Madagascar Gem Shopping (Part III)

Madagascar Gem Shopping (Part III)

On my second day gem shopping in Antsirabe, I bought one piece of purple spinel from Ilakaka, 1.1 cts, and a small parcel of 3mm-ish spinel rounds that will need to be sorted and parceled.  I saw a lot of very dark aquamarine, quite included but super pretty otherwise, not sure what the price should have been but asking prices were high in my view, so I passed on almost all of it.  And I passed on gobs of the lighter aqua because I still have some from last time.  Ditto with all yellow beryl and morganite, as well as white beryl (goshenite).  I also ended up passing on almost all Madagascar demantoid thanks to Dudley Blauwet’s email advice who told me it looks muddy in indoor lighting (tested and confirmed). Demantoid is a hard resell unless it is Russian.  Lastly I acquired a little bit of sphene and a little bit of chrysoberyl, some more spessartite, a little lot of blue apatite, and a couple of lots of color change garnets from Bekily – I saw lots of color change garnet in fact but most of it changed from some sort of brownish to another sort of brownish, so I didn’t see the point of the investment.  I like the blue-purple change and what I got changes well so I was happy.  A warning though, all the nicer stuff was under half a carat.  

You can see a lot of the gems that I bought on my trip on Etsy.

Madagascar Emerald and Pink Tourmaline

My main investment on the Madagascar part of the trip were the sapphires, which must go to the lab to be checked for heat (I also got another pink piece that is probably from Ilakaka and which looked unheated but it’s hard to be sure about that).  The last time I got sapphire in Madagascar none of the material turned out to be heated, which is a good sign. 

Pink Sapphire from Ilakaka

By day three I was over budget, or rather, I spent more than I brought in USD, so I had to negotiate a Western Union transfer from home.  Real credit is hard to get in Madagascar because there’s not money to float anyone. Everyone needs “un avance” or the entire amount paid once the purchase is completed.  And there are no returns, only exchanges if the broker mis-informed you about the item or didn’t know what it was (brokers do not have GIA degrees, and many also lack experience).  For my sapphire trade I was able to negotiate a wire transfer for a later point because Ando has finally managed to get a bank account with the Bank of Africa to grow her trade.  A novelty around here.

Madagascar Aquamarine

Of course I brought as many gifts for my friends as my suitcase as possible, among them 3 clinique gift bags which I get every October and March.  Ando’s cousin Mamavelo was thrilled to receive one, I saw it in her purse all week.  I gave the other two to Ando and Maria.  I gave away two smart phones, even with a cracked screen it was accepted gratefully.  I had a suitcase full of old clothes and I gave them away a little at a time (some had to be saved for Doreen in Kenya – of whom I will tell in a later blog).  Anything and everything was needed and used. Absolutely positively nothing is thrown out.  When we went to restaurants children would wait outside for leftovers and eat them on the spot.  It’s very hard to come to the realization that it is impossible to equalize things.  People are simply at a financial disadvantage and nothing can change that. 

Here’s a little anecdote that helps illustrate. When Gael drove up from Antsirabe to pick us up, he asked Jochen if he could bring his friend up to Nosy Be.  Jochen said sure.  However, the (not understood) implication was that said friend would drive back with us during the two day drive back down, thus taking up space in the back seat where we intended to sleep during the voyage.  Also, said friend was unknown to Jochen and we had a lot of cash with us, so it wasn’t really ok with us to have to have another “guest”.  Gael didn’t exactly ask if he could bring his friend back with him in the car, so the matter had been left unclear until the last moment (well, Gael said he had made it clear, Jochen said he did not, and I wasn’t there to hear the conversation…).  So when the friend got into the vehicle at the Ferry Terminal, Jochen got angry, and the friend ended up staying behind and taking the bus.  This meant that the friend incurred a travel cost of $30 – a lot of money in Madagascar.  This was unintended of course and I have since reimbursed the cost.  Jochen was against this as he didn’t feel Gael was being polite.  My view was that in Europe or in the US this is true, but this is not so in a country in which people have no choice but to rely on one another because there’s no money.  (And the government, regardless of who is in charge, takes in taxes and keeps them pretty much, it is a system of making oneself rich, not a system for the people, despite the appearance of democracy: people who can’t read vote based on photos with numbers provided by their local politicians).


The People

The people here are extraordinarily friendly and helpful.  Both Gael and Ando, the two people I know best, are highly intelligent and curious about the world.  Ando has a memory for numbers that I can only envy, and Gael can fix anything to do with technology (he has a degree in computer science, also a rare thing here).  I get lots of hugs from Ando and her daughter Maria, and Ando’s youngest, Tia, has adopted me and Ton Ton Jochen as their aunt and uncle.  It is the friendly way of accepting their fate that tugs at me.  When we give, it is most welcome, but people ask for things (like a coke or a glass of wine at dinner) with care, and I almost feel that they worry not to anger us to ask too much, yet if they start asking maybe it never ends (Jochen feels that this has already happened in his case, at least on occasion).  Jochen sometimes worries being taken advantage of and I don’t blame him, but it is hard to call it that when such dire need exists, and the need can only be mitigated by us. It is a predicament that cannot be resolved, I feel.

