Driving to Barkham Farm in the Exmoor National Park, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that they’d taken a very wrong turn somewhere on the A361 and was heading into the middle of nowhere, to be lost among the fields and hedgerows for all eternity, never to find their way back to civilisation. However, deep in the valleys among the sheep and cows is that most unlikely of operations – an opal-cutting workshop where some of the most intriguing jewellery Devon has seen is currently being fashioned.
John Adie, 65, is the man behind the millstone and has been polishing rocks at his home for the better part of a year, teaching himself the finer points of making beautiful gems out of a seemingly unremarkable piece of rock. And that is exactly what an opal is when it first comes out of the ground – an awkward lump of stone with aspirations beyond its station in life. However, as Adie says, this is why the process is so very fascinating.
“Part of the excitement of doing this is that you start off with something that’s completely nondescript, then if you’re lucky and if you’re careful you can end up with a stone that’s completely stunning. You never know what you’re going to get.”
From his dusty workshop, Adie – who is also company secretary for classical music organisation The Two Moors Festival – dedicates hours to grinding down his opals, which come from as far afield as Ethiopa (which are fairly new and not much is known about their qualities as yet) and Australia (where his favourites hail from), although they can be found in England as well (but Adie isn’t a fan, saying the UK gems are “rubbish”). The ones from down under – particularly those taken from the Lightning Ridge region in New South Wales – are in fact widely acknowledged to be “the best of the bunch”, as Adie puts it, although his reasons for liking Australian opals seem to have less to do with their inherent value and more to do with how easy they are to handle.
“They’re more stable,” he explains. “They also have interesting colour variations and a huge range and depth of colour.”
In order to see opals at their most impressive, it’s best to view them in direct sunlight, where the colour play truly comes to life. What initially looks like a rather unassuming stone suddenly transforms into a natural kaleidoscope, bursting with pale greens, dark blues, pinks, purples, reds, oranges…the rainbow is endless.
It is this rainbow that is to be on display later on this year at Barkham Farm’s own gallery space, just above Adie’s workshop. In November – although the date is yet to be confirmed – a reception evening will be held where around 30 pieces of finished opal jewellery and a range of loose stones are to be exhibited, alongside a series of quartz crystals set in silver.
These crystals are in fact responsible for Adie’s newfound obsession with opal cutting, stemming from the ten years he spent in Oman, working for the government during the week and scaling mountainsides to seek out stunning quartz during his spare time.
“I needed to sort the crystals – taken from Jebel Akhdar – out on request from the wife so I got a grinder,” he recalls, explaining that he has always had a keen interest in geology and mineralogy. “Then I thought if I’ve got this, why don’t I actually try some stone polishing? I’ll try opals because they’re relatively simple and quite soft. They’re easy to shape and you don’t facet them like you do a diamond. Unfortunately, I haven’t done anything much to the crystals.”
Since then, he has bought all the necessary equipment – opal cutting doesn’t come cheap and it’s not a pastime that people can just randomly decide to do, since tools include diamond-impregnated grinding discs, bandsaws and flat lap machines, costing into the thousands – and now seems to be making the bold step from amateur to professional opal cutter.
The November exhibition itself, which Adie believes is the first one of its kind to be held in Devon, is to be put on in aid of The Two Moors Festival, with 20 per cent of all the profits to be donated after the event. As only one piece has thus far been completed – a rather delightful opal ring surrounded by diamonds and set in gold – prices are yet to be decided, although Adie thinks they will range from around £80 to £100, while the one finished item has been valued at between £1,500 and £2,000.
“As a hobby it’s interesting,” the artist notes. “It’s tempting to do it for a living. I’m breaking even right now.” However, money doesn’t seem to be the driving force behind Adie’s latest venture, rather it is the craft that holds the most appeal and, as he observes, “the element of surprise”.
In a world where cash seems to be the driving force behind everything we do, this attitude is certainly a refreshing one.