The year was 1981. I was 22 years old. It was a hot spring day in Pokhara, Nepal. The sun beat down on the roof of the open-air restaurant as I ate lunch. I noticed a young man and woman who were the only people sitting out in the hot sun. As I was leaving, curiosity got the better of me and I stopped by their table.
Ed and Frederique were an interesting couple. During our conversation, Frederique showed me an exquisite piece of jewellery she bought in Kathmandu. In the centre was a moonstone and the setting had rows of delicate milligrain showering the moonstone in a silvery waterfall. I was intrigued and asked the name of the jeweller. After several delightful hours together, we parted company.
I trekked for two weeks in the Himalaya, then returned to Kathmandu and settled into a small hotel near the main square. The next day, I visited Sadhuram, the jeweller that made Frederique’s pendant. As I sat in his shop and chatted, I watched Sadhuram work on a piece of jewellery using a primitive forge. I was fascinated by the techniques he used to hand-make jewellery. We had tea together and I went about my day.
Early the next morning, I awoke with a start. I had just experienced a vivid dream about a cobra wrapped around an egg, fiercely guarding it. The dream came with a message – make this into a ring. I hustled out to breakfast. Waiting for my food to arrive, I furrowed my brow and drew a detailed drawing of the cobra and egg.
I arrived at Sadhuram’s shop and showed him the drawing. I could see his eyes light up as I told him about the dream. We decided then and there to make the ring. For the next week, I sat in his shop, drinking endless cups of tea as he crafted the unusual design. It was not without drama. The neck of the cobra was delicate and Sadhuram broke the cobra’s head off three times before getting it right. As a final flourish, Sadhuram suggested putting a star sapphire as the egg instead of a moonstone.
The silver ring Sadhuram made by hand
Sitting in Sadhuram’s shop day after day while he crafted my ring gave me the opportunity to look at his gems and ask questions. By the end of the week, I had a basic knowledge of gems and was intrigued by the possibility of becoming a gem dealer. There was only one problem.
I had no money.
In 1981, Nepal was still largely cut off from the world and it was virtually impossible to send money there. ATMs didn’t exist. The only solution I could think of was to fly to India and get a cash advance from my credit card.
So that’s what I did. I remember flying back to Kathmandu with money in my pocket, thinking “Wow, I just flew to another country to get money to buy gems. I’m an international gem dealer!”
I bought several emeralds in Nepal and sold them upon returning to Canada. The stage was set. I had become a gem dealer. My next steps were to educate myself and raise capital.
Stay tuned - next month I will continue the story of my 37-year journey as a gem dealer…
When I become interested in something, the first thing I do is educate myself. With that in mind, I investigated the options and settled on the GIA. I took their Gemstone Identification and Colored Gemstones courses. I have a BSc in chemistry and that was helpful with the inorganic chemistry and crystal habit diagrams that populated the GIA course work. My favourite part was working hands-on with the gems. The chemist in me loved examining and testing them to understand what makes each gemstone unique.
One day while I was studying, a postcard arrived from India. It was from Ed, who astonishingly, had also decided to become a gem dealer. He had purchased gems from a dealer in Jaipur and was travelling back to Holland to sell them.
What an opportunity! I had been studying the theory of gems and Ed had been looking at thousands of gemstones and buying them in a commercial setting. The Lab meets the Marketplace. A perfect fit.
I looked again at the postcard. There was no return address. Not to be daunted, I wrote to a German woman I’d travelled with that had hand-carried Ed’s exposed film cannisters back to Germany and mailed them to Holland. In those days, developing your precious film in India or Nepal invited disaster and there was an active network of people ferrying film back to safer labs.
I didn’t know when I wrote to her, but Jutta was still travelling and it was several months before she was back in Germany and read my letter. She wrote back with Ed’s address and I wrote to Ed. It seems astonishing now that it took almost six months to track Ed down and get in touch with him, yet that is what it took in pre-internet times.
Things happened fast once Ed and I were in touch with each other. I booked airfare to Amsterdam, with onward connection a week later to New Delhi. I gathered together every cent I owned and some money I borrowed for my seed capital. I had $5,000.
When I arrived in Holland, Ed was there to greet me and in no time, we were back at his house looking at gems. I knew immediately we were a great team. We enjoyed each other’s company and we actively helped each other. After a week of testing gems and learning from Ed how to buy them, I boarded a plane to New Delhi.
An odd thing happened when I landed in India. By the age of 22, I had traveled to most countries in South Asia and South-East Asia. It irked me to no end that the only country I didn’t love was India. Bad memories of sickness and endless hordes of clamoring people.
So I said to myself, “Okay, I don’t like India - but I love Nepal. The domestic terminal is right over there. Let’s see if they have any open seats to Kathmandu?" In less than an hour, I was on a plane to Nepal.
