Cecile Raley Designs

The Perfect Purple: Hunting for the Right Hue

The Perfect Purple: Hunting for the Right Hue

Purple is definitely the gemstone color of the year! Although it’s not just one color… I’ve received requests for specific hues in the purple family: lavender, lilac, magenta, periwinkle, deep purple, blue-purple, fuchsia. We are inventing new names for our listings at this point to distinguish the shades. How come there are so many types of purple, sometimes in just one gem, i.e. sapphire or spinel?

The purple spectrum in gemstones is very wide because there are so many trace elements that make up its color: iron, titanium, vanadium and chromium all contribute to the purple spectrum in both sapphires and spinels. On the other hand, red in corundum (sapphire, ruby) is only caused by chromium.

When people ask for a specific shade of purple to be matched, it is a near impossibility to find the right shade. Matching a gem to a photo already creates a problem as a photo of a gem never really looks like the gem it represents. Just recently I sent photos of a box with about 10 different shades of dark blueish purple sapphire to a client in Australia to pick which shade matched the earring she lost. I sent the photo under daylight and LED light so she could see how the light was affecting the color as well. I never heard back. Too many shades of purple is what I surmised and expected. The nuances of even the dark blue-purple spectrum are too varied to make sense of it when matching a photo to the remaining half of a lost earring.

Another relevant point is that matching gems from two different locations rarely succeeds because the trace elements in the locations will differ. For example, Madagascar purples are more often softer and more medium purple to reddish purple, whereas Sri Lankan purples tend to be darker and more blueish on average. So while there is overlap with some of the shades, it may not be enough overlap for the gems to really match if seen side by side.

By difference in location I don’t mean just different countries, by the way. To see geological variation, you only need a few meters of space, not a few thousand miles. When you are exploring a pocket of gems in one area in a tunnel, you will already find some color variation.

Also, if the gems are mined by washing a layer of sediment from an old river bed either on the surface or a few meters underneath, you can expect to find even more color variation. Why? Because the runoff from mountainsides and hills that has collected in the riverbed could be from far away and will be all mixed together.

I recently received a request for a specific light blueish purple set of 3 matched round sapphires, 4mm-6mm. From the photo I was assuming that the tone the client was after was Sri Lankan and roughly matched a shade that I have seen at shows until maybe 2020 or 2021. I asked about origin of the gem in the photo she sent me, so I could determine whom to call to get the color. I also asked about treatment and when the photo was taken. This information turned out to be unavailable, and since that hue was most likely a few years old I couldn’t track it down. I face a similar problem when matching greens in tourmalines (not pure chrome colored green, but all the other greens colored by mixes of iron, vanadium, copper). Blues in sapphires or blues in spinels are much easier.

I am also regularly asked for sapphire melee (say 1mm-2mm) that’s deep purple. This means I have to find vendors who still carry older Sri Lankan material as the Madagascar sapphire rough is not saturated enough to cut melee that small that’s still purple – it turns into a faint lavender color. Pinks are much easier to find in that size, even saturated pinks (i.e. Burma ruby, Mozambique pink sapphire), but along the more mid purple to blue purple range the saturated tone is almost non-existent.

So as a buyer, if you have a very specific color shade request, what do you need to do in order to get it filled? Here are a few pointers.

  1. Origin affects color hues, so try to find out where the gem you are matching is from.
  2. Treatment affects color. You need to know if the color is a treated color or occurs naturally, and what treatment brought it about (if any). For example, bright orange or reddish orange tones in sapphire are achieved by diffusion with beryllium. If you want the beryllium color/shade, you have to let your vendor know that that’s the color you are after, because it doesn’t naturally occur so you’d immediately be told that it can’t be found. So don’t point to a beryllium orange and say you want a natural stone. We are gem sellers, not genies. Miracles happen elsewhere.
  3. Photos are inaccurate, so don’t expect a photo of a gem to match to an actual gem when you see the gem and the photo side by side. If you have to send a photo instead of providing a description – yes we gem sellers often go by description, not photo – then add the description to it or give us an actual link to a gem you are matching so we can do some research to find out more about it. It can also matter at which color temperature the photo was taken. Color temperature is affected by the latitude of the place where the photo was taken, the time of day and the equipment used. Cameras often have blue tints, which is fixed by adjusting the white balance, but not everyone does that. And of course, you do not know if someone did or not.
  4. The hues in gem finds change over time. Therefore, we need to know when the shade you are matching was most commonly seen (online, at shows, or on location). As I go to trade shows at least 3x a year, I can see the shades drift over time. Having a reference point about when that shade occurred or seemed to be circulating in the market helps me figure out who might still have it. No vendor carries everything, and many gem dealers have connections to some locations and not others. I’m not going to ask a Madagascan sapphire dealer for periwinkle for instance, as that would make no sense. The trace element composition in Madagascar tends towards more reddish tones of purple, not towards blues.

And finally, if you do have an actual gem you want to match, then using it as a color comparison is ideal, so bring it to the viewing or the show, or even send it to the vendor you are working with to find a match or something similar.

Happy color matching!

Continue reading

When ‘Rare’ Goes Mainstream: Colored Gems' Market Share

When ‘Rare’ Goes Mainstream: Colored Gems' Market Share

In the spring of 2022, everyone wanted to buy emerald cut teal sapphire. This year it is blueish purple and lavender round sapphire, and my favorite - Vietnamese lavender spinel. But the story is the same: a particular gemstone, color or cut goes viral and within 6-8 weeks, the market is wiped clean and what’s left has risen significantly in price. Why does it happen so quickly?

It is hard to convince buyers of this, and I really don’t know why! With a few exceptions – such as amethyst – natural earth mined colored gemstones are rare. Really, they are! Purple sapphire – the latest fad – for instance, is much rarer than blue sapphire. Judging by what I see at gem shows the ratio is perhaps as much as 10:1. I can’t give you exact production, but I do speak from experience. I’ve been to hundreds of gem shows at this point and all I have to do is look at the offerings and speak to the vendors to know what is going on in their market segment.

I’ve watched white sapphires starting out cheap as chips in around 2012, as well as the beryllium sapphire from Songea (4mm and below trading at $1 a carat). Now both are nearly non-existent – even beryllium sapphires are hard to buy. Mahenge spinel started at $40 a carat for 4mm pieces back in 2012, and they cost about $100-150 for 1-1.5 carats. Now you cannot get them in the market at all except for what vendors have left over in their older stock.

Teal blue tourmaline from Brazil, dark purple sapphire from Sri Lanka, lavender and neon pink spinel from Vietnam, neon blue tourmaline from Namibia. All have come and gone since I started my business. There was a ton, then it went mainstream, then it went poof. At one point, we were selling Mahenge and Burma spinel beads for around $10/inch - anyone who bought it at that price is laughing now as there is none to be found anywhere! 

Once upon a time, the jewelry market was dominated by white diamonds. They are still in abundance, supply is still controlled and they are overpriced, but even now when you go to standard jewelry stores, 90% of what you see is white diamond jewelry.

Then the internet came along and the niche market I was in – untreated colored gems – gained public interest. According to an online article from CNBC (https://www.cnbc.com/2024/02/14/gemstone-engagement-rings.html), the colored gemstone market share in engagement rings has gone up from 5% to 15% in the last decade. Sapphire is one of the leaders in this market (also London Blue Topaz but let’s forget about that, it is NOT a rare stone). Natural (heat or no heat) ruby is being cited as difficult to come by, and part – but only part - of the issue is geopolitical conflict in the regions (i.e. Burmese ruby, but also any goods from Afghanistan and Russia, to name two additional examples). In 2023 alone, sapphire wholesale prices rose by 12% - meaning they rose faster than the S&P 500 Stock rates.

Other articles on gemstone market research predict a growth rate of 6% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) in the next decade https://www.credenceresearch.com/report/gemstones-market; most of this growth rate will take place in the United States. Synthetic gems will be the market leader, but in my opinion that is largely due to a more or less unlimited supply line in synthetics, whereas the growth rate of natural gemstones will be more limited due to supply and corresponding price rises. The rising prices may push the smaller collectors out of the market (though I hope that doesn’t happen of course).

While it is always difficult for an end consumer to directly benefit from the added value of the gems they own, the continuing digitization of colored gemstone market allows both buyers and sellers from all over the world to connect with each other, and it allows for more retail buyers to sell and trade their goods on platforms such as Loupe Troop, among others. Auction houses such as Christie’s report that jewelry items often fetch higher than asking prices, some ending up in bidding wars just like real estate. Investors are looking for places to put their money, and some of them have a lot of it.

That said, a retail buyer still has to hold on to their goods for a longer period of time for them to accrue in value, and of course the authenticity and rarity of the gemstones they sell has to be verified. Not all retail buyers do the same research deep dives that we gem dealers have to engage in to vet our merchandise; and the lack of buyer protection or the knowledge of how to buy goods from overseas has caused many retail buyers to sink considerable sums of money. But that is to be expected with any commodity and any stock as well. Smart buying is difficult! You don’t need insider information to make good choices, but you do need to have good research skills and most of all, you need to work with people you can trust.

It is important to note that the largest growth segment of the market is expected to be in certified gems. Overall, consumers prefer natural stones to synthetics, so among the higher valued certified gems we should see more of a price increase. In synthetics, where the cost is actually dropping so rapidly that gemstone dealers do not keep them in stock but buy them only on request.

Regarding certification for gems, a word of caution is in order. A ‘certificate of authenticity’, as it is often called, is not what the trade means by certified gemstones. We are only talking about authentication by an independent laboratory such as GIA or GRS, where for each gemstone, the main value determinants are listed – not the price or value itself, but the character traits of the particular gem that determines the price. The prices themselves are subject to fluctuation, and for the most part, this fluctuation has an upward trend.

A proper certificate primarily means that the gem is properly identified (i.e. as an emerald, and not as a lab created or synthetic emerald). But where treatment is available that affects value, such as heat in sapphires, this needs to be stated as well. For example, as there is no known treatment for garnets, they do not require that a certificate includes determination of treatment. The same goes for alexandrite, but in the latter case, synthetics need to be excluded because these have been common in the alexandrite market for some time. Origin matters at times but not all the time. For instance, it is not particularly important if a blue or purple sapphire is Madagascan or Sri Lankan, but if the claim is that the sapphire is Burmese, then an origin report is needed to verify this. With emeralds, this is important also, as Colombian emeralds are still considered the desirable and thus the most expensive. In the case of emeralds, treatment identification is paramount also.

When experienced US retailers source gemstones, this vetting process is incorporated in the purchase. Most of us work only with reliable companies. I have a small handful of providers in Hong Kong as well as in Bangkok for instance, and I don’t buy from anyone else overseas unless I can get the company verified through one of the dealers I know. And for more expensive gems, i.e. my larger emeralds and paraibas, I also buy only subject to cert. This means that I agree to the sale assuming that the lab we choose verifies the data that justifies the price. I will not buy an emerald that is stated to have minor treatment or less unless there’s a report that says so. In particular, it has to be a report I can use in the US, so all my Colombian purchases, even though initially certified in Colombia, then require a second certificate from, say GIA. Obviously with small gems, i.e. less than half a carat, I will forego this rather expensive process but a below half carat emerald is not something most buyers will regard as an investment in the first place. I am of course liable one way or the other if my claims are false but it is understood by both buyer and seller that verifying the data may be more costly than buying the gem itself, so it isn’t worth doing. I then have to rely on my sources being trustworthy – and I do.

