The Story of Cecile Raley Designs: Tucson, Africa and Colombia

The Story of Cecile Raley Designs: Tucson, Africa and Colombia

Tanzanite RingThe 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. 


This engaging encounter turned into another life changing experience.  The tall bearded guy was Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Minerals, who had started traveling around Africa when he was 14, back in the early 1960s. He crossed the Sahara three times, and has, in the past 60 years, visited over 90% of the African continent.  He once worked in the mines in Mali, trekked across central Africa with a broken engine to find a replacement (and trekked back to fix his vehicle).  He once had a breakdown in the Sahara and had to wait three weeks for another car to come by to give him a ride.  Jochen has been digging for minerals and purchasing rough nearly everywhere, including all of Europe up to Norway; Turkey and parts of the Middle East; South and North America, and has recently added Sri Lanka to his list.

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.

TucsonIt 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 paraibas
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.

Tanzania and Madagascar 2016

Tanzania and Madagascar 2018

And of course: Colombia 2019

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.

Lucy the CatAnd 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...