Opal Hunting in Ethiopia

Geological upheaval, even when spread over millions of years, is harsh. Ethiopia with its grinding tectonic plates that are still actively creating a land of steep ridges and rifts that bears the scars of geological struggle.


I headed to Ethiopia’s Wallo region for the finest Ethiopian opal mines – only more widely discovered 3 years ago. The land is lush green, thanks to the summer season’s big rains; this lushness visually softens the rugged countryside. This is relatively “new” territory for gemstone hunting; although opals’ existence was noted here about 100 years ago, Ethiopians only began mining for opals in the last 2 decades.

I usually spend at least 10 days in each country, mostly because the journey from the capital airport out to the mines is slow and laborious. I always meet an associate, a friend from the past, and we go with a driver to the extreme parts of the country.

The people are without much material goods but are warm and friendly. I stay at acquaintances’ homes and share their meals.

With one mine owner, we trek six hours through the countryside and down a ravine to his mine. Alas, the seasonal floods prevent us from reaching his mines. The high waters, however, didn’t prevent renegade miners from braving the mud torrents in order to forage for what ovals they can. Surprisingly, the mine owner actually appreciated their efforts: their scavenging stirs up the slurry and makes dig-out efforts after the rainy season easier for him.

Back in the villages, individual mine owners know of my presence, and patiently wait for me. They sit with plastic sacks of rough opals at their feet. They share with me their stories of luck – or lack of it – amazing finds. I sit with a miner, and closely examine every rough opal for its individual personality. Does it have minimal cracking? No impurities. I look the opal’s intensity and variety of colors, referred to as the “play of color” phenomena.

This initial examination of the authentic stone is critical, but will not be the last I do for each opal that I purchase. Again and again over the next two years, I must examine these opals. Why? It is not surprising that Ethiopians believe their precious opals are genuinely alive. And indeed, they are; opals, once separated from their mother lode can react to swings in temperature, and from dry to damp. Sometimes it may take up to two years for an opal to “cure”, or to reach a stable state.

With every purchase, I am careful to keep the receipts and inventory. Before heading back to Addis Ababa, I register all my purchases with the local customs agent. His customs paperwork is essential to my final stop at the Ministry of Mines office in the city. At the airport I have to arrive with all the documents ready from the Ministry of the Mines before my departure. All producer countries have very strict regulations, and I am sure to abide by them.

Filing and paying for the necessary customs paperwork are unquestionable for me personally. It is the start of a journey based on honesty and clarity. I find the finest quality specimens I can, and as a gemologist I can assure you of the authenticity of each stone. Having the correct paperwork is a must.

I leave the country with a sealed and stamped bundle. I will be back next year, perhaps to add on another stop to different mines.