Personally, I expect to see an increasingly sharp divide between luxury and mass market gems and jewelry. Synthetics will dominate the mass market simply because that is the only way to get something like mass market going in the first place. Other cheap gems (red garnet, amethyst, London blue topaz) will be next in line as a growing market segment. When I first started my jewelry, I was approached by stores to replicate my pieces for a mass market but I always had to decline. It was never possible, and it's even less possible now. And I actually prefer this because I know which homes my pricier pieces go to.

Sapphires, emeralds, rubies, but also tourmalines and spinel will have a cheaper segment for overseas goods that will not increase in value – here, I’m talking about more treated goods such as heavily filled emeralds, or less desirable colors like olive green tourmaline -  and a more expensive segment with certified gems that will see an increase in value in the coming years.

Let me end with a final word on my opening example. Spinel – one of my absolute favorite gemstones and one that I personally collect – has seen the sharpest rises in value (sharper than Paraiba tourmaline in my view). This is because while it has been distinguished from sapphire for several decades now, it only became publicly recognized when Mahenge spinel hit the market. It became a birthstone just a couple of years ago.

At the beginning of its popularity, there was sufficient supply of spinel to satisfy the small market segment of interested parties, but that has since changed. Neon colors such as Burmese red Jedi, Mahenge neon pinks and Vietnamese (and a few Mahenge) cobalt blues have captivated audiences all over the internet and now that the secret is out, the market is wiped clean. Spinel was never as ubiquitous as sapphire in the first place, and some of the production countries of the finest specimens such as Mogok and Vietnam are seeing little to no mining and trade, whereas the finds in Mahenge, Tanzania are at present exhausted. The sediment layer that contained them has been cleared and there’s nothing below. A new pocket has to be found and in the last decade, nothing has surfaced (yes, people are looking, of course they are). Adding lavender to the list of popular colors doesn’t help matters – pure lavender spinels without any secondary grey were always extremely rare, but the prices did not reflect this until this past year.

There are still some great buys to be found. Take a look at these beauties!

Continue reading

Namibia’s Gems and Crystals Today

Namibia’s Gems and Crystals Today

If you read my last few blogs, then you know that I traveled to Namibia for a fact finding mission. About a decade ago or more, when I entered the trade more seriously, there were a lot of gorgeous blue and seafoam Namibian tourmaline on the market. These gems were never cheap but they were worth the price because they had virtually no grey or sooty daytime tones, and they were a great alternative to the much more expensive Paraiba tourmaline.

But eventually these offerings dried up, and my sources said that mining in Namibia had decreased significantly. So when my travel buddy Jochen invited me on a trip, I was game. Jochen and his friend Klaus wanted to check out what kind of collectors' minerals are available these days, and I wanted to find out more about tourmaline.

Unfortunately, a few days into the trip I broke my ankle in three places while jogging: a friendly dog ran into me in an effort to get me to play, and that backfired. So instead of gem hunting and traveling to see the world famous Namibian desert, I got to sample the Namibian health care system. I can’t say it was boring, but it really wasn’t what I had in mind.

Luckily for me, Jochen and Klaus were able to continue on their journey after getting me safely stowed at Lady Pohamba Hospital in Windhoeck, the capital, where I received excellent care. I had asked them to report to me daily and send pictures, which they duly did. Upon completion of their journey, Jochen wrote me a summary of his journey, and I am translating it here for you so that you can be up to date on the current gem market in Namibia.

Here's the story, in Jochen’s words:

The day after dropping Yvonne off at Lady Pohamba hospital, Klaus and I continued on our crystal hunting journey that was so abruptly cut short after Yvonne’s accident. Our first destination was a place called Spitzkoppe, a giant rock formation located north-west of Windhoeck, about a day’s drive. Spitzkoppe is in the Erongo region, which is known for a number of gorgeous minerals such as polychrome tourmaline, topaz, large quartz crystals, aquamarine and the very rare mineral Jeremejevite.


When we arrived at the turnoff to the road towards the large Spitzkoppe, we saw a group of artisanal miners that had set up stands with their offerings. They lived in a small grouping of the typical Namibian round houses found in the Erongo region. Unfortunately there was little of good quality to buy – just some black tourmaline and a lot of bad looking aquamarine. But we scored with some lemon-yellow hyalite with strong fluorescence under long wave UV light. (At a later point, we also saw some gorgeous faceted hyalite and a loupe clean piece of jeremejevite in a private collection, but the gems were not for sale).

Our journey continued through the land of the Damara, a rocky desert thinly populated by camel thorn trees and a little bit of brush here and there. This lonely area is where the Himba live, one of the few Namibian tribes that has not yet fully adapted to the influence of European culture. I was able to take a photo of a young Himba woman in her traditional clothing.


Our next destination was the mining village of Uis. During colonial times, this village was dominated by giant open pit mines for zinc and wolfram. We had heard that there was still some local artisanal mining under way with vendors selling their wares along the road. Unfortunately, upon arrival we found only three deserted vendor stands underneath a camel thorn tree with a jar to leave cash for any rocks taken. But wares offered were not even worth stopping for.


Rumor had it that we would find more stands along the way so we continued on, but we only found a few more unmanned tables with rocks and the same tin can asking for donations if you took one. There was no human being in sight, so nobody to ask if there was more to be discovered. Disappointed, we turned back.
On we drove through this completely deserted landscape north west toward the Gobobose mountains.

Just past the impressive looking Brandberg mountain we encountered a lonely road sign with “amethyst” written on it, so we followed the turn and arrived at a village called Bobobseb, an assembly of perhaps 50 huts and tents with open mine pits located in the distance around the village.

The hills around Boboseb are composed of basalt layers from volcanic explosions in different time periods. Some of these layers contain hollow spaces – geodes – in between. These geodes occasionally contain quartz crystals similar to the Herkimer “diamonds” (which are also just quartz crystals) as well as amethyst. Some of the previous finds from this region have fetched up to $80,000 in the international mineral world and were featured in mineralogy books that report on the region. Miners are a cautious folk. When we initially approached them to ask for better material, they were quite hesitant, but after some chit chat during which we revealed that we were geologists and had some knowledge of the Namibian mining world, they started to show us quartz crystals of much better quality (though nothing like the fabled rocks we had seen in our books and
online).

We shopped with them for several hours and despite not finding anything fantastic, we were pretty pleased with our bounty.

On the next day, we took a second drive into the region. On that day, we met a woman of German descent who lived in this wasteland together with her South African husband and a child. Her husband was a geologist and mineral hunter as well, and from him we learned that all of the most interesting claims in the region were already in the hands of a few white people who use heavy machinery and a lot of money to work on unearthing these crystals from the basalt rock – apparently this is quite tough labor because basalt is very hard. The biggest problem faced by the locals is the lack of water in the surrounding region. Before our departure, we therefore gifted our new friends 20 liters of water from our tank. They had not left their tent in the wilderness for over eight months and were exceptionally grateful.

A shorter drive west, this time on much better maintained gravel roads, we reached the Atlantic coast north of Hentjesbaie. I had spent the night there 58 years ago, while I was on a solo expedition of the skeleton coast that led me almost to the border of Angola. Back then, Hentjesbaie was just a collection of a few huts. Nowadays it is a larger town composed of very pretty single family homes. Many of these homes were up for sale, probably of interest to the many south African fishermen we saw working along the coast line. In Hentjesbaie we met a woman named Vera Rath who owned a small gem shop. Vera was in charge of sales for the family claim in the Gobobose mountains – her four brothers were doing the mining. She had a number of beautiful crystals for sale, but her prices were similar to those in Europe and the U.S., so it was not really worth it for us to buy much. Vera also told us that most good finds are immediately sold to long standing clients that come to Namibia to pick up directly. Presumably these clients were able to buy in bulk and had deeper pockets than we did in general. We did, however, purchase several beautiful and shiny black tourmaline from her, as well as two pieces of gold crystals on malachite from the Kaokoveld.


On the main road outside Hentiesbaie vendors were offering salt crystals on rickety tables, and here too we could make a donation of cash into a jar or a can. These crystals were what we call hopper crystals (deep, right angled crystal impressions) and were quite beautiful to look at. So we picked a few and left money in the jar as instructed. Unfortunately, the salt did not last long – it started to disintegrate before we finished our journey, so we ended up leaving it all behind.


From Hentiesbaie, we drove the 60 miles south to Swakopmund, a pretty German style colonial village whose quaint architecture is still nearly fully intact. There, we visited the Crystal Museum and saw some of what are probably the largest crystals mined in Erongo, as well as many faceted tourmaline and topaz.

A small nearby shop called Desert Gems also offered some minerals for sale and I was able to buy crystals from older finds. We sent Yvonne some pictures of their faceted gems but the prices, again, were close to the European and U.S. market so it was not worth buying on location for a wholesaler. We concluded that even a tourist who came to Namibia to buy gems would be better off just buying Namibian gems locally rather than flying to Namibia, unless of course they were interested in seeing the country itself!

Putting our crystal shopping ambitions behind us, we decided therefore that our final destination should be a touristy one: Sossuvlei, a small town in the Naukluft Nature park. In Afrikaans the word “Vlei” refers to a large dip, or small valley. In Sossuvlei, you can see some of the largest dunes in the world. Also, these dunes that aren’t yellow, but red like the Arizona red rocks because the rocks have a lot of iron content. These look most spectacular during sunrise and sunset and they were a lovely ending to what turned out to be a beautiful and adventurous journey through a country, that's easy to travel to.

As I am turning 80 this year, I will not be returning here again, but I hope that Yvonne has another chance to go in the future, whether for gem hunting or not. 

Continue reading

The Inner Working of Hospitals, plus a Safari: A Broken Foot Travels to Germany

The Inner Working of Hospitals, plus a Safari: A Broken Foot Travels to Germany

I wake up to the sound of birds chirping, the sun shining onto my cozy comforter in my cushy bed. The window is slightly ajar and I can smell the Namibian air.While I'm gazing onto the surrounding hills of Windhoek, I lazily wait for breakfast to be delivered. Fresh coffee from the French press, omelet and brown toast with butter, a side of stewed tomatoes, warm corn grits and marmalade. I could watch the TV that is fastened to the ceiling by the foot of the bed, using a headset if I want to be undisturbed. Or, I could request a pedicure, a manicure, a bedside shoulder massage. I also have to decide between various lunches that the culinary staff will enter into an iPad, sending my requests directly to the kitchen. Choices, choices.

An assistant arrives, the word “BUTLER” in caps printed just below the name on his tag. He is dressed in grey suit pants and vest, an impeccable white shirt, and a tie. Do I need anything before he takes me over to get the CT? Pain meds, more water? Another ice pack? A change of clothes into freshly pressed white linen?

“You were born in Germany?” he asks by way of making conversation. “I would love to go there some day, I am actually learning German in school. I also speak Afrikaans and my local language.” So educated, I think. I use the buttons on the side of the bed to put myself into the perfect free gravity position, back up 45 degrees, knees slightly raised. Just like United Polaris, only far more comfortable. We chat for a bit before he gently wheels my bed to the elevator…

Where am I exactly? You guessed it, although you might find it hard to fathom. Lady Pohamba, a private hospital in the capital of Namibia. Almost worth staying longer but at $500 per night I could rent a small castle around here. If there were private castles in Namibia, that is.

