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The year was 2013. I was driving to work, and just as I turned off the highway, a huge billboard came into view. It read: “Mineral and Fossil show, Secaucus NJ.” Hm, I thought, I should check that out. I went right on opening night. As I strolled through the aisles, my eye fell on a really neat pile of tanzanite slices, and in typical fashion, I started to sort through them, not even looking up at the salesperson behind the table. “Tanzanites,” a voice said, “no treatment, from my last trip to Tanzania.” The accent was clearly German. I looked up and saw a tall bearded guy sitting lazily behind the table. “You’re German?” I asked. We started talking. And talking. And talking. For the whole evening. I came back on the last day of the show and spent the entire afternoon at his booth.
In 2014 Jochen and I met up at the Mineral and Fossil Show, which had relocated to Edison, and we subsequently spent a lot of time together during my first trip to Tucson in 2015.
It was actually Jaimeen Shah of Prima Gems who encouraged me to go to Tucson. “You have to,” he said, and because I was short on funds, he paid for the hotel, trading for some part time work at his booth, although I admit I worked precious little - thank you Jaimeen! Weirdly, it was also in Tucson where I bought my first paraibas, even though the paraiba sellers are actually all located in New York.
It started with a photograph on Facebook of a few gems that I hadn’t even finished
purchasing, and my FB page went nuts with people asking me to get more for them. I had spent my $4500 budget on the first day (typical) and spent the rest of the week buying and selling paraibas, increasing my budget three-fold and spending it again before the show ended. I think I was one of the first people to sell goods in that way - immediately via Facebook and PayPal - while still standing at the seller’s booth. Now everyone seems to be doing that…. I even see people on Instagram now selling goods that they borrowed, telling the seller that they are considering buying them, not negotiating an official memo for resale – yes the industry talks about it and it’s not liked but it happens. Sometimes you see several sellers on eBay advertise with the same photos, or advertise the same gemstone (and not one they necessarily even have available).
Tucson was so successful for me that I immediately booked my trip to Las Vegas as well, doing the same thing. Nowadays we prefer to take pre-orders because the volume has increased since then and we have to pick our battles. But I still love the opportunity to search for rare goods.
Another positive outcome of these trips was my ability to forge connections with international sellers that would contact me with new goods or shipments. Nowadays much of this happens in between the shows. I get texts, emails, or WhatsApp messages when people have new shipments or are planning to visit New York. Making these connections takes sizable initial purchasing of course, and prompt payment. By now many of the vendors know what goods I am looking for and I get pitched when weird stuff shows up, like special spinels, paraibas, hauyne etc. Sometimes it’s hard not to get overwhelmed.
By 2015 Jochen and I had become good friends and we even did a show together in Springfield, Massachusetts. I sold exactly one necklace in 3 days but had a blast – this is also the show where I met Dudley Blauwet, incidentally. Much later, Jochen told me that this short trip was actually a test drive of sorts, because he had considered asking me to come to Africa with him but wanted to make sure that we would travel well together.
Obviously I passed the test! Jochen and I went to Tanzania and Madagascar together in 2016, and then again in 2018. Sourcing there is not an easy thing. In Tanzania you need connections because most of the brokers sell to the larger dealers to uphold continuous and fertile relationships. What they sell on the street is often low value or overpriced. But I made a few connections through Jochen and I also met Jaimeen’s uncle Bimal, who in turn introduced me to a few people. In Madagascar it was easier, but the problem for me is that in those places I often need to buy small lots. Since I prefer to curate special gems, I don’t buy many lots unless they are very small. It then takes me years to sell down those lots, and much of my cash flow is tied up.
Rather than retell the story of these trips here, you can read up on them by following these links.
And what lies ahead for CRD in the future?
Next year, we are planning another trip to Colombia as I am almost out of gems purchased from there. I’m not sure yet about Africa so we will see what finances can permit. I would also love to go to Sri Lanka, so I may do that trip instead, and more than two trips is beyond our size right now.
