A REAL GEM: Bob McKenzie of Yamba works on some gem and opal jewellery.
A REAL GEM: Bob McKenzie of Yamba works on some gem and opal jewellery. Adam Hourigan

Bob draws beauty from a stone in his Yamba workshop

TUCKED away in his home workshop, Yamba jeweller Bob McKenzie uses the tools of his craft to meticulously draw beauty from rocks.

From their rawest forms, beautiful gemstones and opals emerge with his every cut and polish.

The 76-year-old's passion for lapidary and custom jewellery-making is a relatively new one, beginning when he moved to the Clarence Valley from "the back country" 12 years ago.

But the retired farmer is no stranger to precious gems, having mined for opals since he was young.

Mr McKenzie grew up in opal country on a farm at Brewarrina, south west of Lightning Ridge.

As a young man he spent a lot of time working his own mines, searching for veins of Australia's national gemstone hidden in the earth.

"Opal was formed when silicon melted together when the earth was red hot and when it cools the colours come through in the rock," Mr McKenzie said.

"It all depends what the earth did back then but opal goes in a wave, like the ocean.

"There's a seam of opal that runs right through from way up north where Quilpie is and you can follow it all the way to where it comes back into the sea at Ballina.

"If you're flying around in an airplane and pick this hill you can see how far it runs. It's incredible."

While he still occasionally heads out to Lightening Ridge in search of opals and other semi-precious gems, Mr McKenzie focuses most of his efforts on tinkering in his home workshop.

Drawing out the natural beauty of opals is something he wanted to do all his life but he found his niche making jewellery for his family.

Instead of his wife buying socks and jocks for family members' birthdays, he decided to make use of the opals he already had and set to work creating.

Now he spends months at a time travelling to markets across Queensland and New South Wales to sell his unique handmade pieces.

Mr McKenzie sources all of his own gems and materials and also does custom work.

"You design it, I'll make it," he said. "I do whatever comes along to be made up or if people want something they can't get done somewhere else.

"It's a hobby but it's a nice, clean hobby and it helps you survive in these times." And while he thinks it might be a dying trade, his nine-year-old granddaughter Isabella seems keen to carry it on, helping him every chance she gets.

"She says 'come on Pa, let's go make something', and between the two of us we get them set and she comes to markets with me sometimes and sells," he said.

"She's the only one interested in carrying it on, you've either got it or you haven't got it and not very many do it these days.

"Today everyone's got to rush here and there and they're going nowhere anyway."

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