Next chapter…I meet an Indian princess and a one-legged German gem dealer who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of gem dealing.
Fleeing to Nepal upon landing in India did not seem like an auspicious beginning to a new career. However, fleeing to Nepal turned out to be an exquisitely good decision.
After several weeks of enjoying exotic Kathmandu, guilt overcame me and I started visiting jewellery shops to get the lay of the land. In one of the shops on New Road, I noticed a one-legged man drinking tea and chatting with the shop owner. The other party in the conversation was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Intrigued, I entered and introduced myself.
New Road, Kathmandu
The man’s name was Heinz and after several cups of tea, he explained that his business was to hang around in jewellery shops, sometimes for months, until someone from lesser-royalty came around to free up some cash by selling some of their jewellery. Heinz was kind of like the godfather of Nepali estate jewellery. When he bought a piece, he would take it back to Germany to sell it.
The woman’s name was Areni and it did not surprise me to learn that she was a princess from Nagaland, a remote area in India’s Northeast. I was as exotic to her as she was to me and we became fast friends.
The jewellery shop owner’s name was Razak, perhaps appropriate, as he was sharp as a razor and had the negotiating skills of an ax. He was also shrewd as a fox.
Areni and I began visiting jewellery shops every day, starting and ending our rounds with cups of tea with Heinz and Razak. Over the next several weeks, we looked at hundreds of pieces of jewellery and thousands of gems. Heinz had a lot of time on his hands and he took me under his wing, helping me to understand the web of family connections that govern the gem trade.
Former Royal Palace, Kathmandu
Heinz and Razak often negotiated for gems in Razak’s shop. I took careful note of prices and negotiating tactics. I learned a lot from them. I especially remember the last lesson they taught me.
When I entered Razak’s shop, Heinz and Razak were engaged in heated negotiation about an aquamarine they had haggled over many times before. Heinz was slapping a thick wad of rupee notes on the display case, demanding that Razak accept his offer. It caught my attention that the prices being discussed were much lower than in previous negotiations.
After the negotiations were unsuccessful, I asked Razak if he would offer me the same prices. I looked at the aquamarine, an emerald and a ruby. Of the three, the ruby had the most intense brilliance and I bought it.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Heinz and Razak had placed a scout to alert them before my arrival at Razak’s shop. They knew exactly when I would arrive. Heinz slapping the wad of rupee notes on the display case was a carefully timed dramatic moment, meant to lure me into buying something from Razak. Heinz and Razak had decided that my education needed paying for and they did that by getting me to overpay for an off-colour ruby.
That ruby is the only gemstone in my career that I have sold at a loss. I lost about $140 on it, which is an extraordinarily inexpensive lesson in the gem trade. It is easy to lose everything you own if you make mistakes buying gems. The other lesson I learned is that dealers who have more knowledge about gems are more successful.
After two months in Kathmandu, my visa was up and I faced the inevitable journey to India. I purchased an emerald-and-diamond encrusted bracelet from Heinz. It was cheap and I bought it to resell, but also to use it for my introduction to the gem dealer in Jaipur that Ed had bought from.
Next chapter – I begin my buying career with a bang and experience an insider’s view into the mysterious gem trade.
I was reluctant to return to the bustle of India, but as I boarded the plane from Kathmandu to New Delhi, I was excited to begin buying gems. After a smoggy bus journey, I found myself in Jaipur, India’s gemstone capital. Ed had bought from a supplier named Inderjeet and I took a taxi to his house. The taxi pulled up to the gate of a walled compound and I rang the bell.
Jaipur - the Pink City
I was greeted warmly and after several cups of tea, Inderjeet asked how he could help. I pulled the emerald-and-diamond encrusted bracelet from my bag and slid it across the table, saying “I usually buy high-end pieces like this, but Ed told me you are a good source for low and mid-range gems. If you give me good prices, I may consider expanding my product range.” After tough negotiations, I paid 40% less than Ed for equivalent goods.
It is worth taking a moment to describe how gem dealing works in India. It was fascinating to watch and occasionally engage in the bargaining process, which took place with the two participants holding hands under a cloth. By pulling specific fingers, asking and offering prices were communicated without anyone else in the room knowing the prices being discussed. Just two guys yelling at each other with their hands vigorously shaking under a handkerchief. This actually became quite amusing as negotiations heated up and broke off, with the two participants sometimes coming back together to renegotiate under the nearest table cloth or even their own shirt to hide the details of their bargaining.
I never mastered the system, so Inderjeet bargained for me, particularly because the key to this system was relying on both parties knowing enough about pricing to know that clasping two fingers meant $20 per carat and not $200 per carat!
Gem suppliers streamed into the locked compound of Inderjeet’s house all day, with hardly a break for meals. At night, the real work began. There were dozens of parcels of gems to select from, some containing hundreds or even thousands of loose gemstones. Selecting gems continued until late at night. The next morning the cycle would begin again.
