Cecile Raley Designs

Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

So here we were, the three of us, in the dark in a small foreign town, just following two total strangers into their shop, who are then joined by two additional strangers along the way.  No one spoke English. After we entered, the owners locked up the shop after us.  For a brief moment there, we all had this ominous feeling: did I make the wrong choice?  The locals offered us chairs and we all sat down.  Then they proceeded to show us lots of gemmy crystals in host rock, and the trading began.  Jochen made some slightly higher introductory offers and bought a few pieces.  The situation began to lighten up.  This was just a regular sales meeting after all, despite the slightly mysterious context.  Jochen then told our temporary hosts that he wanted to go to the town of Cosquez but didn’t know where the trading took place.  Our hosts offered to take us.  We agreed. 

We then all had pleasant dinner together at a small local arepas place, and we paid for the food as an opening gesture in return for their hospitality.  They accepted with thanks but offered to pay for breakfast the next day.  They then brought us some local scarves that would identify us as in the industry and as buyers, and requested that we wear those the next day.  Oh, and they drove ahead of us the way back to the hotel up the hill (I wondered at the time if they wanted to verify our whereabouts…).  This turned out to be helpful though, as we might have gotten lost in the dim street lights of Muzo.

Early Morning Departure from Muzo

 

Promptly at 5:30 in the morning, I got my wakeup text from Lucila, the female shop owner. I woke up a very groggy Diana not used to early morning travel, and at 6:00 we were – more or less – ready to roll.  Lucila, and who turned out to be her brother Jose, showed up in their 4 wheel drive together with their two companions (one of whom might have been Lucila’s husband but you know I never did ask…).  Jose joined us in our vehicle so he could chat with us, and together we drove for what I’d say was about 1.5 hours on dirt roads to a very small town (a strip of a few houses really) to have breakfast.  The restaurant, or rather, the tiny kitchen with a few outdoor chairs, was already expecting us, and we were offered sopa with chicken and yukka, maduros, rice and smoked beef (delicious).  The freshly made hot sauce took Diana’s speech away for a few minutes, but generally, on these trips we all thoroughly enjoy a hearty and spicy breakfast, and lots of coffee too.  It was arranged that we’d be back for lunch at the same place at around 2 p.m. on the way home  - to have fish grilled in banana leaves, chicken, and okra cooked in scrambled eggs.

Sopa with Pork for Breakfast

 

It was not far of a drive from the breakfast place until we reached another small gathering of buildings.  “This is it,” we were told - the Cosquez trading post.  There were some covered areas with plastic chairs and tables, a sort of counter with coffee and offerings of some chilled beverages.  This is pretty standard in tropical areas that experience a lot of rain.  Life takes place outdoors, during daylight, with the covered areas protecting you from the elements.  We ordered some café con leche and Coke™ and sat down with our new “family.” The latter had (obviously) called ahead and within minutes, we were surrounded by sellers with "gangas" (minerals in host rock).  There were no gems for me here as cutting takes place in Muzo, Chivor, Bogota or the nearby town.  So I just got to watch and have fun.  

Trading Post Near Muzo

 

Offers were made quickly and under the eyes of a couple of dozen locals.  Jochen rejected some of them, accepted others, made jokes; the local chatter being interrupted by silence as numbers were called out and the seller or Jochen were thinking and calculating.  Nobody wanted to miss a thing!  After about 2 hours the selling started to wind down.  This is typical as by then one has usually seen everything that’s on offer that week, or day, or month depending on what people have saved up at home.  

The Backstreets Between Muzo and Cosquez

 

Many of the local mines are owned by several people or groups, or a group and the town, or an investor and some locals.  Profits are usually shared in various percentages.  "Gangas" are often locally traded as they are not yet processed into gems or won’t ever be because they are too small or included.  But that makes it a heaven for collectors.  If one selects well, one can make good money in the trade.