Also, my broken ankle needs plates and screws put in, and I have to decide where to get this done. I have to call my insurance (Horizon Blue Cross, Omnia Silver) to sort stuff out. I mention my plan because it does include international accident insurance. You just need to look for the blue suitcase on the front of your card. If you have that, you are covered while in far away places. I also have to change my flight, I have to decide when I should leave the hospital and where I should go next.

Lufthansa answers some of these questions for me: no flights for that day or the next, a Saturday change in itinerary is $4300, and Sunday is $250. My flight is to Frankfurt, Germany, where I can sort out next steps, i.e. do I fly back to the US, or do I get this fixed in Germany, rest up a few days for post op and then head home? Hospitals have only basic staff on weekends so Sunday will do fine for a flight to Germany. That leaves me with one day in the fancy hospital, and two days to have fun on crutches.

After a series of additional calls, I land on Progress Guest Farm, located just a short drive from the airport. At $110/night, it is much more reasonable than the hospital, even though it won’t have this fantastic bed. I won’t have a butler or a nursing staff of four, but I think that’s gonna be ok, lol. Breakfast to order and a three course dinner is included in the price, room service if needed since I am on crutches, the lodge is level and the Wi-Fi will just reach my room (rare in lodges). I can sit by the pool underneath palm trees, or I can enjoy the prairie view from the bed. They will take me to the airport, too. Sounds – and turns out to be – rather idyllic.

One of the nurses’ brothers works for a small family taxi company (I think it’s more like he just drove me for a price but whatever), and he takes me to the lodge upon my release. I am greeted by the host, Gerda Meyer. She and her husband run the lodge with a small staff. Gerda helps me to my room which had a view onto the open surrounding space. She accommodates me with a shower chair, additional water and snacks (one day they even makes me home-made pizza for lunch), and I spend the rest of the afternoon either by the pool or working on notes for the blog.

As you can imagine, I am not one to sit idle long, and I have one additional day that I can use for touristy things. My research yields another nearby farm, a non-profit Ecolodge and Wildlife Sanctuary by the name of Naankuse Lodge. Naankuse offers various excursions and daytrips, some of which don’t require walking – like, for old people. I pick an animal feeding tour of my favorite animals, wild cats. I am totally alone on the jeep (which my rock-climbing skills get me onto, even with only one working foot), chatting happily with the driver as he introduces me to the rescued wild cats: 2 lions, a leopard, several cheetahs and wild dogs, all coming to the fence as he arrived with the apportioned horse meat for their meal.

The cheetahs even rub themselves against the fence and purr (just like my Lucy!). But no petting, he says. You never know. Cheetahs have lost their fear of humans and we are not their preferred prey (too big), but a wild cat is a wild cat! Too bad, they look really snuggly.

I get back just in time for a three-course meal prepared by Gerda’s husband Niekie: a vegetable skewer, followed by breaded and fried game meat (a very standard meal around here), fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes and panna cotta with local fruit. Gerda walks me to my room so I can navigate the grass, pebbly path and terracotta dirt patch in the dark.

My flight on Sunday was with Discover Airlines, a former step child of Lufthansa, now it is its own company, though you use the LH portal to book. I say “step child” because everything on Discover is clearly a hand me down, including the plane itself. The business class section shows the older seating configuration without privacy, there is no storage, the remote on TV is substandard or not working, food is just passable. I don’t want to complain but a business class ticket isn’t cheap! For that price, United Polaris (my standard, if I fly business) is WAY better.

More interesting, however, is the notable absence of disability assistance. LH no longer has a number you can call in Germany (like, not a single number, just nothing!). A local ‘help desk’ number has a country code of South Africa, and that’s like calling from Northern Germany to Switzerland. It’s next door but not close. Nobody picked that up anyway. I do fill out an online form for disability services, which is supposed to be confirmed by email within 24 hrs but that email never turns up. The flight being delayed by 3 hours, Gerda drives me to the airport in the dark, something they don’t advise to tourists to do because there are no street lights on the dirt roads and lots of animals crossing at night, but she assures me they do this all the time. I figure that once there, service will be a non-issue as the ground personnel is run by the Namibian airport, not Lufthansa. And in any country that is not as wealthy as we are, there’s no lack of personnel. People don’t get unemployment or social security, their relatives cannot support them, so they will work, even for subsistence level pay, because they simply have no choice! Unemployment is extremely high and most people will take any kind of job if it pays for food and shelter. There are no soup kitchens either so for some people it’s either you work for pennies or you die. That is a reason why I always tip handsomely in places like this, even if it’s official staff (like a nurse or an airport service). I don’t want to seem like I’m showing off with my wealth, but I’ll take that as a criticism if it helps others.

As expected, wheelchair service is no issue and everything goes smoothly at the airport. I even get to go to the lounge for a while. The only adventurous part is getting onto the plane. Forklift or stairs, they ask me. Stairs, I say boldly. These prove tiring but the YouTube video I watched gave good advice. Hold on to the rail, use one crutch on the lower step, step up, repeat. 30 times later, I am on the plane. The flight attendants tell me they all watched from the window. Um, thanks.

On-board experience I will skip as uneventful, and pickup in Frankfurt goes ok as well, with the exception of the drop off outside arrivals. I am plopped at a café while my 83 year old dad wandered around looking for me (he doesn’t really use his cell). Once he locates me – 30 minutes later – he gets a luggage cart and I sit on the luggage while he wheeled me to the car.

Our next stop is the BGU, a specialty accident center in Frankfurt that my bestie Dagmar recommended, because most of what they do there is fix broken bones. CT and X-ray in hand we proceeded to their ER. Unlike what I have experienced in the US, this ER has a small and quiet waiting area with us being the only people there. But it is early in the morning and I am told it would fill up later. And it does, with a guy who twisted his knee skiing and a construction worker who fell off a ladder (no joke).

As soon as I report that I had just come back from being in a hospital in Namibia, things got exciting. The nurse dashes off within a split second to grab an N3 mask, pushing another one onto my face and my dad’s. Possible contamination, I am told. Apparently, a previous patient had ‘soiled’ an OR with an infection from a far away hospital and caused $30,000 in additional costs the hospital had to carry (the patient had to be isolated for 30 days). So in addition to being interviewed about my adventure, I am swabbed for germs in my nostrils, mouth, under the arms and my rear end. “Do you want to do that yourself?” the nurse asked. “Uh, no” no was my response. “You just go right ahead and do what you need to do. I don’t want anything to do with it!”

I am examined in an isolated room, door closed, by three different doctors (ER doc, surgeon and anesthesiologist for pre-op), each of them disappearing at the word “Namibia” and coming back fully masked.

Other than that, the docs assess my scans and the emergency room realigning of my ankle. They are quite satisfied with that, and that’s good because that is a very important step in my having full mobility and sensation back. The operation is scheduled for the following Monday.

In the meantime, it's hotel Papa, with a couple of days at my sister’s with her boyfriend and my 20 month old niece who ogled my crutches with great curiosity but who even at her age is observant enough not to run in between them. Thank you, Meira, you will make a great addition to my very practical and efficient family.

At my dad’s I get to learn how to get up and down the marble staircase into the basement where I sleep, and after fixing a broken wheel on my late mom’s fancy $500 rollator, I use that for food shopping and to get around the kitchen.

On Monday the 17th, I present early morning for my procedure, stomach growling. The contrast to Barnabas, where my late friend Sebaj was treated for his colon cancer, was educational to say the least. My belongings are locked away in a box and transported to the room that is already set up for me. The relay between the room where I changed and the pre-op for anesthesiology is seamless. German doctors are not used to explaining what they are doing to patients but my friendly banter opens them up. “Americans throw away everything,” one assistant says. Here we sterilize and re-use to be environmentally friendly. The anesthesiologist also explains that he would be using a local anesthetic so I would not be in pain as I wake up. That is a new thing to me. At Barnabas, everyone in recovery woke up crying in pain, nursing staff dashing around trying to get the orders for opioids filled – something I didn’t need because the local lasted for almost 2 days. Apparently the new hospital leadership at BGU instituted this policy two years ago. Good thinking! I do need Oxy twice, but that is only because they have to redo the cast the next day to angle my foot at 90 degrees instead of it being pointy and that is painful because the entire ankle is swollen from the toolkit that is now inside my ankle. “In the OR they sometimes have to rush the cast,” someone says. And I do get some IV painkillers, because I peacefully sleep through the entire rest of the day, opening my eyes only to eat two slices of bread with cheese for dinner (I’m very food driven), and then going back to sleep until 6 a.m. when I am woken up by shouting.

“Help me, help me.” I hear a woman’s voice next to me. Still woozy, I ask “what’s up?”. “I really have to pee, and I can’t find the help button, the remote fell off the bed.”

I have apparently slept through my roommates arrival in the middle of the night but I am pretty awake now. “I got it,” I say, and push the help button on mine. A voice answers as if it is a phone, not a call button (that’s because it is a phone, of course). At Barnabas, the button just turned the light on outside the room and then someone came, or as was so often the case, nobody came for minutes or sometimes an hour. “What do you need?” the voice asks. “My neighbor has to pee and she can’t find her bell. She has to pee like NOW.” Funny how such basic things can become a real problem. Apparently Mrs. O. already HAD peed because she needed to go for hours, but now the bed was wet and who wants to sleep in that.!

Mrs. O., an witty 82 year old with a dry sense of humor, has broken her arm during a family reunion when she didn’t use the rollator for like two steps. She was so annoyed with herself as she was also caring for her wheelchair bound husband. We become good friends in the days we spend together as I get us cake from the downstairs bakery every afternoon when I go for my practice walk.

Well, it is busy from then on. Breakfast at 7, blood work, vitals check, doctor for the floor examining the wound, then the chief of surgery who operated on me, then lymph drainage, lunch, a new cast, my dad visiting with a few things I’d forgotten, PT to make sure I could get up, coffee, cake, dinner, some sorting of my room mate's dilemmas (like not knowing how to use the wifi). I fall asleep at 8 p.m.

Someone told me that based on my experience with hospitals in three countries, I should write a Michelin guide to in-patient services, lol. Sadly, if I did so, Namibia would end up first and the US in last place. Germany is sort of in between. They don’t have dividing curtains for privacy, it’s unusual there, and the beds are not the greatest either. Care is good, though not amazing like Namibia. Just like in the US, staff shortages create problems in care. That said, the care we do receive and the speed with which we receive it certainly outpaces everything I have seen at Barnabas in the US. Wound care is better as well, food and food services, the idea of a head set for a TV is widespread everywhere except the US. Cost is another important factor. My operation, including 4 days of hospital stay with all of the care inclusive was $9100. Cost in the US can be estimated at three times that figure, with billings significantly higher.

My upgrade to the chief of surgery, for instance, was $800. And he was supposed to be the best, so even if that ends up being out of pocket, why should I care? My ankle is a lifetime investment.

