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On the Meaning of "Family" in the Gem Trade...

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

This is a sort of holiday blog entry because the holidays are when we gather around family to celebrate. It’s a two-edged sword, I know.  You are family in the best of times and in the worst of times, which is why there are just as many lovely happy family holiday movies as there are movies, comedies and tragedies, about family gatherings going awry during the holidays.  

In the gem trade, the word “family” has a very specific meaning, not too dissimilar from what it has for the rest of us, it’s just not a biological one.  I don’t know if you’ve heard it said this way, but I have heard gem dealers say it here and there: “I have a "family" in Sri Lanka, or Madagascar, or Vietnam,” by way of explanation for why they can offer reasonably priced goods for that area.  Or why they specialized in the gems from that region.

So, what does that mean in the trade, to have a "family"?  In one sense, it is quite literal, it means that there is a family, a group of biologically related people, often including distant cousins, that collects goods or brokers deals in the region for you.  Sometimes they collect just for you, and sometimes, they also have a little shop or other clients where they sell things you don’t buy.  But you have first dibs.  Not only that, they will ask their suppliers to show you things, send photos (through WhatsApp mostly these days), and you will send them money to buy the goods for you.  You will then come and pick up the goods when you visit, and during your visit, many other meetings for sales opportunities will be arranged for you.  And you visit a few times a year, maybe three times, maybe six or seven.  (You may also have a preferred broker and you may be friends with the family, but that is not the same as “having a family” because the broker will also work for other people.  Your “family” works primarily for you.)

In short, while you are not their family biologically, they treat you as if you were.  Some gem dealers literally live with their "families" when they visit, others may stay in fancier places, or they may have to because the "family" doesn’t have hot water, or a fridge or stove.  

In return, you treat them as family too.  If a member of your family is in trouble, i.e. needs to go to the hospital but doesn’t have money, you supply it.  Because you may be, by their understanding, infinitely wealthy.  You have food every day, good food, hot water, heat in winter, more clothes than you can wear in a few weeks without washing, you have medical care, you get medication, you have a car, maybe two, your kids get a higher education, and they don’t have to work in the trade if they don’t want to.

Your "family" is not likely to tap you for money all the time.  But you hold this fact in highest regard at all times.  Because if you lived the way they do, you would find it very very difficult not to keep asking for more, and if you lived the way they do, it would cost you a lot of restraint not to spend the money that you are being sent to buy gems for something else.  But your "family" knows that if they tap you too much or too much money disappears, you will too.  And so they accept that you will be richer than them always, but they trust your good will and you don’t abuse their trust.  At times, more money “disappears” than you would like to, there are more family emergencies that seem apparent to you when you arrive, but within reason, you let this matter slide.  You find a way to meet in the middle somewhere, because you get gems and they earn a better living than they would otherwise.  You know that you depend on them too.  You thrive because of them, and you get to travel, work in a trade you love, because they make it possible.

When you visit, you bring things they ask even when it seems silly.  Like white adidas soccer shoes which will look muddy within a day or two.  Or a hair straightening iron (I’ve had to bring one, twice).  And chocolates from Germany when the chocolates from Madagascar taste so much better.  You bring lots of used stuff but maybe also something new -- something fancy, a sort of status symbol for them to show around.  Because they have a "family" in a far away, unimaginably wealthy place, and they are very very proud of that.

If they invite you over to cook for you, you never, ever, turn it town (you eat the spicy food even if it makes you cry), and you accept what hospitality they can offer because they are sharing so much more with you than you are sharing with them, comparatively.

And when you are too old to travel, you find someone who will take over your "family" and treat them as you did.  Because in their case, the entire family may well be involved in supporting your trade overseas, so you owe it to them to find a way for them to continue.

I like buying from people who have a family.  I know that when dealers say they have a "family," they understand what this means.  And when you support them, you support their "family," indirectly, far away.  It’s one of the nicest things about this trade, that you can touch lives that far away.  I have had opportunity to do so directly, because Jochen has shared his "family" with me and I will try to help them when he can no longer travel, or I will help him find someone who can “inherit” them, so to speak.  But I know I can also connect to "families" in many other places of the world, even without travel.  It’s a very cool thing!


Some families are bigger than others 💕


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