Cecile Raley Designs

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 
 

 

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How We Source Stuff: Hunting for Gemstone Treasures

How We Source Stuff: Hunting for Gemstone Treasures

Since Cecile Raley Designs started selling gems on Etsy, the number of shops offering cut stones online has pretty much exploded.  In addition, international gem cutting centers like Jaipur, India can now sell gemstones directly to you without a “middle-man” or “retail shop.” 

Because I was always more fascinated with unusual and rare gemstones, I found myself gradually moving more in the direction of “curating” - buying and showing only special and selected gems, rather than buying and selling large mixed quality parcels.  I also never wanted to sell gems like citrine or amethyst or blue topaz because they are too ubiquitous.  If you are a treasure hunter, then ubiquitous is a bad word.  And I think of myself as a treasure hunter.

So what are the considerations for a treasure hunter?  What counts as a true gemstone treasure?

 

 

Gemstone treasures have to attract the eye.  It is a basic rule.  If you don’t like the way it looks, don’t buy it.  (Why would you buy an ugly dress?).  Certain kinds of brown dravite tourmaline are fairly rare, but it’s not a color that many people enjoy, and so it has never interested many buyers.  But both the "Jedi" red and "cobalt" blue spinel as well as the bright turquoise of Paraiba tourmaline just forces the eye to look. Alternatively, compare Namibian and Russian demantoid.  Both are rare, but Russian demantoid is significantly more eye catching because it’s not brownish or olive green.  (Sidenote: The rarest of all Russian demantoids is actually the yellowish brownish andradite garnet, and it is, nevertheless, the least expensive).

 

 

Gemstone treasures have to be rare.  Both citrine and amethyst are pretty, and some amethyst can be downright gorgeous.  But unless you consider rare origins, there’s a lot of gorgeous amethyst out there.  So even though amethyst from Russia or Morocco are now rare, they do not fetch a high market price.  Alternatively, Tanzanite is fairly available on the market despite the fact that it has only one origin.  This means that even in large sizes, Tanzanite is not as expensive as unheated sapphire in the same color.  However, single origin can make something very rare if it is not found in sufficient quantities or supplies have run out.  Such is the case with Benitoite.  Benitoite is a lovely blue similar to sapphire but it’s not neon and eye catching like hauyne or even top-quality sapphire; its value is in its rare single origin.

 

 

Gemstone treasures should not be enhanced.  Let’s face it, most of us are attracted to the pure and unadulterated.  And perhaps rightfully so.  Gemstone enhancement, i.e., heating, irradiating, oiling, are “beautification devices” that make a gem seem better than it is or to appear to be something it is not. But it also moves a stone in the rare category into something less rare, as it is a way to enable a more readily available gemstone to rival the beauty of the one that is natural.  Emerald is routinely oiled on a sliding scale, and the more oil used, the lower the price.  One reason why Afghani and Russian emeralds are so sought after is because, in addition to the rare origin, they are so clean that they need little to no oiling (even if one did oil them, very little would be absorbed by the gems because they do not have enough fissures).  On average, Colombian emeralds are not as clean and require more oiling, but the extraordinarily clean Colombian gems, which also have a neon like color, will fetch a price equal to Russian emeralds, if not higher.

Gemstone treasures have rare qualities. There are many ways to think about rare qualities of gems.  Color change is one of them and is probably the main reason why alexandrite is still valued so highly, despite its mostly “muddy” daylight appearance.  (Sidenote: we can easily source alexandrite but we prefer to market the actually rarer blue garnet which also has a much better color change and clarity).  Another rare quality of a gem is dichroism or trichroism, which makes a gem appear different colors from different angles.  Unheated tanzanite has trichroism, iolite is dichroic but unfortunately it’s secondary color is brown.  Kornerupine is trichchroic showing green, blue and lavender. 