The rest of my four day stay at BGU is fairly uneventful, with the exception of Mrs. O. announcing on Thursday that she wished to die because she was in too much pain and wasn’t feeling mobile. An officially announced death wish always gets everyone on high alert (because it has to be reported up the chain), so we had additional visitors: psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, neurologist. Mrs. O.'s care is improved and so are her spirits, so I am able to leave on Friday with a good conscience knowing she was taken care of in the way she needed. Sometimes a loud cry for help is enough to get the job done and she did deserve better care. (Sometimes…).

I stay in Germany another four days just for a post op visit, but then it is really time to go back to my American home and my cat Lucy, and some human friends, too.

To those of you worried about traveling with a disability, I can say that everything went fairly smoothly, with the caveat that, as Germany is not a litigious society, this leads to substandard service, whereas in the US everyone overdoes it. At Fraport (Frankfurt airport’s melodic sounding name), I was offered a series of relay carts I had to hop on and off of, and I had to make my own way through passport control and security. It was a sluggish and cumbersome procedure, as a result of which I missed my stay in the lounge. I wouldn’t have cared but I did pay for it, so I wanted it. At Newark Airport I was not even allowed to get up from the wheelchair and someone was with me every split second, all the way into the cab.

In my next and final Namibia blog, I will tell you a bit more about the gemstone situation in Namibia and give you a sense of what you should expect if you ever travel there to buy. While I didn’t get to complete the trip, Jochen and Klaus did and they reported to me every step of the way. Until then, know that I have arrived home safely and am getting the needed aftercare until I can be fully mobile again in a few weeks. So everything ended (reasonably) well.

Continue reading

Adventures of a Broken Foot: In the Middle of Nowhere

Adventures of a Broken Foot: In the Middle of Nowhere

As you read in my previous blog (you didn’t? Go back!), a playful dog plowed into my left leg as I was jogging to the lodge at our remote camp site near Khorixas, Namibia. A hard landing later, I found my foot twisted out of place. Kaput.

What next? After my friends Klaus and Jochen had safely stashed me onto a chair and raised up my foot, we quickly hashed out next steps. Jochen hurried over to the lodge to inform the owner and ask about medical transport. Unsurprisingly, the latter proved unavailable. We had to get to a clinic ourselves, and this entailed a 45-minute drive back to Khorixas. Klaus folded down the roof tents, and after a half hour they pulled the car up next to me to load me into the back seat, resting the broken ankle on a pillow surrounded by cold water bottles to cool it. Klaus placed a wet paper towel over the top of the foot to further reduce the swelling. I had already popped the strong ibuprofen. I took photos of the ankle from various angles.

We then pulled up to the lodge so I could catch enough Wi-Fi to call one of the most important people in my life, Dagmar. Dagi and I lived in the same building when we were little. We met in the sandbox, were inseparable as kids and have remained close our entire lives.

Dagi is my own personal angel. If you had a Dagmar, your life would be better, because Dagmar makes everything better. She’s a pediatrician, and – trained at the renowned Mayo clinic in Wiesbaden, she’s also an excellent diagnostician. She helped me solve various of Sebaj’s cancer-related emergencies from afar, she’s been at my mom’s side when she died after a seven-year battle with Lou Gehrigs and Aphasia in 2021, she takes care of my sister, my 20-month-old niece, and of course, she takes care of me.

Dagi picked up her cell in the middle of a patient visit because she knows if Yvonne calls during Dagi’s office hours from Namibia, there’s a problem. “Broke my ankle,” were my first words. “You sure?” “Yes, I’ll send pix. We’ll be heading to the closest clinic but there’s no advanced medical care here.” “Got it. How long does it take you to get to Windhoek?” “About five hours drive.” “Ok, by the time you get there I’ll let you know what’s next, have the clinic stabilize it.” “Ok. Ta.” “Love you.” “Ja.”

The camping lodge owner had advised us not to go to the hospital in Khorixas (not very good she said) but to stop next door at a small private clinic. So off we went down the dirt road and onto the main gravel road at the top speed Jochen, the most experienced driver of our team, deemed safe.

The clinic was in the center of town, which constitutes a gas station and a strip mall with a furniture and clothing store, as well as a supermarket; nothing more. At the clinic, my friends were stopped with the words “N$250.” ($13). Money first, then treatment, that’s how it is in most developing countries, otherwise the clinics cannot survive and then medical care goes from little to none. We were later told that there are free as well as very low-cost services available but their availability and what these entail is limited.

I got pushed into the clinic on an office chair with a broken wheel. I could have hopped faster but that was deemed too risky with that dangly ankle. There was no wait (N$250 is quite a door stopper for locals that make between N$1500 and N$3000 a month), and the doc who introduced himself as Patrick, saw us right away. “Most likely broken,” he said. Uh-huh. “Go next door to the hospital and get an X-ray, then bring it here. I don’t have a machine. But don’t have them attempt to set it or do anything else.”

The small hospital was right around the corner. “N$150” was their greeting, to be settled before any services of course. Klaus and Jochen settled the bill while I was wheeled into X-ray with a real wheelchair. It was quick and efficient. The X-Ray, a Siemens machine, just the printer was broken. (So we took photos of the screen.)

Despite my expensively purchased Verizon wireless plan, internet was completely unavailable in Namibia, but the doc hooked me onto his iPhone so I could send the images to Dagmar. He also put a plaster cast around the lower part of the foot, ankle, and up the calf, leaving it open in the front. He closed it up with a bandage. I asked for a heparin shot to prevent clotting, and the doctor agreed. (The N$150 we paid on entry ($7.50) covered everything).

Images in hand, we headed back over to the clinic and showed the images to Patrick. A clean break of the lower fibula, was his assessment. And a piece of the ankle had broken off as well. The temporary cast should be ok he thought (but I saw in his eyes that he didn’t love the job). He loosened the bandages a little as I could already feel the swelling pushing up against the plaster.

We then dashed off in the direction of Windhoek. The first hour of the drive I was ok, but then the foot started throbbing. Pins and needles in the toes, and pains shooting up from the ankle to the lower leg and calf. “No pressure against the bone,” Klaus said. “And too much swelling.” I took another Ibuprofen but it didn’t do a thing. Four hours to go.

What next? My pain was climbing up the ladder. A 7, I decided, not a lot of room at the top here. “Jochen? You brought the morphine, right?” He did. “I’m gonna have to take one.”

Story detour: about 18 years ago, during the gem shows in Tucson, Jochen contracted a dangerous and extremely painful bacterial infection in his lower back (he was in organ failure when he arrived at the hospital but after 6 months of recovery he was 99% back on track). Jochen was prescribed morphine for the pain, and he saved what he didn’t need at the time. The morphine is always in his Africa emergency pack, for precisely the types of situations we were now facing, as well as for the one you don’t want to ever experience: ending up somewhere on your own and without transport, facing death by thirst or starvation while injured.

I took 15mg – the lowest dose – with a big swig of water. Hydration is key and also helps to dissolve the pill. I should have chewed it for speedier absorption but I forgot. “It’ll just take 20 minutes,” Jochen offered. I disagreed, having watched Sebaj suffer with nerve pain for up to 60 minutes, waiting for the stuff to kick in. “I’ll put it an hour,” was my response. We could do a bet. I was gonna need distraction.

Klaus rubbed my upper leg lightly upon my request, to distract the nerves. Jochen entertained with stories about his previous trip to Namibia, while I worked on my breathing. 4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 4 counts out, 4 counts hold. Meanwhile the pain worked its way up to an 8 or 9.

After 20 minutes it eased a little bit, but it didn’t get bearable until minute 40, and by minute 60 it was gone. (Of course I was counting the minutes). As expected, my mouth went dry, my appetite disappeared, and I became rather chill and relaxed. All are well known side effects of morphine.

Next problem. I really really had to pee. An average bladder holds about a liter, I heard. Mine was on the verge of overflowing. (When did I drink all that water??). My left knee was resting on an empty milk container, which in turn was propped onto our guidebook so I could get my leg into an angle that made for minimal pain. I pulled the container out and asked Klaus to cut the top completely open. We stopped at a rest stop, I slid out of the car, my bum resting against the back seat, and I put the container between my legs. Aaaaaaahhhhh. Let me tell you, I so did not care that I was with two men, neither of which I am in any way intimate with. I just had to go. I put the container on the floor, pulled up my hiking pants and offered the honor of emptying it to Klaus. He complied, with a grin. You gotta take this shit in stride.

We reached Windhoek by 6 p.m. My phone offered 3 bars for roaming (finally) and I called Dagi again. “Lady Pohamba Hospital please.” “Ok, bye.” Dagi’s Namibian friends had advised that I go there. Lady Pohamba is a private hospital, completely operating on Western standards, inclusive of accreditations, equipment, and nursing rotations.

Just in time. The morphine was wearing off. Payment getting sorted (first), this time N$60,000 as pre-payment, to be credited back if not used up. I was then wheeled into the ER and received immediate medical attention. The pain was climbing up the ladder, hastily making its way into the dreaded double digit: the TEN. I resorted to breathing used for birthing (or stretching, by the way), deep breath in, loud and long breath out. I grabbed the nurse’s hand. “We’ll put in an IV and give you Paracetamol,” she told me. “That will not do,” I said. The attending doc agreed.

“Ketamine,” was her view. “Then we open the cast and set the foot. After that you will feel a lot better.” Dagi on speaker, phone resting on my belly, this was confirmed as I explained between long and shaky breaths, apologizing for the “ddddddddd-eeeee-lay.” My entire body started to shiver, my hands went cold. I was still talking, and as the docs told me later, I never stopped the entire time. I have no idea, by then I had passed out. From the ketamine, the pain, who knows.

I was kept for observation for two nights, supplied with lighter pain meds, IV drip; and a South African orthopedist by the entertaining name of Willem Moolman came to check on things twice a day. A CT confirmed the break but also showed a third fracture, making the break “as bad as it can be” in Doc. Moolman’s ‘soothing’ words. Gentle bedside manner, making everything sound better than it is, and being cautious with information is an American medical cultural trait, borne from the necessity of having to avoid giant lawsuits. The rest of the world is a little more blunt...

The CT also showed a lot of swelling, and that makes medical work inside an ankle very messy. Doc Moolman suggested waiting for the swelling to go down, which could take anywhere from 4-5 days to 1-2 weeks. Then I would need screws on one side of the ankle, a plate on the other, and I’d be in a moonboot off that leg for six weeks. Yuckles. “I was welcome to stay,” he said, but it really wasn’t necessary as long as I continued giving myself heparin into the belly (it’s just like insulin shots), took an anti-inflammatory and kept the leg elevated.

At $500 a night, I thought that while the service was fantastic – I had never seen so many staff in one place at any hospital before – it wasn’t exactly worth hanging around. I decided to get myself organized and formulate the next plan. There had to be a way, I thought to myself, to squeeze just a touch more vacation out of this situation before heading out.

I would have done well to be hired as a chief strategist somewhere. For something. Because I both figured out a plan, as well as a way to execute it. And I had bit of luck, too!