For our website, we’d like to come up with a better and more interactive catalog system, because most of our sales are driven by the custom pieces we offer, and our current catalog is pretty “meh.”
Sales are going to continue taking place via Etsy for now, but the website will get more organized with photos of past designs and design inspiration, blog sorted by subject and better resources. Suggestions are welcome!
As you’ve noticed I’m sure, I am starting to list more high end goods as well. We were always able to source them but I had not really made any attempts to market that aspect of CRD.
On a more personal note, while my mom is still hanging in, I will keep up regular trips to Germany, perhaps putting Idar Oberstein back on the list to find more hauyne.
And last but not least, we are in the process of adopting another kitty. “Maria” – who will get renamed “Lucy” once we are past the fostering phase, is a 7 year old Tabby who lost her home due to a move. She was an only cat so she’s still getting used to Toby, but the introduction is going well so far! Fingers crossed...
It’s odd to have a celebration that has to be virtual as much as physical because most of our clients are too far away to just “pop” by the New York Diamond District for an evening soirée. But we think we pulled it off, and to the many, many, many of you that I have made virtual friends with over the years: I wish you could have been there!
Instead, I'll try to give you a little taste of the event with some photos and videos. We rented an art-deco themed penthouse lounge for the event, and because the space was so gorgeous, we kept décor to a minimum: Cecile Raley Designs napkins, some balloons and a welcome drink designed for us by Orkan Meral of Pearly Gates bar in Frankfurt, Germany. We had to adjust it somewhat from its original recipe because it called for kiwi juice, which, as it turns out, cannot be purchased anywhere and we didn’t have a full bar set up. We substituted with a mix between pear juice and a mixed green juice from Los Organic, mostly for color. We stayed true to the rest of the ingredients – vodka, Italicus (a bergamot-flavored liqueur,) elderberry syrup, and lemon juice – and got loads of compliments! The music was of course from the 1930s and 40s, at least in part because yours truly grew up on grandpa’s old records of big band sounds. I only realized when I got to the first grade that this wasn’t the kind of stuff any of my peers listened to.
My guest of honor was Jaimeen Shah, owner of Prima Gems and Board Member of the American Gem Trade Association, who, in his welcome speech, reminisced about our beginnings together. Other trade guests included Josh Lents from the Gemological Appraisal Laboratory, Brandy Belenky - our CAD designer, our polishers Claire and Ricardo from Nautilus, Inc, Sergio Baez - President of Taba Casting, and Bhavik Ghandi our diamond supplier and owner of Om Color Diamonds. I introduced them all to you in my little video.
I personally took delight in the fact that my setters Pierre and Ethan got to meet face-to-face for the first time! I caught them on camera in a long discussion (which I would have loved to listen in on.)
I was also pleased that several of my Price Scope clients could make it, among them Sungura & Limosun, who have purchased from me for a long time. Everyone got to take home one of our swag bags filled with goodies like diamond shaped chocolates, a polishing cloth, and our new branded jewelry cleaner that is safe for our gems (the latter of which will be available in our Etsy shop soon!)
It was also fun for me to look back at my own beginnings and the various Etsy shops I have collaborated with over the years, such as Johanna, from Metal Cloth and Wood, who actually did some of my very first beaded designs and helped me learn how to make bezels (which she always did better than I). Joanne, from Silver Sculptor (who is also an excellent photographer and took many of my jewelry shots,) also joined us & brought along with her some delicious cupcakes from Whole Foods. Inken Krause, from Enhoerning Jewelry (elegantly decked out in Cecile Raley Designs for a change!) helped entertain my international guests.
True to CRD being eco-friendly, Debbie and her husband Randy took our extra foods to a homeless shelter in Jersey City. Thank you Debbie!
