opal, and they have become more familiar with Australia’s national gemstone,” said company president Sam Carbone.
The loose opal wholesaler and opal jewellery manufacturer with 40 years of history counts Asia as its largest market. For the last seven years, it has been attending trade fairs in Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Dalian to raise the market’s awareness of opals. “People who actually know about the stone are willing to buy it,” Carbone said.
While the company used to enjoy good sales on the mainland for medium- and high-quality opals, China’s economic slowdown these last two years has impacted negatively on demand for mid-range goods, Carbone said. High-end opals, fetching over $50,000 per piece, currently account for the bulk of the company’s sales in mainland China. “Black opal is much more popular in China than any other kind of opal, and it’s the most expensive type,” he commented, attributing its appeal to the fact that elite Chinese customers were aware of the stone’s rarity.
Apart from supplying loose opals, Sam Carbone Opal also manufactures opal jewellery in 18-karat white and yellow gold and in silver. It sells these to clients in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia and more recently, the US. The most popular price range for its jewellery is $2,000 to $3,000 per piece, the company official said.
“Chinese buyers notice the design first and then the stone. So we need to impress them with beautiful designs,” said Carbone, noting that mainland Chinese buyers held the “Made in Australia” tag in high esteem. Every single jewellery piece produced by the company is made by hand using sophisticated techniques, he added.
Though part of the company’s customer base in mainland China has been hit by the country’s economic downturn, Carbone remains upbeat on the market’s potential for growth. “It is only a small market at the moment but this could grow to the point where we’d have difficulty meeting demand,” he said. “The next two years are likely to see a boom in Chinese demand for Australian opals.”
Mainland China’s growing appetite for opals has not gone unnoticed by Hideyuki Kataoka, executive director of Japan-based jeweller Kataoka Shoten Co Ltd. According to the company official, high-end opals are prized for their investment value and exclusivity while low-end stones meet fashion requirements.
“In the high-end segment, black opal is increasingly sought after. It is becoming even more expensive due to its rarity. Prices can reach as high as $1 million per piece. Black opals with red and orange colours are preferred over those with blue and green undertones. Boulder opal is the most popular of the more affordable opals. A 10-carat stone would cost around $500,” Kataoka said.
Established in 2002, Kataoka Shoten manufactures bespoke jewellery items including opal jewellery. The company constantly monitors gemstone prices in the import, export and auction markets to source high-quality coloured stones at the best price and then sets these in jewellery. It also repairs and refinishes jewellery items purchased from auctions. Aside from its domestic market, the Japanese jeweller caters to China and other Asian countries.
Kataoka agreed that Chinese customers valued jewellery design over the quality of the stones used, noting that buyers from the mainland found Japanese designs appealing. He remains positive about the gemstone’s demand outlook in mainland China in spite of its slowing economy.
“Many years ago, when we exhibited in Hong Kong, the Chinese buyers were mostly from first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai,” Kataoka said. “In recent years, a growing number of buyers from second-tier cities began to approach us directly. So, I do not think the setbacks in the country’s economy have had a substantial effect on the market.”
Chris Price Opals
Australian opal wholesaler Chris Price Opals Pty set up an office in Hong Kong around two years ago to support its sales in mainland China, one of the company’s major markets along with other Asian countries, the US and Europe. According to company director Chris Price, the opal specialist started attending fairs in Hong Kong in 2003 and in mainland Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing in 2008.
Established in 1998, Chris Price Opals specialises in black opal from New South Wales. The company offers a wide range of loose opals for $50 to $100,000 per piece as well as pairs and layouts. A layout of opals in calibrated sizes can cost up to $100,000.
The fast movers in the mainland Chinese market are opals priced between $20,000 and $60,000 per piece, according to Amy Cheng, business development manager at the company’s Hong Kong office.
“Mainland China is going to be a fabulous market,” said Price. “When I was there, I was very impressed with my clients, namely the jewellery manufacturers, dealers and independent designers. They have rich imaginations, a strong sense of creativity and a high degree of professionalism.”
Looking ahead, Price believed the current demand for opal in mainland China was just the tip of the iceberg and that it would take decades to fully tap the market.
Joel Price Inc
Chris Price’s son, Joel, is another firm believer in the potential of the Chinese market for opals. The younger Price designs and produces bespoke jewellery in gold and platinum adorned with opals and other coloured gemstones. The pieces are priced from $20,000 to $800,000 each. His company, Joel Price Inc, based in New York, sells jewellery and loose opals to private clients and retail stores in Europe, North America and Asia, including China.
Black opals are rare and each piece is one of a kind, which only increases its appeal among mainland China buyers who place a premium on exceptional pieces, Joel noted. “They are looking for something extraordinary that can impress their friends, something that no one else is wearing. Every piece of opal is unique and every design of ours is unique. So when end-customers buy these jewellery items, they get a two-fold sense of uniqueness,” he explained.
Although many buyers favour black opals with red and orange colours, Joel said those with blue and green colours suit his jewellery designs, which have an almost aquatic feel to them.
According to the jewellery designer, the mainland Chinese market is gaining a deeper understanding of opals, which bodes well for the gem. “There is a huge and growing demand for opals in mainland China. The local Chinese are becoming more educated about the stone and are starting to understand the different types of opals and why it is so rare and valuable. The price of an opal depends on how rare it is,” he said. The Joel Price Inc website carries information on the grading and pricing standards for opals to enhance the knowledge of potential buyers, thereby expanding the company’s customer base, he added.