And here's a video from before the accident showing Yvonne happily 'helping' Klaus and Jochen put up the tent:

 

Continue reading

Tucson Gem Market: What's In and What's Out – February 2024

Tucson Gem Market: What's In and What's Out – February 2024

For the gem dealer, gems are exactly what the title of this blog suggests: a financial instrument which, if purchased and sold wisely, will yield an increase in value over time and ideally generate a living. So for us, gems are the stocks, options or futures of the trader on Wall Street; and they are the properties of the real estate investor. Additionally, however, gems are really cool to look at, easy to keep and transport, and finally, buying them can take you into the world of international treasure hunting. All of which adds to gems being a lot more fun than buying stocks or bonds, or pork skins for that matter. It’s a commodity like gold, but it isn’t publically traded because the knowledge base required to evaluate the worth of an individual gem is far larger than what you need to know to buy commodities, stocks, or even houses. I speak from some experience: I have my series seven, I worked in the foreign exchange market, and I have bought and sold real estate both for personal use and investment.

How, then, would gem dealers report on the current pulse of the gem market, as measured by prices and availability (as well as gossip!) of Tucson 2024? Let me give you a glimpse by discussing some of the gems that I had mentioned as purchase options for me for Tucson and how I fared as I shopped and chatted with my favorite dealers at the shows.

  1. Kornerupine: there has not been any production of Kornerupine in several years. Material may still be available but the locals are not doing any digging and the market in Arusha has dried up. Current productions (which are miniscule) are dominated by greenish material from Madagascar without tri-chroism. This does not generate retail interest as there are other, now cheaper, gems available in those colors (i.e. tourmaline). Dealers were showing more material this year but with sharply increased prices. In fact, prices to buy are higher than the prices in my shop, and the material is not flying out the door even at my lower prices. I therefore opted against purchase.
  1. Benitoite: 100% of the material available directly at the shows is now overpriced in my view, except for the vendor I use who has only 5 US buyers (from what they told me) out of 15 total that receive a share of the quarterly production. Pieces over .25 cts are very rare. Most buyers do not resell right now, the market is fairly wiped clean except for collector’s pieces at very high prices, and there’s little being shown at GJX or AGTA, which means that people are holding back what they have. It’s a complete seller’s market as the material generates retail interest from collectors. Anything semi useful that hits the market at a reasonable price moves quickly.

  2. Cobalt Spinel: the market is a little soft this year despite dwindling production. Out of the half dozen or so vendors carrying it, a few had lowered their prices for the more glowy but poorly cut material that had dominated offerings of the last several years. One dealer claimed that most of the very measly production from Luc Yen is going into the hands of one company and they are not reselling right now. A few other vendors needed money as the market of 2022 was very slow – at a near standstill starting July – and so vendors dug deep into their old inventory, offering it at good prices. I was able to move several nice pieces for a smaller markup directly at the show. I left behind a near 1 carat 6mm round that I really wanted but the money didn’t stretch. The Mahenge cobalt spinel, by contrast, entered the market at too high a price because it was being priced in comparison to Luc Yen material – but in my view, investors didn’t consider that the Mahenge discovery would at least temporarily dilute the market and therefore prices should have started lower. Also, most Mahenge has too much grey in it, which makes it a little too similar to the slightly more available Sri Lankan material. It is a good time to buy cobalt but also a good time to hold on to it. The prices of cobalt never scare me as the material has so much inner beauty that it will retain value (better than Benitoite in my view, simply because it is just as rare and much more beautiful).

  3. Grandidierite: dealers are not buying any right now. Madagascar had overproduced once they found deposits in the south and there was a sense that there is a lot of gemmy material out there which led to high asking prices at ground level. As it turned out, most of the material that is currently mined is just ornamental quality (to make pebbles to put into bowls, or lower quality beads). The gem quality is still very rare but consumers have a sense of the prices being too high – they might also be right! – so vendors are now stuck with the material that they cannot move without a loss. It’s best to wait this out and see if prices come down. I have material still from my own purchases in Madagascar and I am selling that down at lower prices than the current market. But I also will not reinvest in the near future unless I find something unusually pretty and reasonable.

  4. Burmese Jedi Spinel: for geopolitical reasons, production is at a near standstill and what little is coming out of the region (illegally, I presume), is not that good. Only old material is floating around, with decreasing availability and increasing prices. Several of the vendors who used to specialize in it have left the market and concentrated on other goods because getting into that market is just too difficult. There are still older productions of melee though not as abundant as in 2019 and before. I tend to buy goods that have tiny flaws, eye clean if possible but not loupe clean. I personally feel that while the clean material is over-valued, the very slightly included material is undervalued. Flawless (or nearly flawless) gems attract private investors and dealers with big pockets, who are taking the long term view that these are still worth their money.

    Jedi spinel cushion pair
  5. Sapphire: there are many sub-markets here so I can only mention a couple. Smaller size blues are usually Madagascan these days and readily available if heated but prices have gone up. Unheated fine quality blues (like royal blue no heat) have jumped up a lot in the last decade or more because demand is outpacing supplies. Blue sapphire is probably the most well-known and ubiquitous investor tool for the private buyer, and it is a popular engagement ring alternative. The retail market remains strong as U.S. buyers are becoming more educated and are increasingly demanding unheated goods. World demand is also on the increase, especially foreign markets. Melees prices are steadily increasing at a slower pace, this year the older parcels are starting to be sold out and newer and more expensive productions are hitting the market, with corresponding price changes of about 10% over last year (some are 20-25% more). The same is true for the colored melee, in particular, purple. Darker purple melee remains sold out as the only newer goods in purples are coming from Madagascar, and below 2mm they barely have lavender color.

  6. Ruby: smaller heated Burmese material (3mm and below) is still readily available though prices start jumping up at 2+mm. The finer and less pinkish goods are now sourced from Mozambique, market prices this year are the same as last year or even a tad softer. Most vendors seem to think that the reasons for this are mostly the world economy. Demand has been high for fine goods, in particular 2+ carats with pigeon blood certs, even though those have a darker color than buyers usually anticipate when they see the gems in real life.

  7. Emerald: this is always a complicated market because there are literally dozens of substances that are used to enhance emeralds, from various natural oils to synthetic oils and mixes (some of them colored), waxes, resins like Opticon and ExCel, and even hardeners and glue. Not all of these treatments are permanent so the emerald needs to be re-treated. While gem sellers have to answer all buyers’ questions regarding treatment, if the right questions are not asked then answers will not be volunteered. One should generally assume that all emeralds on the market are moderately to significantly treated as those with insignificant to no enhancement require certificates from independent laboratories and are priced much higher due to their rarity. I have noticed that in the last 2-3 years, public awareness of emerald treatments has increased sharply and even an uneducated buyer will ask me to get them an emerald with “less” treatment rather than more. Buyers don’t always understand the meaning of their request but they do understand – correctly – that there is a distinction to be made both in terms of value and in terms of “shelf life” of some treatments. I have pulled back a little from the emerald market for this reason, trying to source melee from Zambia, Pakistan and Afghanistan (the latter is very hard to do nowadays, also for geopolitical reasons). Those tend to require less oil. Russian emeralds are a complicated product because of the war in Ukraine, and some large retailers have backed out of buying Russian goods altogether. Colombian material is 99.9% treated but U.S. sellers are rushing to get most of their goods checked. Correspondingly, prices here have risen as well.

    Emerald pair

I could go on and on. Consumer interest in natural colored gems remains high, but of course the higher prices of gems, and everything else for that matter, are slowing spending. I expect a sluggish recovery just because the high prices are here to stay for the most part, and income has not gone up correspondingly. We will just have to see how the situation progresses.

Questions? If you would like to know more about the market of a specific gem, let me know and I will make inquiries. Much of the information one can obtain in this secretive market is haphazard and anecdotal, but much of it has also proven to be highly reliable, as the number of companies that are movers and shakers in this trade is smaller than you might think

And inside the trade at least, we all benefit from information being sufficiently accurate to provide us with direction. Gem dealers are competitors but they also rely on the trades they do among themselves to be safe and functional, just like the stock market and the real estate market. The industry is based on trust, and this trust is enforced by social pressure (less so by laws as most laws have little international enforcement, and this business is 99% international). If you cheat another gem dealer, that information gets out. And then you are out too. Sometimes for good.

Continue reading

Should your Gem Purchase Come with a Certificate of Authenticity?

Should your Gem Purchase Come with a Certificate of Authenticity?

Does this gem come with a certificate of authenticity? This is a question we are being asked almost every week, especially on Etsy. This used to be a rare question aimed at high value items, but now it is common, even for items as low as $1.50 a piece (I am not joking!). The context of the question is understandable given the number of gems sold under false pretenses. With just photos and description, and perhaps a U.S. drop ship location but no other legitimate business information online, it is difficult to know when you are being sold what you bought, and when someone is trying to cheat you.

Personally, the number of gems I buy from companies without referral is zero. Even on location I start with people I know or people I know through others. As a reseller that lives in the U.S. and is bound by U.S. consumer protection laws, I have to be able to stand by my goods. Also, if Etsy were to close or censure my shop due to a complaint about cheating, I could not just open another one the way vendors from other countries do. As a U.S. business, I would need a new tax I.D. for that. Then I’d have to create a whole new business identity and start over, which is not worth my time or effort. It’s way cheaper and easier to just be honest, whereas if I had a foreign account on Etsy or sold direct on Instagram from overseas, I would not have a tax I.D. in the first place. I could therefore create as many identities as I wanted to. On Instagram this is particularly common as zero references are needed. It’s easy to just add photos from other accounts or anything else downloaded, attract customers with those, then pretend the gems are sold and offer one’s own cheaper, and unverified goods. I continue to be amazed at how many buyers there must be for that kind of thing.

When I get asked to provide certificates, however, I am in a predicament. The AGTA rules of ethics prohibit me from offering any home-made printout that says ‘certificate.’ So I can’t just go to Staples and get laminated cards printed - nor would I want to but let’s set that aside for the moment. According to the AGTA, I must also disclose all treatments at the point of sale (i.e., in the Etsy listings). Furthermore, I cannot claim that a gem is ‘investment grade’ or any other type of grade, like triple A or whatever people use as marketing terms. Nor may I use the now obsolete term ‘semi-precious.’ Lastly, I must provide full disclosure and I cannot use hyperbole or self-referencing. (There are actually a lot more rules but this gives you a basic idea).

So what is it that CRD can offer by way of guarantee for its gems? Let’s review the legitimate options.

  1. A written bill of sale with all the details. We are often asked for a separate bill because Etsy does not automatically add all that information to the invoices, and we do not have the ability to change what you can print. A written bill of sale or invoice will be helpful if you want to add your gem or jewelry piece to your homeowner’s insurance policy.
  2. An appraisal from an independent appraisal service such as Gemological Appraisal Laboratory.

Appraisals cost about $60 and will include all relevant information such as type of gem or gems used in the jewelry, the dimensions and weights as well as the current estimated insurance replacement value (or another value of your choosing). The limitations of an appraisal report, however, are that while most appraisal labs can I.D. a gemstone, diamond or metal, and can make sure that nothing is fake, they cannot determine details such as origin or in some cases, treatment of gems. For origin determination, a lab needs to have a library of comparative scans and expensive X-Ray equipment. Most appraisal labs do not have these. Heat treatment or fillers are usually detectable by an appraisal lab, but the type or degree of filler used is another matter. For example, an appraisal report can say that the gem is an emerald that is oiled, but not that it is a Colombian emerald with a moderate amount of cedar wood oil. The only exception I want to mention is that if you have a gem that already has a laboratory report stating origin and treatment, you can hand that to the appraisal laboratory together with the gem and/or the jewelry it is in, and get it appraised for value. CRD sometimes gets appraisal reports for expensive items so that clients can have the satisfaction of knowing they are paying a fair price.