Naturally, our “family” also collected a brokerage fee for each of the trades that Jochen made.  That was understood although neither side mentioned it – after all their services did not come free. Lucila and Jose were in many ways invaluable as we would never have found this place.  Initially their fee seemed high from what I could tell (about half).  Over time though, and as Jochen’s money dwindled and people still wanted to trade, the fee seemed to be shrinking into the acceptable territory of 20%.  Nonetheless for Lucila, Jose and crew, we were something of a jackpot, as you could almost say we fell out of the sky into their open but helpful arms.  By far most traders that come to Muzo are Colombian.

 

After the trading ended, we headed back for lunch.  During the lunch break there was a short but heavy downpour, and Jose got worried about the road conditions ahead.  He wanted one of his friends to drive instead of Jochen but Jochen is quite experience at this and refused.  Driving was indeed more treacherous as the black shale dirt is very loose and the road takes many turns along the steep mountainside – I had to close my eyes a few times.  Toward the end of the ride, Jose included a few more stops down unknown roads to see “relatives” who had more "gangas".  Each time our engine started, more people came running out of their houses, showing their "gangas" stored in towels, buckets and small pots to see if they’d fetch a few bucks. It was getting quite comical, but also quite late. 

We reached Muzo just before dark, and I was exhausted.  Lucila and Jose wanted to meet us again the next morning but we said “no.”  We really wanted a chance to explore on our own, without the brokerage fee and possibly getting cheaper deals, which meant going to the marketplace alone.  But Jose and Lucila were well aware of that.  We eventually agreed to meet in the afternoon and we spent the morning just sleeping in and working online. As agreed, the afternoon was spent with making more purchases in Jose’s office. Jose is a gem cutter, so I bought a few pieces from his shop, mostly Muzo crystal, which is lighter green emerald. 

The morning after that, we set off to the next leg of our trip, this time much earlier.  Back we went, initially 20 miles of hairpin curves on dirt road, then ascending from 800 to 3000 meters and going back down, across a bit of highway and then over the Bogota plateau to Guateque.  By then it was 4 p.m. and we decided to call it for the day, as the road to Chivor is also a dirt road alongside the mountain and those roads cannot be driven on after dark.  At El Gran Hotel Central in Guateque, we got two miniature style rooms but with a view AND with hot water. 

Diana Looking at Fossilzed Rock

 

We went out for dinner just before the restaurants closed at 5 p.m. - in some towns the restaurants close early to save electricity.  I don’t recall this being as much of an issue in 2019, so I am guessing that due to the lock downs there was a significant downturn in business. 

 

Guateque Boyaca Colombia

 

Diana vs. a Big Tamale

 

People in countries where not everyone can afford electricity spend their working lives between sunrise (6 am ish near the equator) and sundown (6 pm-ish).  Once you get used to it, it’s quite nice, as this is our natural pattern anyway and we produce sleep and wake hormones according to the light.  Workers get up before sunrise, may get to their job before breakfast, and break for a later breakfast and a late lunch, then for dinner it’s just a bit of bread and perhaps some cerveza (beer).  8 p.m. is bedtime. 

I can’t say that we ever really adjusted to this time table but we did our best.  In any case, we were up for a 7:30 breakfast in Guateque, with a view of the mountains to die for.  Huevos rancheros, a large corn tamale stuffed with all kinds of meats and egg, fresh guarana and mango juice (unsweetened), fruta, and fresh baked bread were the morning feast.  Plus hot cocoa and coffee!

Breakfast in Guateque
Tiny Market in Chivor

Right after breakfast, we set out for the 90 minute drive to Chivor.  The road took us along a recently paved road with many tunnels heading southwest, then south across the Chivor dam for which Jochen took the first measurements in the 1970s.  After another (very wet) and unpaved tunnel that opened to an amazing waterfall, we hit dirt road for the last hour or so.  It was a gorgeous drive.

