1986 – Paul Sedawie Begins an Opal Mining Venture at Four Mile Opal Fields
1992 – Branching Out with Opal Wholesaling
2003 – Pursuing E-Commerce and Planting the Seed for Opal Auctions
2006 – Tucson Gem Show: A Disaster Turned Success
2008 – Bringing in More Family
2020 – Thriving Through the Pandemic
Sometimes we set out on a course that inevitably takes a detour. And if you’re lucky, that detour leads to treasure. That’s exactly what happened to Paul Sedawie, who lived in Melbourne, Australia and had a strong desire to try his luck at gold mining. While Paul didn’t strike gold, a series of events led him toward something more beautiful than he could’ve ever imagined: opals. Not just opal stones, but opals that would build a family legacy and become a dominating enterprise in the gemstone industry.
In 1986, Paul had a dream to go gold mining, and in light of a recent divorce, he decided it was now or never. He began his journey north in search of gold and passed through the famous opal mining town at Lightning Ridge. However, his path was interrupted by massive floods, and he could not proceed. With his dreams of gold seeming out of reach, he opted to stay in the nearby town.
As luck would have it, he ran into his school buddy, Bob Young, who offered him a stay at his camp, and talked him into abandoning his gold pursuit to instead go opal mining at the famous Four Mile opal fields. However, the luck didn’t last long with their small jack hammer operation, that was, until he met another opal miner, Chris, and they joined forces to create an opal mining operation.
Being born and bred in Lightning Ridge – the Opal capital of the world – Chris is a second-generation opal miner who knew the lay of the land and best opal mining methods.
Currently, Chris is a seller on Opal Auctions under the name “Opal Rush.” Years before Opal Auctions launched online in the early 2000s, Paul and Chris were in the opal fields in a quest to unearth the world-renowned Australian opals.
Paul was so enamoured with opal mining and the lifestyle that his yearning for gold quickly transformed into an opal obsession. But his love for opals started long before his opal mining days.
Paul can remember buying his first boulder opal at the young age of twelve. There in the dusty open country, he poured his entire focus into unearthing the famous opals that only the climate and geology of this arid region could produce.
Leaving the gold and jack hammer operation in the dust, Paul invested in a claim with a caravan and necessary equipment at the Four Mile opal field in Lightning ridge. Like all new pursuits, striking gold – or in this case, opals – takes time, persistence, and hard work. In the beginning, Paul and his colleagues would wake up early, have breakfast, and go straight down the hole to begin mining. After more than a solid week of digging, the team unearthed their first opal stone!
While it may not have been a fine-quality elusive black opal, that half carat stone was a beacon of success, offering Paul hope of what could come, which is why he still has that first opal as a keepsake.
One month later, they unearthed a large crystal opal. Overcome with excitement, they had anticipated getting $1,000 for the stone, but unfortunately, the specimen contained sand throughout, and it only sold for $100. Paul knew there would be a fair share of upsets and a huge learning curve, but he persisted. He knew that opal mining is extremely hard work and being in the hole every day gave him a healthy respect for the work miners do, and an understanding of how hard it is to find opals.
After nine hard months of mining in harsh conditions, Paul pivoted his efforts and started dealing in rough opal.
Meanwhile, Paul’s twin brother, Wayne, lived in Perth, Western Australia. In 1989, Wayne was recovering from an ankle injury, so Paul sent him some opals from his mine and a cutting machine.
“How do I cut opals?” Wayne asked. Paul’s reply? “Just use your common sense!”
Well, Wayne didn’t think he had any common sense to do the task, but nevertheless, he quickly found himself thoroughly enjoying cutting rough opals. Maybe it was natural intuition or persistence to learn the craft, but he learned as he went and found the process rewarding.
With the brothers both engrossed in the rough opal enterprise, in 1992, Wayne moved 4,000 kilometres to the Gold Coast, Queensland, with his wife, Estela, and their two boys, Jason and Mark in tow. New roots planted, they set up a cutting room at The Mark Building on Orchid Avenue in Surfers Paradise to begin building their company.
In no time, the rough opal cutting enterprise was up and running. Paul would supply the rough opal to Wayne and Estela, who would get to work cutting 120 opals every day. Working in a rhythm, Wayne would rub down the rough opals and pass them over to Estela, who would shape and polish the opals on the dob sticks.
In the 90s, Surfers Paradise was full of Japanese tourist shops, so Paul would supply opals to the jewellery manufacturers in town.
After Estela had cut 1,000 opals, she went and sold the opals to the shops since she had accumulated a breadth of knowledge accompanied by cutting experience to appreciate the rare opal colors.
One day, Chris showed them a red on black opal that he was proud of, and Wayne said “it’s orange not red.” Chris’ own face flared red and wild, and since then, there has been an ongoing joke about how red (or orange!) an opal is.