  1. A report from a gemological laboratory such as GIA, GRS, AGL, etc. These reports typically do not state value. They often come in two forms, such as a smaller report card like AGL’s Gem Brief for $70, which will provide ID, photo and measurements, as well as enhancement information.


    For AGL, the minimum gem size is .25 carats and up, probably because it is difficult to get accurate reads on anything smaller. (Some labs, such as GIA, offer batch testing for smaller gems). A gem brief will not state gem origin or degree of enhancement, however. When it comes to the question of heat/no heat, no further qualification is needed, but with fillers, the type or degree of filler can be valuable information. If origin or degree of enhancement are needed, AGL offers a Prestige Origin Report that starts at $230 for a single gem.

    A matched pair will require two separate reports, though one can request the reports be combined into one. Many of our more expensive gems come with an AGL Gem Brief or Prestige Report, depending on the value of the gem and the information we thought would be most valuable for you to have.

    A cheaper alternative to the AGL colored stone report is GIA, which tends to be in the range of $85 (GIA offers only full-size reports, no laminated cards). 

    So: where does this leave the buyer of a $3 no heat tiny sapphire who demands a certificate of authenticity (or whatever else they call it)? Honestly, there will not be any guarantees other than those made by the seller unless there’s an independent way for the buyer of vetting the seller him or herself. The gem cannot be verified in any way that makes financial sense for either the buyer or the seller to pursue.

    And how do you vet a seller? Depending on where you live or where are buying from, you might look into fair business practices of the relevant country and what kind of protection these provide for you as a foreign buyer. In the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia, for example, the law provides some safety for you, and as I said above, cheating is not so easy to do. You might get away with it once or twice, but not on a continuous basis.

    Also, you can look into what organizations the seller is a member of. For U.S. sellers the most prestigious is the AGTA, which has fairly strict membership guidelines. But there are others, such as the American Gem Society or IGS, the International Gem Society. I’m not the best person to ask about these, but all of these societies have their guidelines posted on their websites and you can ask if a member is in good standing.

    If I was to spend more than a few bucks on a gem, or if it was very important to me that the jewelry I am making contains even small gems that are what a seller says they are, I would buy only from sellers that meet the following conditions: they come with references that I can check, they sell within countries that have consumer protection laws and/or are members of a reliable gem association. I would simply skip the other sellers.

    Does that mean that at times you will be paying more for a gem because you are buying from a more reliable seller? Yes, it will mean that, and that’s the trade off you need to decide for yourself. The source countries for most gems are developing nations and these cannot necessarily offer the assurances you want. This is why experienced gem sellers have the role of functioning as a middle man, and as the guarantor of your purchase. That is the only way.

    Continue reading

    Buying on Location: Gem Shopping in Sri Lanka

    Buying on Location: Gem Shopping in Sri Lanka

    My clients say this to me all the time: “it’s cheaper to buy on location, right?” And I have heard many a story where people are asked by their relatives to, say “bring back a sapphire” when they go to Sri Lanka, or Colombia, or any other place known for gems. Let me tell you: it often isn’t cheaper on location. The prices you get will very much depend on what country you are going to and where you shop once you arrive there.

    Unless you are in a jewelry store or at a gem show where all the gems you are looking at have a label with a fixed price, all gem trading, wherever you are in the world, is done via offer and counter offer. First, the seller will try to get you to make an offer. But unless you plan to make a low offer and you also know your prices extremely well, this is unadvisable for you as a buyer. And low offers, mind you, can offend a seller and ruin the trade. Sometimes it signals that you don’t know your stuff, or that you don’t want to be serious.

    It is therefore best if you push for a price from the seller. This can have the advantage that you get a better sense of expectations, or of where the market currently is. But most of the time, especially in a situation where buyer and seller do not know one another, the first offer price will be too high. Sometimes it is far too high. It can be too much by a factor of two, three, or even a factor of ten. It can easily be a wildly imagined price. You might also be told that this wildly imagined sky high price is a good price!

    Pay no attention to what you are told. It might be true that the price is a good one, more likely it will not be. Make the counter offer you want to make and watch the seller’s reaction – though also note that that a gem seller has a lot of experience in gem selling. Reading his (or her) face may not tell you a thing.

    If I receive an offer that is sky high, I often just say “no thank you” and do not make a counter offer. I have many gems, I am not a needy party, and I am not loaded. If the offer I get is somewhat reasonable, for me this is two to three times my asking price, then I will make my counter offer that is slightly below what I am willing to pay. We then go back and forth a while, and we will either come to an agreement or not. “A while” can be a minute or two or an hour or two; or it can be a day or two as the seller might come back the next day having thought it over and agree to my asking price. Or I will tell them I have to think about it and get back to them. Sometimes I take all week, sometimes I just buy at asking price or at last offer. It depends on how much inventory I have, or if I have a buyer, if I think the gem is cool and new. Etc etc.

    When you first start buying in a new location, you have to take some time to let people show you stuff, and you may go back and forth on pricing a lot. I often don’t buy on the first day, or I buy very little. If I want to make a good impression and show my interest, or if I see a really good thing, I will try to make a purchase even at a higher price.

    The sellers will of course talk to each other about your purchases, your attitude, your interests etc. When I am new to a market and am starting with small buys, I want the sellers to communicate with one another because that will speed up the process of getting the right goods at hopefully the right price. This is something I do not do at a gem show. My buying usually lasts 3-5 days all in all (possibly with a day trip in between). If you are interested in something rare, it might take a day or two for sellers to get a hold of some gems for you, and if you are spending more money, people may also travel from further away to come and see you.

    HIGH END BUYING

    Very expensive deals are not done the way I just described though, or rarely (to give you perspective, I am talking a few thousand dollars and up, maybe 2,3K, maybe over 10K, that all depends). For security reasons, and relatedly because not all sellers/buyers want the exact nature of their deals to be public, those kinds of trades do not take place in full view of other sellers or buyers. My travel companion Joerg M., who had some previously established connections and was planning to make larger buys, met with the sellers on the terrace in front of his room and asked not to be disturbed. A good alternative meeting place is a guarded or otherwise secured office that is not open to the public. Sometimes people rent an office from a local seller for that purpose (and that seller may or may not get a commission if he also arranges some of the viewings). We had the option to do high end trading at the hotel office because Bhanu, the owner, had built an office specifically to that end. Deals like that might not even get concluded on your visit, though experienced buyers will want to be where the gem is so they can look at it in person. Additionally, they may want or need a lab nearby. Ratnapura has gem labs where you can get a 24 hr confirmation regarding whether a sapphire is heated, for instance. Bogota, Colombia, had a lab also.

    Jochen, by contrast, was doing his $5-50 deals right in the middle of the market, or just standing in the middle of the street, leaning against a Tuk Tuk pushing back the crowd. I took some photos and videos of him trading like that in the neighboring town of Nivitigala, where I helped him keep track of the fast-paced trade by putting price stickers on his sapphires and putting them into bags, counting the money etc. And our third buyer, Michael M., a private collector, bought some gems for several hundred dollars directly at the market also. It just took him a few days to get comfortable with the idea and with the going prices for the items he wanted.

    HONOR

    As money exchanges hands, everyone watches and follow along because, again: all sales are final. Someone in the front of the crowd may show a parcel with a gem belonging to someone in the back, call the price to the back and collect the money if a trade occurs. Somehow it always works out. I have never seen a mistake. Or rather, if a mistake occurs, it is rectified within seconds. Having 10-15 pairs of eyes on a transaction can be very helpful in this case, even though it can also seem really weird at first.

    I have also never seen anyone steal during a trade. Not a gem, and not money. If you cheat that way in this trade, you are out. You are unreliable and nobody wants to deal with you again. But keep this in mind too: overinflating a price is NOT considered cheating. If you pay too much, that is your problem. And buying a heated stone that you were told is not heated is also your problem, unless perhaps you have or want to establish a continuing and mutually lucrative relationship. In those cases people are more careful. When I push a seller and see how certain he is about a sapphire being heated, I can often see him backtracking a little, then I know to be cautious. If they say they ‘guarantee it’ and they know I might come back or buy more, my confidence is greatly increased. But even then there are no real guarantees.

    Cheating by selling a gem as another gem (i.e. a zircon instead of a sapphire, or a spinel instead of a ruby) is not something I have seen happen before either, but I have seen it happen to Jochen quite often. In his case, however, I think the claims sellers make are partly the result of ignorance. Luckily, Jochen is an expert in gemstone rough, and when it comes to rare minerals, he often knows more than the seller does. I think some of these cases are more snafus than anything else. Just to give one example, most sapphire dealers do not know all the properties of serendibite (which co-occurs with sapphire finds). Minerals like that can sit unrecognized in a pile of yet to be sorted rough for months or even years before someone who is actually interested in them shows up. And then they are not sent to the lab for testing.

    It also is amazing how these small pebbles can be handled with such care on a busy street. Rarely does something fall (placing a white towel on the table where you transact is a helpful and frequently used tool). If it does, all trading stops until the gem is found. There is a kind of respect for the value, but also for the owner of the gem, in all this convolution.

    MY TREASURES

    And what did I actually buy? I will start out by saying that I came to Sri Lanka with low expectations. As I have said repeatedly, ground level (by which I mean the mining region) has changed with the advance of technology, but also because of the geographic isolation due to Covid. People need to live, and so they adapt. You will now find many (many many) Sri Lankans, as well as Indians, Thai, Vietnamese etc. directly offering their gems to the general public via Instagram, or by taking their trade directly over to WhatsApp. Fast upload speed of photos and videos, cheaper and wider internet access, as well as the expansion of PayPal and TransferWise have facilitated such direct trading. Correspondingly, when you go to buy direct, local expectations are that you will pay the same retail pricing as an unsuspecting and uninformed online retail buyer. Sales are still considered final, it is still buyer beware, and consumer protection does not exist. I will say it again. Paying too much may be immoral, but it isn’t illegal.

    As a result, prices on ground level have become highly inflated, making it difficult for the more discerning wholesale buyer to find good deals.

    But good things come to those who wait. I am always in the market for interesting, rare goods that do not have a large retail market. For instance, I knew that green zircon comes from Sri Lanka, but I had not seen any on the US market in years. To me, this meant that if it turned up, it would be affordable because it probably had not been sold in a while (green zircon is not that common, not even in Sri Lanka). I turned out to be right.

    Another thing I always keep a lookout for is blue spinel. Now here there are complications. The closer you get to ‘cobalt blue’, the more the prices go up, as everyone has now heard that the cobalt color fetches a pretty penny. But when it comes to other shades of blue, prices are better. I got a very pretty blue pear shape spinel for a good price for instance.

    Lastly – for now – star sapphires had become rather scarce in the US market. And I had heard from Dudley that he had not seen many either. So I was surprised to be offered some really nice specimens on the first day for a good starting price. I didn’t negotiate down that far because I knew US prices were rising, and I know a good price when I see one. No need for me to cheat the seller. I got three pieces. I passed on the blue tones because most of those were still too high priced, and the ones that weren’t tended to be light blue to almost white, but not really white either.