 

14K Rose Gold Ring with Lavender Spinels

 

Do gemstone treasures have to have a good cut?  Generally, cut matters – a lot – because a good cut tends to increase how much we are attracted to a gem.  But there are two caveats to that.  One is that if the material is so rare that any bit of “weight loss” in cutting matters for value and price, it is best avoided, i.e. recutting a cushion Vietnamese spinel into a round (the gemstone rough lends itself to a cushion or long pear cut).  Rare gems do get recut, but usually the seller will increase the price accordingly so that the buyer pays the same even though the gem is now smaller.  The second caveat is that in some naturally darker or more included gems, such as Burma ruby or Colombian emerald, it’s not always necessary to cut the gem down to eliminate window or remove inclusions as the inclusions will obscure both anyway.  Finally, rare gems are almost never cut into very unusual cuts, like a kite or trapezoid or tapered baguette.  For shapes that don’t respect the crystal of the gemstone rough, it’s best to use inexpensive material.  So yes, cutting matters a lot, but to a degree only: it matters insofar as it enhances the gem, not insofar as it entices the buyer to purchase an unusual cut. 

So what are our favorites at Cecile Raley Designs?  The answer to that is probably not hard to discern given our listings.  While we try to offer a broad array of gems for design purposes, the gems closest to our heart are only a small number.  Here they are -- can you guess which of the criteria above fits these gems?  All of them fit more than one.

    1. Jedi Red and Pink Spinel
    2. Purple Unheated Sapphire
    3. Vietnamese Lavender and Lilac Spinel
    4. Bright Royal Blue Sapphire (unheated preferred but heated ok)
    5. Hauyne
    6. Cobalt Spinel
    7. Kornerupine
    8. Paraiba Tourmaline
    9. Russian & Colombian Emeralds
    10. Russian Demantoid
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The Show Must Go On: Vegas in New Jersey

The Show Must Go On: Vegas in New Jersey

As advertised in our previous newsletter, we have decided that even though the Las Vegas show is cancelled, we will source some fun new product for you and have our annual Vegas sale anyway!  To be honest, we are all starting to get antsy here in the epicenter.  New York vendors are slowly going back to their offices a couple of days a week, though they do not take personal appointments.  Many of the buildings are open so that those who have rented space to operate small workshops can go in, access their safes, their machinery, and to receive/make shipments.  They have to make rent, if nothing else!  And while I very much miss physical gem shopping, I confess I am seriously “over” Vegas.  Gambling is boring to me, the food is overpriced, and its waaaay too hot! 

So, instead of Vegas shopping, I am doing it virtually, like most of you.  Overseas packages are trickling in, and my vendors are sending me emails, texts, or WhatsApp video for me to peruse.  They all know my taste, and I know their product, so I’ve arranged with a handful of them to get some brand sparkling new inventory!  Some of it will be on short term memo, some long term memo, and some of it I will purchase outright. 

As you read this blog, I have a favor to ask: if there’s anything you would like to see, tell me asap, as some of these packages are coming to me in the next few days.  As I am getting shipments for “selection” (meaning not yet memo and I pick what I want to buy), I can show you items without you needing to commit right away!  But please act fast.  Additionally, if you are getting private photos from me of gems that may get returned to the vendor, I ask for your discretion in sharing them so that if the material goes to another seller at a later point, that person does not feel undercut.  Because yes, rare goods don’t necessarily get pitched by one person so all of us sellers have to be respectful of that.  Whatever is on my website, on the other hand, is exclusive to our shop and public.

And what, you may ask, am I getting?...  Here’s an overview for you:

Paraibas: despite previous indications to the contrary, a small parcel made it from Hong Kong to NY and a subset of that parcel is arriving here shortly.  I get to make a very quick pick and then I have to turn around the parcel and ship it back so others can pick as well.  I’m getting faceted gems only as the cabochons don’t seem to be moving in my shop.  And Brazilian only, none of that overpriced Mozambique material...