Dam of Chivor
Waterfall Near Chivor

 

Traffic
Hotel El Klein in Chivor (or the Lack Thereof)

We had tried to call ahead for a hotel in Chivor, a small town of perhaps 800 souls.  Although Google maps listed the hotel we used previously, Hotel el Klein, we couldn’t find a phone number for it that worked.  The hotel next to it which I had remembered was Hostal Anni never answered the phone.  Once we pulled into town, we realized why there was no number for El Klein.  It was gone, gone, the whole building razed to the ground.  It was unsurprising, really as it was half fallen in in 2019.

Hostal Anni was still there though, and they also had space for us; and, to our surprise, they had hot water heaters installed in the showers.  We were offered two rooms, one with an inside bathroom and three beds, which we turned into our dorm style bedroom, and an adjacent room which Jochen decided was the office.  That’s where he spread his goods from Muzo and took his measurements, photos, and made the listings in his Shopify when internet was speediest, at 4 a.m., while we slept.

Hostal Anni in Chivor

In Chivor, the experience we had in Muzo somewhat repeated itself.  We walked down the trading street (or just “the street”), and were quickly ushered into someone’s house for gangas and even a few small faceted emeralds.  We bought a few things but then quickly extracted ourselves and sat down in a café.  Soon, a few traders showed up.  Not that many though, not as many as in Muzo.  Over time I was shown some faceted pieces but at higher prices than I expected.  I did buy a small cab and the cutest little briolette from a cutter named Herman. 

We spent next morning having a hearty breakfast and making a few last minute deals.  The 4 ½ hour drive back that turned into 6 with traffic.  On the whole I found the traffic not as bad as in 2019 though, and of course the economic recovery is not like ours.

It did seem that many of the working people in Bogota seem to be immunized, and vaccines readily available at this point.  Mask rules are still strictly enforced, however, even outdoors.  Once, in Muzo, we were politely encouraged to please pull up our masks.  We hadn’t considered that many people there had not yet had the opportunity to be immunized and COVID testing was not as available. 

Back in Bogota we had just a couple of days left to rest up, finalize business.  We even used the hotel spa!  A connection we made in Muzo met us at our hotel in Bogota and I selected some amazing pieces, currently at GIA for batch testing the level of treatment.  We also met up again with Diana in the emerald shop.  This shop specialized in Chivor gems and they had sourced quite a collection of lovelies for me to go through.  My favorite purchase was a large, possibly no oil Chivor baguette that weighs four carats.  This gem is right now getting the full works at GIA.  And I bought another locally certified no oil emerald cut, also in the lab right now, from a vendor who also had some nice pieces in 2019.  It always makes me happy when I can strike up business as a repeat buyer.

And yes, of course. I will go back! 

Sundown in Bogota
Continue reading

Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

TWO years! That’s how long I had to wait to go to Colombia again. But I did it, and with even more emerald success than the previous time.  After my planned trip for April 2020 went poof, like you, I hunkered down with some of those closest to me and watched the world change on TV.  But this summer has marked a new dawn, with fully immunized and less restricted world travel.  So finally, late last month, I set off to Bogota, armed with loupe, tweezers and money (and yes, other stuff).  I took along my friend Diana to help me, she knows my business well and she speaks Spanish.  I have more of a 100 word lexicon from which I can produce words in no particular order as needed.  I do find myself understanding more than I expect because I speak French, sadly however, my active language skill barely rivals that of a 1 year old.

Once we arrived at our Bogota hotel – the Hotel de la Opera in Candelaria, we were warmly welcomed by my long time travel buddy Jochen from Jentsch Mineralien. Jochen hasn’t been able to come to the US since March 2020 and I had only seen him for one precious day in Germany some time in the fall of 2020.

The Hotel de la Opera, a Colonial style building with tranquil inner courtyards and a spa, rooftop dining and bright spacious rooms, is conveniently located in the historic district and just a 7 minute walk to the Casa Esmeralda where much of the trading for emeralds takes place.  On the way, you walk past dozens of small Joyerias where you can buy emerald jewelry and loose gems until you arrive at the plaza where a couple of hundred men show each other parcel papers with gems and negotiate over them.  Turn right and one block up you’ll find the emerald mall, Casa Esmeralda!