    Regarding things I didn’t buy, there were a few of those also. For example, I had hoped to find some nice chrysoberyl. And I did see quite a bit of it but most of it was brownish, or greenish brownish, and that is not a very popular color. There was some chrysoberyl cat’s eye, perhaps I should have bought some, but I didn’t unfortunately. I just wasn’t sure about it.

    I also saw a rare star spinel with a beautiful star, but unfortunately it’s day color – when you move the strong light that shows the star away and take it outdoors – was muddy looking. With the torch the color was purple, without it a kind of hard to identify brown with a purplish tint. So I passed on that also. It wasn’t cheap either, so that was another reason against it.

    Finally, I did buy some colored sapphire (the blues were all too expensive in my view). They are all at AGL right now to confirm ‘no heat.’ I got a glowy pink oval that was supposedly unheated, a few light apricot colors that won’t pass for pads nowadays because of the color stability test, but will satisfy people seeking something in light peach. And I got some cool and unusual shapes like a pair of hexagons, some more kites and two pairs of fancy or fantasy cuts that we don’t have a name for, but we’ve decided they should be called parallelograms.

    SRI LANKA'S OTHER BEAUTIES

    Lest you think that gemstones are the only thing to see in Sri Lanka, let me end this blog by pointing out a few other noteworthy things.

    My personal favorite experience was meeting baby elephants. I had planned on doing a safari on my 5th day of being in Sri Lanka but I came down with food poisoning. I wasn’t the first – Joerg was out sick two days before me. Nor was I the last, as Jochen got sick the day after me. Our guess was a particular restaurant, and because we had each eaten different things there on different days, we presumed it was the water with which some of the things we ate were cleaned. It’s hard to say though.

    Generally food is safe to eat for a foreigner, though remember your intestines do not know all the local parasites and may wish to fast track or entirely expel a meal in an abundance of caution. I’ve often had tummy problems on location. Most food in Sri Lanka consists of curries: Sri Lankan curries, Indian curries, Thai curries. Because they are spicy and heated, they are fairly safe to eat. The base food in Sri Lanka is rice or Kottu – roti bread cut into thin slices. Kottu is mixed with egg, vegetables, and curry or eaten with grilled meat on top, such as Tandoori chicken. Most menus offer beef, chicken, mutton, fish or vegetarian options. There’s no pork. Cold foods such as salads should be avoided, but fruit is good to eat if peeled. I recommend fresh fruit juices though remember that the fruit might get washed with local water. All drinking water should be bottled. Ice cream – delicious – should be avoided because the cooling chain is not guaranteed in developing nations, but I ate it anyway. I love Kulfi. My personal opinion on the food though is that I wouldn’t travel there for it unless spicy curry is something you want to eat every day. Because no matter how mild you ask the cook to prepare it, most of it is too hot for me to taste the rest of the spices. However, my experience might have been somewhat limited.

    What I do recommend, however, is that you visit a national park. While Sri Lanka does not offer the variety of large animals you can see on Safari in Tanzania, Kenya or Namibia, there’s a lot to see nevertheless (it also costs way less than it does in Africa). In particular, elephants in Sri Lanka are a protected species, and the locals have a great appreciation for them. At dusk, when the elephants come out for feeding and to enjoy bathing, you can see Sri Lankans drive up to the outskirts of the national parks and sit outside, watching the elephant herds eat and play.

    Many national parks also have nearby elephant orphanages, where you can visit during the feedings. The entrance fee goes to helping buy milk for the babies. A baby elephant is fed up to 8 times a day, and orphans might stay at the rescue for several years until they are old enough to seek out their own herd to join. The little ones are adorable to watch, sometimes they fall over their own trunk when they are in a hurry. And they show much affection both to their keepers and to other orphaned elephants. This is definitely a must see!

     

    Feeding Time in the Elephant Orphanage

     

    Sadly, because I was out of commission for two days, I didn’t get to tour more of Sri Lanka. The Kandy region (the central highlands) was strongly recommended to me and that is what I’d like to see the next time I go. And yes, I will definitely go back!

    Continue reading

    From Mining to Markets: Sri Lanka’s Gem Industry

    From Mining to Markets: Sri Lanka’s Gem Industry

    Gem mining has always been a rugged business. It involves hard and uncomfortable physical labor, high risk of injury, and a lot of patience. But it can also pay off. The dream of a big find has been attracting humankind to the trade for centuries. If you are lucky, you may not have to work another day in your life. If, that is.

    THE GEMSTONE MINE

    The trip to Ratnapura offered me the unique opportunity to get a feel for gem mining firsthand.

    While I have been to mines in Tanzania and in Colombia – and even ventured 300 meters into an emerald mining tunnel in Chivor – I had never climbed down into a mine below ground.

    In Sri Lanka, much of the sapphire mining is done at a specific depth where you reach a layer of old river sediment consisting of pebbly rock that is washed (or rinsed, really) in the hopes of finding small pieces of rough in between. In the mine we visited, this layer was found about 15 meters below ground. To get to this level, a vertical shaft is created and secured with thick cross beams, which then leads to another shaft a few feet away. In some parts of the world, i.e., Tanzania, these shafts can go several hundred meters below ground that you climb down through a system of ladders; or, as in this case, you climb down the cross beams, while holding on to a wooden pole that is tied to the beams with a rope. The beams can be far apart, not like a ladder, and they are not always directly underneath one another, so as you go down your foot dangles in the air looking for the next ‘step’. If you have a little bit of climbing experience, you can let yourself ‘hang back’ so you can look underneath the next beam to see where you have to place your foot. Just don’t let go of the pole!

    For an added level of challenge, the beams can be wet from the water seeping through the porous ground and dripping all over the place. This happens especially when mining occurs near rivers and when your level of depth is at ground water and below. I was pretty wet when I arrived at the layer of sand on the bottom. Also, you have to climb bare foot because even a shoe with a tread designed for rock climbing will not properly grip when the surface is wet.  

    At the bottom of the shaft, workers collect the rocks to be washed and gather them into sacks that are transported up on a hook with a rope that winds around a wheel on the surface. This system can also be used to bring down other things – like my cell phone inside a plastic bag so I could take video.

    Air is pumped into a shaft through a long hose that is fueled by a generator, and for communication there is a pipe you can yell into. Once above ground, the sacks are emptied into large sieves (the sacks are white and probably made of nylon, think of the large bags used for rice or beans you might see at a large wholesaler like B.J.s – just to give you a more familiar image). The sieves are made of wicker; they are a good foot or more across and to get rid of the dirt, they are moved around in a circular motion inside a man-made pool filled with muddy water up to your waist.

    Once the rock is washed, the sieve is brought to a dry area and searched through by hand to look for the promising pebbles of treasure. Months can go by without a good find.

    This method of mining has been in place for centuries. These days, larger companies bring in excavators that can till the ground in a matter of weeks – compared to the months, or even years, it takes with the old fashioned method. But excavators are a big expense requiring funds that most locals cannot raise, thus putting the less fortunate parts of the population at a disadvantage; and of course also destroying an ancient trade. Such is a sad aspect of the advance of technology.

    INVESTMENTS AND RETURNS FOR THEM

    While we are on the subject of funding, let me give you some idea of how money is raised and distributed in the industry. The mine we visited had four owners: the owner of the land and three investors, one foreign, two local. They each receive a contractually arranged percentage of the yield. The miners themselves get paid a daily wage (the equivalent of $7 a day in this case), plus lunch, and they will also get a small share of the profits if they find something. Pay for miners varies widely around the world of course. In some countries they get only food and lodging plus a profit share. In other nations, notably more industrialized ones, they do not get a share of the yield but they receive a regular monthly salary.

    Once enough gemstone rough has been found, it is sold at market via a broker (unless of course the mining operation also handles cutting and distribution as is the case with larger mines such as the main Tanzanite mines in Merelani, Tanzania). Or, if cutting options exist in nearby villages, the gem is cut first and then sold.

    In Sri Lanka, the government prohibits the export of all gemstone rough so the gems are cut in the country. This is sometimes done by hand with old equipment where the cutting wheel is turned by rope. And with very sophisticated cutting machines, all the angles are worked out and set by computer.

    THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

    The reason why a government might regulate the trade and prohibit the export of gemstone rough is because much, if not most, of the profit, is generated after cutting. This is when the true value of a gem can be determined. The reason for this is that the yield of a piece, while predictable with some degree of exactness, is not 100% certain until after the gem is actually cut. (I am skipping, for the sake of this discussion, far more sophisticated prediction methods in use in the diamond trade, where a piece of rough can be scanned and analyzed with 3-D software. That is another blog entirely).

    Countries with older mining histories, such as Sri Lanka but also Colombia, prohibit the export of gemstone rough. Countries that have entered the gem industry more recently, such as Madagascar, do not have these regulations - yet. Other countries, like Tanzania, have switched around between different regulations depending on the current government in place. This can wreak havoc - at least in the short term - because gemstone cutting requires years of training and that training has to be provided. Alternatively, cutters must be ‘imported.’ A lot of Sri Lankan cutters are employed in Tanzania for example.

    THE TRADE

    Gem trading in Sri Lanka has a history as long as that of gem mining, and with some modifications, it also operates in the same way it did centuries ago. The main gem trading takes place in Ratnapura, but there is also a market for rough gems in the neighboring village of Nivitigala. My supplier Dudley Blauwet sources his gemstone rough mainly from there.

    Trading mostly takes place in the open air, along the road or in the market square where you can sit at tables and purchase tea or cold drinks. The Ratnapura market square is really a triangle, and it is set up for the express purpose of trading by the town itself. Along the trading street that is widely referred to as ‘Gem Street’ there are also small booths, like open front offices you can rent, where the tenant can keep a safe and you can make purchases away from the public eye.

    Street trading is cash based. Sometimes you can use foreign currency like US Dollars. You can also exchange dollars and Euros for Rupees at a local bank or directly in the street. Credit cards are not a thing but I assume that larger transactions are not all cash but make use of wire transfers and the like.

    The government exacts a tax for all exports which means you do need receipts for your gems when you take them back. And if you are not just a tourist with a small purchase, you have to get your export assessed and evaluated at the mining office in Colombo where you will also pay your taxes. There, you will receive export clearance for customs at the airport. Evaluation at the mining office can take several hours if there are long lines, so it is best to save a half a day for it at the end of your trip. If you are travelling for the trade, it is also advisable to get a business visa instead.

    As I have said before, gem trading is not for the uninitiated! Once you arrive at Gem Street and make your interests known – essentially by loudly saying into the crowd what you are looking for – you will quickly get approached with cut or rough gems in parcel papers. Jochen, my travel partner, looks mostly for terminated crystals that are not for cutting, so once he starts being shown stuff, he yells “crystals only” into the assembling crowd. I took some nice video of how he does it and you can see how quickly it can work when you are buying lots of small items.

    For more valuable items, you can take your trading elsewhere, i.e., you can rent a space from a local shop owner where sellers (a mix of owners and brokers) can approach you one by one. I spoke to one such buyer, strangely also from New Jersey, and he told me this has worked well for him and gives him more private space for purchase and negotiating.

    For my two German buying buddies and myself, our hotel owner Bhanu had arranged things ahead of time. He had built a well-lit, open windowed office right at the roadside next to the hotel entrance. It was quiet and fully air conditioned (thank you Bhanu).