And while I am on the subject of thank yous, you know how so many award winners are concerned that they may forget to thank someone in their speech? Which is why they write all the names down? Well I didn’t want to give a speech with flash cards, and so in my haste, I forgot someone, too. So we turned the camera back on once I came to my senses, and I got to tell Karen how much I appreciated her being the silent and strong backbone of the event, keeping all of the details on a spreadsheet. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the smoothly functioning and enjoyable evening that it turned out to be!
Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from Pierre, who texted me his thanks the next day, which brought me almost to tears:
“I’m so proud of you and your achievements. I can safely say that some of your success is from the designer inside you, but mostly from your personality and character of being honest, ethical, and a person of integrity…. Although everyone is racing to the same goal, with you, it’s about building on the way to your success and not demolition. My hat off to you.”
So you’ve heard us talk this up for a few weeks now, our ten year anniversary on Etsy, which was actually in August (so we are fashionably late). We’re having our cocktail party bash on the 3rd of October at an art deco themed place in the diamond district, with our staff, former and present, makers, vendors and clients.
But let’s dial it back by, oh, say a decade, and look back at how this all began.
I have to say, myself, that this entire jewelry and gem selling thing was a complete accident!
2007: I took a trip to Montreal and Quebec City with my mom, and that’s where I saw the necklace I wanted to make in a museum store. It was made of cubed glass beads, very colorful. My taste has always been colorful I guess.
After the trip, I told my friend Diana about the necklace. Diana, in turn, took out her bead box and said, “let me show you how you can make that yourself.” Then we went online, found cubed glass beads, and, in my usual overdrive, I made about a dozen necklaces. Diana still does beading for us today, and helps out with odds and ends as her time permits. Many of you have bought her designs.
One of Diana's Beaded Necklaces
After that I went into a beading frenzy and all my colleagues at Felician University had to buy beaded necklaces from me at cost because I had them coming out of my ears. By then I had discovered that in Manhattan you could buy beads made from real gemstones instead of glass and I loved those way more. At the time, you couldn’t get those online, really, so I spent any free afternoon and some weekends on 6th Avenue and 47th Street.
In 2008, I joined the Jersey City Craft Mafia. (Yes, that was the name, and it still exists in a morphed version). For a few years, the Craft Mafia did a lot of craft shows together, and my friendships with Johanna from Metal Cloth and Wood, and Joanne from Silver Sculptor, have lasted ever since. Both of them have in fact worked for me from time to time. Johanna does our social media now, and Joanne did many of the photos as well as my runs in NYC.
Now, one of the requirements of the Craft Mafia was that we all had to have an Etsy store. “What is an Etsy store?,” I asked. Back then, Etsy was a much smaller outfit, and I think not much known outside of New York City.
So in August of 2009, I opened an Etsy store. I made a few listings, and I sold… nothing. Well, I sold one piece between August and December.
Enter Patty, who became a real fan in January of 2010, and had me make at least half a dozen necklaces for her and I felt encouraged. A friend asked me to have a jewelry party at her house, and a local shop asked for my Jersey City Twig line.
Another craft show friend, Annick from Annick Designs, told me that to be successful on Etsy I needed at least 100 listings. A great challenge for someone who knows only two speeds: “overdrive,” and “off.” I created 100 listings in no time.
Of course, to make all those pieces, I needed parts, which are easily bought in, you guessed it: the New York Diamond District.
So, in fall of 2009, I started buying silver, pearls, and beads on 47th Street. I also went to the Whole Bead Show, which is still a great bead resource for New Yorkers. I went to the JA Show at the New York Javitt’s Center, in the fall of 2009, and bought even more beads. And yes, I incurred a bit of a credit card debt. I know you’ve all been there!
The JA show is where, for the first time, I saw vendors with unset gems and started to ask myself how one gets those into jewelry. My curiosity was peaked.
The NY Diamond District
I also made my first notable purchasing mistake, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. I got a ruby strand with gorgeous ruby beads to be used for earrings. After the show, I did some research online and became concerned that they weren’t real. I asked my silver vendor who could help me find out and she pointed to a guy in one of the booths at the 25 West Exchange (which is closed now), and said, that’s “Dino”, he would know.