We had decided that on our first day, we would slowly peruse the Joyerias and possibly make smaller purchases, as well as look for some of Jochen’s favorites: “gangas,” emerald crystal in host rock. And of course we also went to my favorite ice cream store nearby: Waffles and Crepes

Bogota is very safe to walk around during the day, in the evening you should watch for pickpockets but the touristy areas are well populated. Still we were grateful for the hotel safe where we could store our purchases and passports when not needed.  As a rule, we never leave anything at a hotel in a less familiar country that prevents us from leaving that country, unless there’s a safe. 

On our first afternoon in Bogota, I also had an appointment with a small shop near the gold museum where I had bought some of my best pieces in 2019.  The owner’s assistant, named Diana just like my Diana – is fluent in English, which makes my life a lot easier!  Diana told us that the shop had been closed for over a year due to COVID-19.  During the closure, Diana had gone back to her small family farm where living was cheap, and the owner stayed back in Bogota trying to make ends meet.  Times were very rough, and our arrival was greeted with tears of relief that business would finally pick up. (And we did our very best to meet those hopes.)

(Side note: I did notice that about one third of the souvenir shops near the Gold Museum had closed down since the last time I was there, and on our final day, my Diana and I did our best to spend a few dollars at each and every shop in the little neighborhood so that everyone had a small benefit.  This is something I always do when I am in less wealthy countries, especially when I am the only one shopping.)

But let’s get back to the main thread.  After making more introductory purchases and discussing mining business here and there (such as which regions are currently producing interesting stuff), we headed back for dinner as we had to get ready for an early morning departure to grab our rent-a-car and get going.  Living out of a suitcase isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even I had forgotten how stressful it can be.  But we were focused on travelling and on buying, and we had three stops to make in five days: Muzo, Cosquez and Chivor.

Jochen is an expert at actually using the four wheel drive of a four wheel drive, and that is what’s needed when you cover the last 20 miles of dirt road and hairpin curves down into the valley of the Rio Minero that Muzo is next to.  So we took an early cab to the car rental place at the airport, inspected our Renault Duster for dings (so that we would only get billed for the dings we would add, if necessary), and headed off.  I did most of the city driving as New York and Jersey City are my homes, so that kind of traffic stresses me much less than it does Jochen, who prefers off-road driving with cows and landslides as the main obstacles.

The drive to Muzo is about 5 ½ hours and GPS instructions and estimates are quite reliable.  Nonetheless you have to consider that not all roads in Colombia are highways and you can easily get stuck behind a truck for 10 minutes until you find a way to pass without risking your life. Or, if there’s construction and the crew is on their lunch break, then you may wait at a construction site for up to an hour. Yes, been there, done that! The final bit of the drive involves climbing nearly 6000 feet over a mountaintop; and then descending back down, on small, very partly paved slalom roads.

Because there’s some tectonic plate movement in the region, and because the dirt in the region is full of flaky shale, there are landslides every time it rains, some very large ones and countless very small ones.  And as it rains often in the tropics, there are landslides every day.  The local towns fix their roads constantly because many of them only have one road in and one road out. 

We had left a bit late that morning, the paperwork at the car rental took a long time, by then we all had to use the loo (and to enter the airport you need to go through passport control which is a long line), so we didn’t get really going until 11 a.m. With some traffic and road closures, we finally descended into the town of Muzo by 5:20 pm.  The 6 pm sundown is abrupt so we didn’t have much time to show our faces to signal our arrival. 

After dropping our luggage at Kolina Kampestre, a camping style hotel that only had cold running water but a big pool and a stunning view; we immediately drove down to the center of town and sat down in the square, where you can order basic food and drink.  A few yards over, we saw several men trading emeralds, so Jochen went up to them and said hello.  Someone recognized Jochen from last time, and within a minute or two a few people came up to him.  Jochen bought a couple of pieces of cheap rock, then explained that we’d be back in the morning.  (This type of news then spreads like wildfire and on the next day you can expect sellers to have populated the plaza or café where you said you’d be when you said you’d be there.  Some of these sellers might have travelled part of the night to meet you.)