Quickly, the family became opal wholesalers across Australia and New Zealand. The twin brothers accrued hundreds of wholesale accounts and they each began travelling and selling monthly. This is what first led Paul to the Tucson Gem Show in 2008, which we’ll elaborate on later.
The brothers discovered that some clients would buy more from one twin than another, so both would carry all their stock to accommodate each client’s needs. At the end of the month, they would balance who owed each other and settle up. Back then, the paperwork was complicated or at best ‘sloppy’, so it was difficult to get accurate sales. The twins played the guessing game many times, as thankfully, money wasn’t the issue, so it didn’t matter if one got paid as it would eventually all balance out.
Paul had established opal mining partnerships, so sometimes the split was 60-40, but the twins both thought they had the higher number of sales, and this became another ongoing family joke. But the family’s profitable opal business wasn’t solely motivated by money, but by the lifestyle and enjoyment that aligned closely with their family values. The brothers relied on a strong system of trust and transparency, and this became a vital component of their relationship and the family business. Because of this trust, business was easy and rewarding.
As the family expanded the operation, they employed Patrik in 2006 to help service the client base. Today, Patrik has his own site “Rolling Stone Opals” on Opal Auctions.
The business continued to expand and thrive, and along with hiring Patrik, opened an opal cutting factory in HCM, Vietnam, with a staff of workers cutting and polishing opals, while making silver and gold opal jewellery.
Business was great, and the family was selling silver opal jewellery to hundreds of shops across Australia. But unfortunately, the family’s success was cut short after five years, when Chinese sellers undercut their prices by half, and they couldn’t compete with these slashed prices.
Heading to Vietnam to close the factory, Wayne took samples of the Chinese silver jewellery they couldn’t compete against and showed it to the workers. To everyone’s shock, a Vietnamese jeweller cut the silver pendant in half, and exposed that the metal was actually a pewter in rhodium plating – not genuine silver! Can you believe it? Neither could Wayne! But of course, it all made sense in that moment that the Chinese sellers could only halve our prices because the jewellery wasn’t genuine silver.
What did we do next?
Wayne attended the Las Vegas Gem Show in the US to sell opals but did not sell any because he quickly became distracted by talk of the internet and online business. A wonderful venture blossomed from this experience. At the show, there were seminars from eBay sharing information about the internet and the lucrative potential of e-commerce.
The events were so exciting that Wayne forgot to sell any opals, and instead spent his trip going from seminar to seminar and chatting with people full time to learn as much as he could.
One day, he went for coffee and all of the tables were full, so he sat next to a guy who was going around asking for close out stocks to purchase. Wayne had many chats and found out that this guy was buying stock for Bidz, an online jewellery company. The man suggested that Wayne and the family business should open an online opal site because selling online was the future.
At the seminars, Wayne also met a retired NASA scientist who shared with him many entertaining stories about how he used mathematical equations for everything. His position also included how much oxygen an astronaut requires when in space. He told stories about how they would monitor Russian spaceships and listen to the astronauts when they ran out of air and died. What did this have to do with selling opals online?
When Wayne visited the man’s home, his bathroom walls were full of mathematical equations, and he said that eBay’s formula wasn’t sustainable as the sheer volume of sellers could not make enough income.
Initially, Wayne wasn’t sure what he meant by eBay’s formula being unsustainable, because in those days, many businesspeople said eBay was for slaves only, and that only eBay will make money online, not the sellers. Looking at eBay today, you have to wonder if these businesspeople were correct?
These two men influenced Wayne to start Opal Auctions, and what he learned was that to compete, the business had to have a better system than eBay. How would we take a completely fresh approach that succeeded against the e-commerce giant that was eBay?
At Opal Auctions, we decided from the beginning that our Sellers must be verified with product knowledge, and that only approved professional laboratories would handle certificates.
We started the Opal Sheriff and Verified program in 2005 to include authentic descriptions of every stone sold through our platform. eBay, on the other hand, didn’t roll out this type of system until October 2020, a whopping 15 years after we started ours!
In a winner takes all business environment, Wayne realized that our auction website needed to be more than just user-friendly to succeed; it needed trusted systems that prioritized time and information for buyers.
In 2003, he joined eBay and started selling but was hopeless at anything online, so his two teenage sons, Jason and Mark, helped set up eBay, email, and payment systems. Wayne realized that he’d have to venture away from eBay to make a profitable business. But how?
Remember that in 2003, the cost of a computer was $4,000, and a monthly internet plan (that was extremely slow in those days) was $500 per month. The computer was in Wayne’s son, Mark’s bedroom, and they had an uphill battle to work through all the bugs and tech issues. But like all business ventures, we all learnt a lot, and in 2004, we purchased a Spanish system for our online auctions and officially launched Opal Auctions in 2005.
As you can imagine, our start-up was anything but smooth and we had so many technical problems. For example, we built a video system in 2008 that cost us $15,000 just to make super basic videos filmed on a $3,000 camera. Fast forward to today and you can film superior video content on your mobile phones. But at the time, we had to work with the technology available, not knowing then that it would drastically improve over the coming years.