And I went to Dino, a short, quirky and laid back Indian guy who patiently explained to me that the beads were ruby material but glass filled and what that meant, showing me the indicative bubbles under a microscope. I bought a tiny sapphire to show my appreciation.
Dino, typical pose
The next time I bought silver, I stopped by Dino’s booth. And I did that again and again. And again. I kept looking at all his gorgeous gems I couldn’t stop thinking that I really wanted to use them.
Dino also had a large tray full of very old unsorted emeralds (I imagine about 2000 carats), which, he said, he was too lazy to grade. They were his father’s he said, and bought in the 70s. I asked if I could grade the pile. “That’s a lot of work,” he said. “Ok,” I said. And I brought a tray full of gem jars the following week to get started. And from there on, each Friday afternoon, I brought a tray. I sorted the emeralds, then the aquas, then the rubies, and all the rest, 60 trays all in all, until the entire booth was revamped. I got paid in emeralds.
The entire process lasted about 6 months, and these months were absolutely invaluable to me. As Dino commented on my efforts and observations, I got to listen to dealers and buyers come to his booth, buy and sell wares, haggle, ask advice, or just discuss business. And in the evenings, we went up to Jeffrey’s, a diamond cutter, had beers and watched them repair diamonds.
In that time I also sat with Avo, a setter that Dino recommended, and met Arman, a polisher. Through Arman, I met Vasken, and I sat and observed, and learned basic soldering, not so much to make jewelry (because as it turned out, that was really hard) but because I wanted to understand the process. I made bezels and set cabochons (the latter was not a success). Johanna ended up making the bezels for a while, she was much better than I was. I dabbled in wax, too, and made a series of “melted rings”. They sold pieces at a moderate pace.
Avo, my first setter
Arman, my first polisher, and my friend Cea's Dog Cornuts
But it seemed that what really attracted my clients was the gems, however. In particular, the fact that they were real, and untreated. As Dino explained when we met, there were so many enhancements, and nobody understood them, so people bought pieces at too high a price. I.e. glass filled rubies. And at the time there were no real rules that required disclosure. All that happened just after.
So I was kind of a first. I was on Etsy, I was selling gems, some loose, some set, and sourcing them for clients. I was explaining treatment to clients, location of origin, and value. I learned how to get stuff checked in the lab, with Josh, around 2011. I met more gem dealers and drilled them about treatments, trying to learn more. Most knew their stuff very well but weren’t yet used to those questions. The AGTA started imposing rules a couple years after the Glass Filled ruby scandal with Macys, and since then there’s been considerably more disclosure. What a difference a nice little scandal makes.
2011. Another JA show comes around, and there’s a (very) young Indian guy all the way in the back, a proper looking and polite kid (from my perspective) with a beautiful booth, and beautiful gems. His name? Jaimeen Shah, owner of newly minted Prima Gems. We talked and talked, mostly sharing the same concerns: people didn’t understand, or sufficiently appreciate, untreated gems. It wasn’t their fault either, but simply a lack of public education, and that was our job, not theirs.
Jaimeen also introduced me to several lots of bright pink gems that nobody seemed to know much about. Spinels, he explained, from Mahenge, Tanzania. I bought a few (and then a few more later, and more and more and more over the years…). What started as a gem show friendship led to another but shorter sorting enterprise as I helped Jaimeen prepare for his first Tucson in 2013 at his house in Jersey City, and then to just about weekly visits since he’s opened his office on 48th Street.
Jaimeen Shah in 2015
Early Mahenge spinels
2012. Enter Brandy, another Jersey City local who I was introduced to at our park by the Craft Mafia organizer Luca. Brandy had worked in the diamond district for a high end manufacturer for five years, until the latter relocated and she decided to go on her own with CAD designs. She introduced me to our current polisher, Nautilus, Ethan the setter, and many others.
