Africa, Part 2: Gemstones!
Jan 28, 2013
Africa, Part 2: Gemstones!
Gemstones! After leaving The Sleeping Warrior we made a one night stop in Nairobi and jumped on a bus across the Tanzania border to Arusha. You want to see the ‘real’ Kenya and Tanzania? Take a local bus. Arusha is an interesting town; our hotel was great, though it didn’t have power or phone service when we arrived- totally normal occurrence and it was back up and running that evening. Arusha is geographically located to be a popular launching point for safari and for Kili climbs, so there are people everywhere booking and selling tours and trinkets and souvenirs. Our taxi driver at the bus stop was quick to inform us that he, also, had a Land Cruiser and would be happy to take us on safari! Luckily for my own sanity, I had already booked our safari in advance and we were picked up at our hotel when it was time to go. But I did hear from other travelers that you can get great deals off the street.
Besides getting out on safari for a few days, our other errand in Arusha was stones. We had an appointment set up with rough gemstone dealer that we have dealt with before; in true Tanzania style, there isn’t really anyway to do business with him from outside of his office. You can call him or email him to make contact, but he has no website, no inventory sheet for you to look over before you get there, no published prices; he doesn’t ship the stones out or have them cut. You need an introduction and an appointment to get past the armed guard at the door. Then through two more doors, past two more secretaries checking your identity before you enter his office- behind a vault door. You are locked in with him. There is another vault door inside the office; all the rough is kept behind it.
It was a very fun day! We were on a budget, so we had to be careful, but a whole day of sorting through parcels and picking out stones one at time is a blast. We made lots of little piles of potentials, and then we further reduced them down for one reason or another. Fortunately, our years of cutting taught us what to look for and we ended up walking away with a very select group of gorgeous rough.
We saw some beauties; some of which we got to bring home, some we left behind for various reasons. One of the coolest things we saw and brought home was a pink zoisite crystalline specimen, not for faceting. One of the parcels we left behind was a collection of hot pink spinel; we thought about it long and hard, but the cost-benefit just wasn’t there for the parcel offered.
Throughout our time there that day we were witness to several suppliers coming and going. And by suppliers, I mean natives with a few-or one- pieces of gemstone rough wrapped in tissue paper in their pocket. There were buzzed in, emptied their pockets, and a deal was made or not. It was fascinating, to say the least. These guys collect crystals from those who collected it from the mines; it all spider webs its way closer and closer to the commercial markets and ends up in the offices of just a few dealers. So very often you can get an idea of where the rough came from, but sometimes you can’t. We asked our dealer (that sounds awful, doesn’t it?) how much material he went through in a year. The answer: tons. Literally tons of gemstones, mineral specimens, and rocks being gathered up from the ground and brought into the office in small bundles and then moved on throughout the world.
We ended up with about 30 hand-picked pieces of rough by the end of the day: tanzanites, sapphires, tourmalines, zircons, garnets- Merelani Mints, spessertities, and rhodolites.
We did spend a much shorter day looking through rough in Nairobi where we picked up about 10 more pieces, including some fun things like oligiclase. All in all, a very productive trip.
We decided to send the rough to our lapidary mentor, Sean Sweeny, when we got home. Sean has cut for the Smithsonian, Harvard Museum, has won multiple AGTA Spectrum awards, worked with Tiffany, but he doesn’t work with the public, so we are really excited to be able to offer stones cut by him. We’ve received about 10 pieces back, so far, and we’re anxiously awaiting the rest. Hopefully, the next round will be here in time for the Intergem show in February. The tanzanites exceeded all our expectations- they are phenomenal, displaying all three colors, and even showing distinct color change characteristics. The first Merelani we have received is a fantastic color, although not overly large, it’s a looker. Take a look at some of our rough and some of the finished results in the slideshow below; feel free to leave me a comment if you have any questions about the stones!
All the best,