Company History

More than 75 years have passed since George T. Manning left Europe for Australia. His job as an international grain merchant was to develop a more robust trade between his European firm and the vast potential of Australia's agricultural community. As things go, Manning's assignment was scrapped, largely due to the looming threat of war brewing in Europe.

One day, while still in Sydney planning his next professional move Manning was introduced to a friend of a friend in the local grain trade. This friend of a friend was a rough opal broker.

At that moment, in a pub in Sydney, the story of Manning's rise to dominance in the opal trade began. He was to become world-renowned as “The Opal King.” But this unofficial title, a sign of the respect with which the mining and dealing communities in Australia regarded him, didn’t come easily.

In those early days, opal was still a relatively unknown gemstone commodity. Many false starts had come and gone to introduce opal to European markets. Almost no trade had been established with the USA. Distances were so great, costs so high, and transport times far too long to permit a practical trade in opal. Also there was the lingering superstition in many European countries that opal might bring bad luck to the wearer. This superstition took root from Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of opal’s mysterious radiance in his 1829 novel, " Anne of Geierstein, (or The Maiden of the Mist)1. Due to the novel’s vast European popularity, Scott’s description of opal as a mystical object led to the gem’s disfavor from the mid 19th century into the early 20th century. So, dispelling the superstition became a hurdle opal had to overcome. Yet opal continued to grow in popularity with those who disregarded the unfounded belief that Scott’s novel had generated. In fact it was Queen Victoria and Sarah Bernhardt, the first renowned trend-setting western famous personalities who chose to ignore the superstition and purchase fine Queensland opal for their collections.

Manning's plan was to immigrate to the US, but without a means of support he knew this wasn’t possible. When he saw that first rough opal parcel he asked many key questions: How much was it? Where was it mined? Was there a steady supply? Who marketed it and where? How could one judge the rough in relation to the cut output?

Manning purchased this parcel and sold it in Sydney for a fair profit a few days later. He bought more and sold it quickly to the local Sydney cutters.

His interest aroused, he met some old hands in the mining game who’d prospected in White Cliffs and Andamooka. Together they planned a trek to the fields, an introductory adventure that Manning treasured until the day he died.

His many years of field-buying in Andamooka, Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge never quite equaled that first flush of excitement during those early journeys over land from Sydney to the opal fields. The outback, the rugged miner's life, the thrill of a new find, cleaning and classing the rough, cutting and selling it to the market – fueled his decision to devote the rest of his life to promoting Australian opal as one of the world’s premier gemstones.

In 1940, Manning immigrated to the USA to start the business in New York City's (then) jewelry district in the Maiden Lane/Canal Street area. He went door to door, showing his stones, building interest, selling as he could. Because his stones were “free-sized,” there was a volume limit to growth of the business. Unless he could find a way to sell volume, he knew he’d be limiting the opportunity to increase sales.

A paradigm-shifting idea blossomed.

Manning recognized that opal had great potential as a manufacturer’s volume item. No one had yet seriously considered calibrating opal in high volume. Supply had always been limited. Quality had never been assured. Thus he saw his opportunity.

Manning’s broker relationships with Australia’s Pogany family and later the Collins and Keady organizations, allowed for a constant stream of rough to be sent wherever Manning required. He’d already completed the arduous task of categorizing opal, establishing color and quality grades, calculating yields and selecting the sizes and shapes that would become the opal standard for the industry. Now the need to feed volume to the market became urgent.

Manning's New York cutting operation couldn’t keep up with the demand for free-size and single stones and definitely not for calibrated sizes. So Manning began his search for a suitably skilled source to properly slice and cut his opal.

His first efforts to develop a reliable volume-cutting operation took him to Idar-Oberstein. Idar cutters had already become skilled in cutting and polishing opal, but not in calibrating it for volume markets. But very soon Germany became too costly a cutting environment for high volume output. The post-war boom had led to a significant rise in labor costs. Manning had to find another source of skilled labor if his plan was to succeed.

Once again, he traveled around the world in search of highly skilled and affordable labor markets to produce the volume cutting required by the American manufacturing industry’s insatiable demand for product.

Hawaii, Samoa, Indonesia, Fiji, the Philippines, Thailand – each had potential but none were suited to meet the requirement for precise, high -volume calibration cutting of opal.

After disappointing starts and stops, he arrived in Hong Kong. It was that visit that spawned what has become the modern opal cutting industry today.

Manning found a willing audience in Mr. Ngai and Mr. Chan of Wan Kow Gems. These two men owned a Tiger Eye and Jade cutting factory. They were fascinated by the unique beauty of the opal rough Manning brought them. He sat at the slicer, demonstrating the skill necessary to clean the matrix from the gem material to reveal its optimum color. He showed them what variations were common, how to avoid cracks and imperfections. The dopping and finishing process were much the same as with Tiger Eye, thus the skills of one could be adapted to the other.

For ten years, Manning and Wan Kow dominated Hong Kong's opal industry. Transactions were routine and reliable. Direct rough opal shipments from the field, priced fairly with consistent quality made this enterprise possible. The businesses prospered. The only real competition for fine rough opal came from Manning’s Japanese counterpart, Mr. Yamamoto. Yamamoto also purchased large quantities of rough opal to satisfy post-war Japan’s appreciation for this fine gemstone. These two men loomed large on the rough opal horizon for many, many years. With George T. Manning's passing in April of 1977, so passed the original link to a business adventure that still continues today.

Manning International is the successor company to Manning Opal Corporation. And Wan Kow Gems has evolved many times over into the current population of fine cutting houses in Hong Kong and the PRC.

Australia's opal mining industry existed long before George Manning's first bout of “opal fever.” Great names in the business, far older than the Manning name, along with newer entries, still appear on company logos. Marks, Lane, Bartram, Costello, Van Brugge, Keady, Christianos, Giles, Sherman, Cudlipp, King – and many, many others remain at the core of the Australian opal industry. Greek, Italian, German and Slavic immigrants, along with more recent Chinese newcomers, populate the mining communities of the Outback in search of the magical amorphous silica gemstone that is Australian Opal.

Until George T. Manning's entry into the opal world, no one had succeeded with such vast market penetration and product development as he achieved in his 40 years at the helm of his opal business.

So, it is with great pride in his memory that and its parent, Manning Opal Company, Inc, recognizes George T. Manning’s achievements as our model of excellence in reputation, in reliable international relations and in marketing honesty and integrity.

1) See: - Anne of Geierstein and opals
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