Ando's Daughter Tia


Little Tia Plays with Big Yvonne

Gem Market

On Thursday afternoon, we took a trip via “pousse pousse” (rickshaw) to the two local gem markets. 

Pousse Pousse in Antsirabe

Pousse Pousse, Antisirabe

For Jochen, and now for me, the custom had become the custom to visit every single booth so that nobody would miss out on the chance to make a little money – for not much money is made at the markets here with just an occasional tourist wandering in a few times a day (and there were a couple of dozen shops!).  I had also adopted the custom of letting Ando know which “boite” (box) of the various shops I am interested in, then politely remove myself from earshot so she could negotiate the price and her commission – removing myself is kind of silly because I don’t speak Malgash but it indicates that I am not trying to find out the price directly.  Ando would then take the boxes I like, get the phone number of the owner and the price, and we take them back to the hotel for me to look at and consider more carefully, i.e. loupe and weigh the gems.  

The Gem Market in Antsirabe

Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe

Making money selling gems is very difficult for the locals in Madagascar.  The infrastructure is poor, the internet connections are poor, the banking system is poor.  And there is a constant need to cover other expenses, so that when you try to provide a loan for a business to get started, the money may not end up in the right place.  Case in point: Last summer, Ando asked me for a $2000 loan. Her family owns the land where calcite is mined. Calcite is a blue mineral, not good enough for faceting but good enough for “eggs” and slices and other nicknacks to be sold overseas.  She needed to finance transport with an oxcart as well as a faceting wheel.  The owner of the business interested in transacting with her was not willing to loan her the funds to get started.

So I sent the money to her via Western Union with the agreement that I could trade it for gems so she could make an additional commission.  We agreed.  In November, I let her know which gems interested me and in January Jochen brought me a bunch of stuff when we met up in Tucson.  I picked what interested me, then let her know what I would be returning, only to find out that Ando actually bought all those gems with her first incoming profit when I thought she just memo’d them. Ando then confessed that she didn’t quite have the “street cred” to borrow gems to send overseas.  Or perhaps what was really going on was that people pressured her to pay right away because they all need money, so she took the risk and it backfired.  Her profit was gone and she had made a poor purchase that was hard to turn back into money.  Stories like that are typical I’m afraid.

Well, you probably want to know what happened next.  First, I decided was to ask my friend Dudley Blauwet from Dudley Blauwet gems if he wanted what I didn’t need at my cost at a trade for his merchandise at his wholesale price.  I figured he might have other clients than I do and that way I could turn the merchandise into other merchandise with a higher chance of selling it.  Dudley agreed to the trade, and I threw in some phenakite I had laying around to sweeten the deal. 

But I had another bad surprise waiting for me.  Dudley did RI texts on the grandidierite and some of the chrysoberyl, neither of which I had looked very carefully.  The grandidierite turned out to be mixed together with aqua, two chrysoberyl turned out to be sphene and another was a weird color zircon. So Dudley returned the goods but I was stuck with the trade ($1600) – or rather, after that I didn’t dare to ask for that trade back and send him a check instead!  I told Ando what happened and she was mortified.  At this point, we had already planned for my summer visit so she asked me to bring the materials back and we would sort it out during my stay.

Fast forward to my day at the gem market.  Ando and I had taken the goods that I brought back into her possession with the plan to show the original sellers and facilitate if not a return, then at least a trade.  I also enlisted Jochen for a “good cop bad cop” game.  When we got to the booth of the sellers, I showed them the little bags onto which Dudley had written what the gems actually were.  Jochen did his job acting “tres facher” (angry) because my reputation in America was now (supposedly) tainted, and I was conciliatory, saying I was sure it was a mixup (and these mixups DO happen because many of these brokers don’t have much gem expertise).  A trade was facilitated.  I now own a shitload of rhodolite garnet but at least it is that: garnet.  And some real aqua.  Now that I am back here, I have to try sell all that.  But ok.  Hopefully nobody in Madagascar got too hurt.  Because the thing is that every party has to make a little bit of money and I feel responsible for producing the lion’s share of cash because I am the connection to the “big” money in the United States.  Sidenote: my reputation really isn’t tainted but that was only because I didn’t try to sell the stuff on Etsy.  So there really was that risk.

Garnet from Madagascar

Lunchtime at the Nearby Market

Market in Antisirabe Market in Antisirabe Market in Antisirabe 

And Where are the Rich People? Behind These Gates

Here's a little Video of the Local Market in Antsirabe - Where you buy just about anything because stores are not very common around here