    Every morning, sellers would line up outside the office, enter one by one or in small groups and present their parcel papers. We had brought tweezers and loupes though Bhanu had some as well, and one of our companions, Joerg, had also brought a scope for inspecting sapphires for heat.

    Now while I would hardly say that sellers will outright cheat you, assertions that a gem is unheated need to be taken with a grain of salt. For my part, I verify these claims when I get home by taking the gems to a lab, and I will take only low financial risks when told a sapphire is unheated. When you come as a tourist you are more likely to be told what you want to hear (it’s the best, cleanest, and certainly most valuable gem you have ever seen, and it is totally natural… yada yada). As possibly repeat and larger buyers, we were approached with more caution. All sales are final, so if a trade goes south, you are not likely to come back or deal with the same vendor again. That is not in anyone’s interest.

    And in the next blog, I will tell you how my own buying adventures went. Meanwhile, keep looking out for Etsy listings of my treasures. 

    Continue reading

    Sri Lanka: The Treasure Hunter’s Holy Grail

    Sri Lanka: The Treasure Hunter’s Holy Grail

    For over 2,500 years, Sri Lanka has been known for its wealth of precious gems. In particular, the Ratnapura area is one of the world’s most dense regions of gemstone deposits, and these treasures are mined and cut in much the same way they were thousands of years ago. Some of earth’s most beautiful sapphires are sourced from there. But Ratnapura is not known for its sapphires and rubies alone; it is also among those countries with the world’s greatest variety of gems. The British crown jewels are made with some of the largest red spinels from Sri Lanka. Zircon, alexandrite and chrysoberyl, hessonite and rhodolite garnet, cobalt spinels, topaz, tourmaline and aquamarine are some of the other gems sourced in Ratnapura and its neighboring Nivitigala, where most of my sapphires come from.

    The gem market in Ratnapura is also one of the oldest in the world, and it is said that its gem street (yep, it’s locally just called Gem Street) still moves more cash back and forth – in the actual STREET – than any other gem trading district in the entire world. You can swap and borrow currency right on the pavement, get your gems cut in the old and the new ways at a local booth; you can buy gemstone rough and faceted gems, both locally sourced ones and imported ones, especially sapphires.

    Ratnapura gem hunting is not for the uninitiated, however. You are expected to know gem prices and make distinctions between cuts, color, and clarity on your own. If you want to rely on a ‘trusted source’ to sell you something, this is not the place for you. The novice is easily spotted by how he or she looks at a gemstone, and gem prices will rise accordingly. Most, if not all, brokers and miners in Ratnapura have been part of the gem trade since before they learned how to count – just about. 99% of them are men as women in mining areas are considered bad luck, and they know gems as well as they know people. News about foreigners in the market travels around town at the speed of light, including what you are interested in buying, how well you pay, how much you bargain, etc etc.  

    But I should probably back up and start the story at the beginning:

    Together with 3 buying buddies from Germany (Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Mineralien, my longtime friend and purchaser of rough crystals, Joerg M., a gem dealer, and Michael P., a private collector), we set out for Ratnapura upon our arrival from three different airports in Europe on Monday July 24th. I had gone to Germany first to visit my dad, sister and new niece and met up with Jochen in Amsterdam to join his flight to Dubai, then Colombo. I splurged on a business class ticket because it was going to be an arduous journey: 9 hours to Dubai, a 5 hour layover and then another 4 hour flight to Colombo. I had left Frankfurt on Sunday the 23rd in the late morning, and we arrived Monday morning at 9 a.m. Sri Lanka time (3 ½ hours behind Frankfurt, and 9 ½ hours behind New York). To manage the time change, I felt that I should be as rested as possible, and I did get a good few hours sleep on the second leg – and then a couple more on the ride from Colombo to Ratnapura.

    After dealing with the visa and immigration lines (you need a visa but you can apply online and it is very quick), we met with our driver outside the airport who would take us to the hotel. For about an hour we drove on a small highway, and then we turned into the foothills of Adam’s peak along winding but fully paved roads through a dense yet populated area of rainforest, along streams, palm trees and many roadside stalls offering fruits, vegetables and other necessities. Just like Colombia and the parts of Africa I have been to, life takes place outdoors, mostly along the main roads, the same way it used to be in Europe before the invention of the car changed everything.

    Just like Africa, traffic signs are a rarity, and who goes first is determined mostly by honking. The rest of the swirl of honking cars and Tuk Tuks is regulated by traffic circles that can be found at the center of every town. I would guess that this is an inherited remnant of British colonialism, as is the rule of driving on the left side of the road. Traffic lights are also a rarity – I only saw them in Colombo, the capital, despite the fact that Sri Lanka seems to be well connected in terms of electricity.

    The latter turned out to be quite a welcome change from the other remote places I have been to. The hotel, which I highly recommend, offered both air conditioning, hot water and high-speed internet. The latter came only upon our repeated request, the going speed there is 3G and when too many people are online it slows down to molasses. But it was all available, which is more than I can say for Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar.

    Gem Field Rest, as our hotel was so aptly called, was located across a river just 100 yards from Gem Street, and considerably quieter than the regular hustle and bustle of ‘downtown’ Ratnapura. The three-story building contains only six rooms, each larger than even the most luxurious US hotels I have been in at less than 20% of the price (and I do not mean New York prices, which are twice the national average at least). I would estimate the rooms to be about 500 square feet if not more, with a king and an extra-large twin bed, a seating section with lounge chairs, desk, fridge, a modern shower, windows along two sides, and large glass doors opening on to a luxurious private veranda with more seating options. And last but not least, each room has a bell for room service of breakfast and tea which I ordered at no charge at least 3x a day (excellent tasting Ceylon tea with hot steamed milk).

    Bhanu Samarankaye, the hotel owner and manager, lives on the grounds with his entire family, hotel staff (two I believe), three cats and a resident stray dog – more about her later – and everyone appears to be available 24/7. Bhanu arranged all airport pickups and drop-offs, drivers for trips, Tuk Tuks (wee cars with 3 wheels) for local getting around, as well as gem viewings and the ensuing export. We didn’t have to think of or plan a single thing. Breakfast was served fresh every morning in a newly finished side building:  eggs any style, toast, marmalade and sausages, fresh fruit and fresh fruit juices such as passionfruit and watermelon, or a young coconut with a straw. Or you could eat breakfast local style with roti and daal.

    For dinner, the Tuk Tuk took us downtown to any restaurant of our choosing or by recommendation by the host. For any other problem or inconvenience, we could contact Bhanu by WhatsApp all day, and he would just ‘take care of it.’ In all my life I have never had service of this kind in any hotel I have ever stayed in.  

    We also visited a local sapphire mine run by one of Bhanu’s neighbors (that will be in the next blog), and he organized a private safari for me including a (wonderful) driver named Thushara who for $45 was at my service for over 12 hours, taking me everywhere, arranging every service, any food and who essentially didn’t leave my side (I paid all of his meals, not that that was expected but I was more than happy to). If any of you would like to be connected to either of these 100% trustworthy and lovely people, do not hesitate to ask. I know that feeling safe and being able to get around without issue in a strange country is an absolute necessity. If the hotel appears booked on booking.com, contact Bhanu directly (gemfieldrest70@gmail.com) as he only makes a couple of rooms available through these portals.

    This brings me to another very basic point: Language. While English is not a native language in Sri Lanka, it is spoken among most, and most signs including restaurant menus are in three languages: Sinhala, the majority language, Tamil, the second officially recognized language, and lastly English. It’s rather cute and colorful to see all three scripts on most shop signs, and of course the English is reassuring. So for the most part you can get around without needing a translator. The majority of the population is Buddhist, followed by Hindu and Muslim; and as you will see as I continue my narrative, these have all had a major influence on the ways of life and the gem trade.

    In fact, let me get to what struck me as one of the most important differences that I assume is fueled by these cultures. I suspect what I am about to describe is due to Buddhism, but I’m only writing from the vantage point of direct observation, not informed by a more in-depth sociology: the treatment of animals!

    As we arrived on the hotel property, we were not only greeted by the owners but also received a gentle wag of the tail of the resident dog. “She’s new, isn’t she,” Jochen exclaimed when he saw her – he had already been there twice before. “Yes,” Bhanu said, “she’s a stray, but she moved here about four years ago.” Apparently, one day, she was there, and she just decided to stay. Twice they tried to release her back to nature by arranging to have her transported a few miles outside of town with a Tuk Tuk, and twice she came back within a week. After she came the second time, they let her stay for good.

    Lest you think that this sounds cruel, wait for it: Most dogs in Sri Lanka seem to be strays but they are well fed and most appear to be healthy. Why they are not starving like African dogs and why they are friendly was a mystery easily explained by Thushara. The leftovers from restaurants are fed to all the strays, and private households feed them as well. The dogs move around freely and sleep where they choose as the constant 85-90 degree weather allows. I only saw two dogs on a leash in the week I was there.One was a small dog, some sort of breed that cannot survive or fend for itself without human assistance. The other was a long-haired German shepherd who was probably quite hot (and certainly not the local ‘breed’). All other dogs roam free and go where they like, mostly staying within a territory.

    Just like the dogs, cats, goats, cows, monkeys, and even some elephants, the animals are not restricted in their movements by humans.They provide for themselves using the plentiful fruit from the trees, grass in the fields or by the roadside; or sometimes they are fed by humans. With the exception of cows, they mostly do not have owners. We saw all these animals roaming free, with cars going around them slowly, though the dogs, just like the dogs in Colombia, knew exactly how to cross roads safely and stay out of the way of traffic. I watched a fruit stand owner crush a watermelon on the ground to feed a cow, and I saw other cows wandering down the street without a leash to join some cow friends.

    I did find it odd that none of the animals had names. Even the stray that moved in with Bhanu’s family didn’t. I couldn’t resist giving her a name, so now she’s called “Lina” and even listens to the name when you call her with food (a cheap trick, I know).

    Lina loves cuddles and German liverwurst, she was unfamiliar with salami but liked it in the end, opposed the spicy leftovers of rice and curry but enjoyed crunchy tandoori chicken bones. She even received a visit from the neighboring dog for a romantic interlude, luckily she was fixed due to some volunteer trap-neuter-release programs that bear witness to the fact that the dog population is being observed. I also noted the existence of veterinary hospitals, something that was entirely absent in the three African countries I have been to.

    I will close this blog with a more philosophical observation on the above. If you subtract from our Western history the part where we decided that we (humans) are the pinnacle of creation, made to dominate the rest, then the way Sri Lankans view their animals makes a lot more sense. We name the living to designate not only belonging but also ownership. In the US and in Europe, animal’s being property is even essential because without it you cannot define “theft” or “damages incurred.” But if animal ownership is not a strongly enforced concept, names are not needed. We name only pets, animals we own, we do not name the squirrels or hedgehogs, even if we get to know them individually. (We have a skunk family residing in the nearby neighborhood, much to the amusement of my cat Lucy, but even they do not have names. Lucy, meanwhile, is MY cat, and she belongs to my household, so she has a name.)

    More about my Sri Lankan adventures, and my gem buying in particular, in the next blog!

     

    Continue reading
    • Page 1 of 2