Custom Ring Featuring Paraiba and Sapphires
Green and Blue Paraiba Pendant

Ceylon Sapphire: I hit a home run a few of weeks go with three nice bright blue rounds flying out of the shop at record speed!  So I’m getting a few more, as well as some matched pairs.  I’m keeping sizes a bit smaller so that these don’t become big ticket items for you in this ever-changing world.  I’ve asked for purples and lavenders as well, but there aren’t pairs coming, just single slightly larger gems. 

Pink Sapphire and Silver Spinel Ring
Ceylon Sapphire

Other sapphire: I’ve asked for some Montanas and some smaller Madagascan 4x3 pear shapes.  I will see what turns up, as that package is being prepared for me now.

Tanzanite: one of my vendors has old stock of unheated material as well as some nicer rich colored blues, I’m getting a little of that and I am getting more purple garnet.

Spinel: As always, this category has to be broken up into locations, as each is unique.

  • Mahenge: I’ve asked for some but I do not know what’s coming. It will be a surprise to you and me both.
  • Mozambique: that’s the silky looking pink stuff, there will be some singles available.
  • Burmese: there’s some melee coming my way, and I have asked for one or two bigger stones but that is still being negotiated.  I will have a few red round pairs available in the 3.5-4mm range, and some more singles in 2-3mm.
  • Vietnamese, my new favorite: yes coming, possibly more single pieces.  Lilacs, lavenders, and I think down the line (later in June) a little surprise in a reasonable price category.  (Nope, I’m not giving it away!)
  • Cobalt: possibly, there’s some material being recut and I am waiting to hear if and how it will make its way to the US from Bangkok (it’s in with a larger parcel of color change garnet I had bought in Madagascar that needed recutting).  Same on hauyne (the other cobalt spinel, lol).  I get approached about that stuff through various channels, so if someone has it I usually find out.  But that too is a “still in the works” thing and may not happen right now.
Hauyne Custom Ring with Paraiba
Hauyne and Pink Sapphire Layout

Emerald: my New York connection for Colombian material just sent me photos of some nice matched pairs, and a single round is waiting to be listed.  Since I can’t go to Colombia right now and probably won’t until next spring, I will stick with my previous source.  He’s always had excellent material and prices anyway.  Some Russian material is making it to me as well.  

Custom Ring with Russian and Afghani Emeralds

In further news, I am still hoarding some Tucson gems that you may see online or you can request private photos: there’s a little bit of Benitoite and some more Demantoid Garnet.  I have not listed either because I will not get more until next year, most likely. 

Ok that’s all for now, folks.  To be continued!  Stay well, stay safe.

 

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Tucson Gem Haul: Find Out What's Coming to the Shop, Before it Gets There!

Tucson Gem Haul: Find Out What's Coming to the Shop, Before it Gets There!

My panshir emerald melee is now sorted (see below,) I'll be offering sizes from 1mm-2mm in small batches.  Some small Russian emeralds are coming up.

Panshir Emerald Melee
Panshir Emerald Melee

I also secured more beautiful boulder and black opal from Australia.  More sizes and colors of sapphire and ruby melee being listed as we speak, as well as more Vietnamese spinel including some collectors sizes that I'm super happy with.  The lavenders and lilac colors are very hard to get, and to me, very unusual because they have almost no notes of secondary gray. 

Vietnamese Lavender Spinel
Vietnamese Lavender Spinel

What I didn't buy much of was tourmaline - prices seemed very high at the moment.  I did buy paraiba melee of course but prices on those have gone up as well.  I was surprised that there still were any.  A couple more larger paraibas will be listed in upcoming weeks.

Burmese Red Spinel
Burmese Red Spinel

For more new gems, be sure to follow us on Youtube!  Here are a few of the latest videos, showcasing our brand new gems, straight from Tucson: 

 

 

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Greetings from Chilly Tucson!

Greetings from Chilly Tucson!
Updates on Yvonne's gem buying trip to the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show!  Find out what she's finding as soon as she gets it -- and there's still time to let her know what she can purchase just for you! Continue reading