As we were heading off to find a place to eat, we were stopped by a man and a woman who suggested that we come to their shop to look at stuff.  My friend Diana whispered to me: “really, is this safe?” and I said “sure.”  And it is.  People come to Muzo for one thing and one thing only, and that’s emeralds.  People who live in Muzo do one thing and one thing only and that’s emeralds.  The gem trade is based on trust.  Trust in people.  While it wouldn’t be wise to stray from the main part of town at night with a purse full of cash, if you go with locals in the gem trade, their primary interest is not to rob you but to sell you something (or try to rob you by getting you to overpay, lol).

Was Diana right?  Was I?  Stay tuned…

 

 

Emerald pair purchased in Muzo

 

 

Emerald Cabochon from Chivor

 

 

Emerald Sugarloaf Suite from Chivor

 

Emerald Cut Emerald from Muzo 
 

 

Continue reading

Fifty Shades of Green: Colombian Emerald Origins and Varieties Explained

Fifty Shades of Green: Colombian Emerald Origins and Varieties Explained
This Colombia trip was my first real adventure since COVID hit, but after a few days in Bogota and on dirt roads, visiting Muzo, Chivor and this time also Cosquez, I have returned safe and sound.  

On this trip, I dug a bit deeper into the characteristics of emeralds from these locations and learning how to differentiate them.  You'll find me listing our new acquisitions on Etsy over time, but feel free to inquire directly or check out the videos on our YouTube channel as we are continually posting little teasers like the one below!  

 

 

Some of the new treasures are still awaiting batch testing at GIA for oil content, but we already have available some some trapiche emeralds and emerald cuts from the famous La Pita mine near Muzo: these gems are a rich deep green, they are very clean for emeralds and hence low in oil.  Unlike Chivor material, these gems have a rich velvety almost neon green tone, as you can see in the video below. These gems are for decorative use only and were given to me as a parting gift. They are actual remnant splinters from the cutting factory, but they show off the color beautifully!

 

 

Currently in the lab are also a 1.5 carat piece of rare Euclase, and two large Chivor emeralds awaiting full certification.  Below is a video of a sample piece (this one is sold already).

 

 

I also acquired some lighter colored Muzo pieces (locals call them "emerald crystal" because they might be closer to green beryl than to the traditional emerald colors), and an emerald oval from Cosquez.  Currently the Cosquez mines are producing a lot, but not that much has reached the market, and in the US, Cosquez pieces are actually quite rare. Known for a more yellowish tint, Cosquez gems have a bright open color.  Chivor emeralds, by contrast, are more blue, though also lighter than the La Pita Muzo gems.

 

Not sure you can see the differences in this photo, but the two gems on the left are Cosquez, the center two are La Pita, Muzo, and the two right pieces are Chivor.

 

 

From Chivor, I bought emerald cabochons of various sizes, including this lovely sugarloaf suite cut by Don Julio M. in Bogota: 

 

 

Don Julio owns a small shop in the Casa Esmeralda, and he was very helpful in explaining in more detail the color nuances from the various emerald locales, and he proudly showed us the dabs he uses to hold emeralds as he's cutting them:

 

 

Chivor emeralds gems are often cut into long baguette shapes because the crystal shape is long and thin.  I sourced a a suite of three available for a nice ring or Ava pendant, a small no oil emerald cut, a tiny cabochon and this sweet, little very clean briolette, cut by a fellow named Hermann, whom I sourced the briolette directly from:

 

emerald briolette

 

And here are some of the newest Colombian emeralds, now available in the shop for purchase:

 

 

Stay tuned: In our next blog post, I'll tell you a bit more about the actual trip!
Continue reading