Brandy also introduced me to CAD, of course, and she’s since designed almost every one of my pieces. Together, we created my line for colored gems, and solved the challenges that came with it: wonky deeper cuts need longer prongs, heavier gems need sturdier designs, and on the other hand, our desire to make things affordable presented the challenge of creating light weight yet wearable pieces that don’t fall apart within a year.
Oh dear, it seems I have run out of space (twice, given the suggested length of a regular blog entry). So let me stop here, and tell the rest next week or the week after, about meeting Debbie and Karen and Jochen, my first Tucson, Las Vegas, my trips to Africa, South America, and then I can also tell the tale of the event!
Toby in 2004 (Mostly, Toby's Ears in 2004). We all have to start somewhere!
In the spirit of this season of giving, we would like to dedicate this blog to our friends in Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya and express our gratitude for the support and hospitality they have offered us. They have opened their doors and their hearts, freely sharing what they have in spite of their less fortunate circumstances. My life has changed forever as a result of meeting them.
Our Family in Madagascar
About 15 years ago, my travel partner Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Minerals decided on the adventure of traveling to Antsirabe, Madagascar in the hope of finding interesting minerals. In the local gem market, he stumbled upon a then just over 20-year-old Ando Antoniania and her little daughter Maria whom she was trying to support by selling gem crystals, cabochons and ornamental rocks. Their friendship flourished over the years, and in 2016 Jochen brought me with him for the first time. Ando now has three children, and Maria has two. They live on a little property made possible by consistent gem trading with Jochen, they now have running water and electricity, and last year, with the help of a small loan from Cecile Raley Designs, Ando was able to buy a cutting wheel and hire some help to mine and cut the calcite on her family's land.
A happy reunion in 2018, a big hug from Ando, and a relaxed smile from Jochen.
Her cousin Gael is our driver, his father owns one of the few cars in the extended family. Gael has a degree in computer science, but unfortunately, there are few to no jobs available in computing, so he's trying to figure out what else he can do.
Gael and Yvonne
When we come to visit, we are always surrounded by the entire family - brothers, sisters and cousins. Someone is by our side to translate, keep track of our purchases, make sure all transactions go smoothly and take us wherever we need to go.
Ando and Maria (right and second right) watching over our transactions in Antsirabe.
Our Family in Tanzania
In Arusha, our thanks go to Wilson Laizer - aka Moustache - and his family. His cousin Benuel is our driver and.00000 the van we use belongs to extended family as well. Moustache has been a broker in Arusha for a couple of decades, but with the new government no longer allowing any export of gemstone rough, they've been experiencing hard times. Despite this, his family invited us to dinner at their house and cooked for us, and Moustache, who belongs to the tribe of the Masai, took us to Masai country for local barbecue. Moustache translates for us into Swahili and the Masai language from morning til night and accompanies us on every trip.
Moustache (far right) and some of his Masai friends taking us out to Goat Barbeque
To show our thanks, Cecile Raley Designs has decided to sponsor the college education of Moustache's 18-year old daughter Brenda, who now studies finance at the University in Dar El Salaam.
My friend Doreen in Kenya
While not directly connected to the gem trade, I sort of 'adopted' Doreen nearly 20 years ago when she was still in high school and trying to figure out how to pay for her education. Her aunt, a Catholic sister that belongs to the Franciscan order, was a student of mine at Felician University, and it is through her that my then department met her family. When I visited Arusha in 2016, I invited Doreen to come and stay with me in the hotel. The bus ride from Nairobi is only about five hours, and this was Doreen's first trip abroad in her life. Doreen and I frequently talk on email or WhatsApp. She is now the sole provider for her son Immanuel, but thanks to her college education she has a job that pays for the basics. Cecile Raley Designs sponsors the nanny that is needed to keep Doreen employed. Thank you, Doreen, for the lovely dinner you prepared for us during our all too brief visit to Nairobi. I will come back as soon as finances allow.
Doreen and Immanuel (left)