For the first five years, we lost a lot of money just trying to build the new online sites. But we all persisted because we believed in the potential of the online business when done right – for the users with transparent information and trusted buyer programs.
Once we got up and running and worked out all the kinks, we started to put the site out for sellers to join the platform. Our brother Paul and his partner Sally Patel were the first to join our online auction platform.
From there we continued to expand the family business. Both of Paul’s sons, Peter and Ross, are sellers and Sally Patel’s family of seven became individual sellers based in Australia and Tucson, Arizona, USA. We have always built our business around family values and that is what has remained constant through all of the shifts and turns in the evolution of Opal Auctions. The passion for opals is rooted not only in the family business, but our family history as well.
Ross cut his first Opal at 8 years old, and his son Hamish just carried on the family legacy by cutting his first opal at 8 years old, too.
What can we say, opals are in our blood! So, how did we get everyone else to jump onboard with Opal Auctions? We knew we needed to raise awareness about our company, so Wayne packed up once again for a trip, this time heading to the United States to attend the Tucson Gem Show in Arizona.
Wayne travelled with Patrik from Rollingstone Opals to launch Opal Auctions at the world-famous Tucson Gem Show in the US.
Upon arrival, things got off to a bleak start. They knew they had something special, but convincing others proved to be a difficult task. They were placed in a dead-end location at Days Inn, with little foot traffic. It was depressing, and the first client in a business suit told them that the internet was designed for war, and that Opal Auctions would never work.
The second client owned four shops in California and said that people would not buy opals online.
Finally, their third client saw some potential, and said they had a brilliant idea, amazing stock, and wished them the best of luck. They were happy to have some positive feedback… until they noticed that right after he left, their best rough black opal was missing! He had sweet talked them and stolen it right from under their noses.
What a disappointment! Making matters worse, they hadn’t filled out their forms for electricity for the show, so the bill was $1500 instead of $500.
Obviously, this was their last Gem Show in Tucson! Paul participated in Tucson shows for 20 years, but now, with online selling going so well, he’s stopped selling at Trade Shows.
The business started to pick up some momentum with the online auction site, but in those early days of e-commerce, technical difficulties were never far behind.
In 2007, the site crashed, and we lost most our buyers, as our Australian server could not handle requests. Around the same time, Steve joined us and taught himself computer coding. Today, he is our head coder and manages our massive server that can handle thousands of requests per minute, and he is forever building more improvements to our site.
By 2008, our system had greatly improved and was expanded to include more unique features. We had come a long way from our first system in 2004. In fact, we began a system called “Know Your Customer” before it was fashionable and status-quo for online business. With this program, all sellers had to be verified first, and our Opal Sheriff program and Item Watch program proved successful. Needless to say, Wayne was very fortunate and grateful to have met those two guys in Las Vegas who encouraged him to be more creative and push the envelope on his ideas.
In 2012, Paul’s sons officially joined our team.
Before joining the team, Ross was an engineer at Holden in Melbourne, Australia, and undertook a Gemmology course. He is now one of our gemmologists, as well as working with his wife Terese, who holds a double degree of IT and Accounting with years of experience with small business and the corporate sector. Together, they are an ideal team that handles the SEO, marketing, and improvement division. They have overseen many user-friendly aspects added to our platform.
Peter has been opal mining in Lightning Ridge for over 15 years. He is an accomplished and skilled opal cutter and is now our head cutter at Opal Auctions headquarter office where we cut around 4,000 opals per month. Peter took over his grandpa’s Opal Auctions selling site called “Anembo Opals.”
We have been through many ups and downs since those early days when Paul started opal mining at the Four Miles opal fields, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come in 2020.
The Coronavirus pandemic had a massive effect on our buyers and sellers worldwide. There are so many traditional buyers who did Trade Shows that stopped buying. However, these were replaced by people buying and starting their own online business selling on social sites.
You can never predict the impact a worldwide health crisis will have on the global economy, and we weren’t sure what to expect for our family business. Fortunately, due to the heightened activity in online selling, our sales leapt up around a 70% per month average from previous years.
In April 2021, Paul made the largest donation to date to the Australian Opal Centre at Lightning Ridge -- the largest and most diverse donation of rare opalised fossils and opal-related curiosities ever gifted to a public institution.
In June 2021, Opal Auctions won the Family Business award in Gold Coast, Australia where the head office is based.
Looking back at our family’s journey in the opal industry and e-commerce opal market, we have covered a lot of ground, physically and digitally! We have always believed that when a family comes together utilizing everyone’s talents, skills, gifts, and determination, while always putting family first, a business will be unstoppable.
It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve stuck together through the ups and downs. Opals run through our veins and colour our lives, and we don’t plan on stopping any time soon!
Paul compiled online opal gallery of his most prized opals collected over the years, which you can view at the link below.
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