Jaipur is India’s gem capital and home to the Amber Fort
I stayed in Jaipur for about a week, carefully allocating my meager funds to the gems I felt offered the best value. When I had spent my money, I arranged with Inderjeet to ship the gems to Canada. The customs system in India is a byzantine bureaucracy and Inderjeet assured me he knew how to navigate the system. I confirmed the gems would be insured on their journey and prepared to depart.
Many hours/days later, I arrived back in Holland. I was exhausted by the journey and the week of intense negotiations. I was happy to see Ed and share with him the news that I had lowered our prices with Inderjeet. I spent a week in Holland, re-examining Ed’s gems and celebrating our new careers. Holland was fun, but I had a business to start, so I booked my flight to Canada. Ed and I promised to keep in touch. I boarded my flight and began my journey back home.
Next chapter – Disaster strikes!
Back in Canada, I eagerly awaited my parcel, which was being air-shipped from India. A week went by and I started to become nervous. It wasn’t easy to telephone India forty years ago, but I managed to contact Inderjeet, who assured me the parcel had been shipped. Back then, the internet didn’t exist, so there was no such thing as parcel tracking. I began calling the air freight company and got nothing but a runaround until I learned that my parcel had travelled on Air India from New Delhi to Montreal, where it was transferred to Air Canada.
Ah good, I thought, it will be much easier to deal with a Canadian company. It turned out my faith in Air Canada was misplaced, as no one there could tell me where my parcel was. I finally got through to the head of security who explained that my parcel had been walked out to the plane in Montreal by two security guards and placed in a high-security cargo hold. It was the only parcel in the secure cargo hold. The cargo bay was locked and sealed and the two security guards signed paperwork attesting to this. When the plane arrived in Toronto, two security guards went out to meet the plane, opened the secure cargo hold and it was empty!
When I explained to the head of Air Canada security that this was clearly impossible, he shrugged over the phone, suggested I contact my insurance company and hung up. Wow.
I did some digging and discovered that the Montreal mob had infiltrated the airport. Great, now I have to go to the mafia and ask for my parcel back? I turned my attention towards the east.
Meanwhile, back in Jaipur...
I contacted Inderjeet and asked him to initiate the process with the insurance company. There was a long pause, then Inderjeet said “I’m sorry, the insurance was very expensive, so I only insured the parcel for half the value.” I didn’t want to believe it, but half was better than nothing, so I instructed him to get the money. It never came.
I started phoning Air Canada for answers. It took weeks, but I worked my way up the corporate ladder until I reached a vice president. I told him my story and explained that everything I had was in that parcel.
Thirty minutes later, he called back and said “What do you need?” I said “Return airfare to India and $5,000.” He said his secretary would call me to make the arrangements. I thanked him and hung up. Within a few days I had what I needed and prepared to return to India, to begin my career as a gem dealer – again.
As it turned out, it was better that the parcel was stolen. I hadn’t been sitting on my hands between calls to Air Canada. I had been visiting jewellers, asking them what gems sold well and what else they would like to buy. I learned that the gems I had purchased in India were not what jewellers in Canada were looking for. Having those gems stolen was the best thing that could have happened on my first buying trip. Having a round-trip ticket to India and another $5,000 in my pocket enabled me to return to India and buy gems that were in demand in my market. It was a terrible experience, but also a stroke of good fortune.
Next chapter: Take Two - I return to India and once again begin my career as a gem dealer.
It would be a stretch to describe Inderjeet as an honourable man, but he was sheepish about his mistake and worked very hard to obtain the best prices possible on goods that were in demand in my market. I was patient and bought very carefully.
Modern day intrigue is alive and woven into the fabric of life in Jaipur
One deal in particular remains fresh in my memory. Dealers who came to Inderjeet’s house had a tendency towards one of two approaches. One group showed me their best gems first, hoping to impress me. The other group showed me their worst gems first, hoping I would buy them before having to show their best gems.
One day, a dealer arrived and placed a box of gemstone packets in front of me. I opened the box and selected the first packet. Inside was a completely clean 4.08 carat orange-red emerald cut tourmaline. Ah, I said to myself, this dealer wants to impress me. I looked at the price. It said 101 rupees per carat, about $10/ct.
That was confusing, as I had never seen this unusual colour of tourmaline. I opened the second packet. Inside was an 8.15 carat tourmaline of the same colour. It was eye clean and incredibly beautiful, a saturated flame orange colour, like fire opal, but cleaner. The price was 201 rupees per carat, about $20/ct. I continued opening packets with rising prices and unimpressive quality until I got to the end of the box.
I bought both tourmalines for a very reasonable price. I did further research and discovered this colour is indeed very rare. I found a designer who fell in love with them and created two beautiful pieces. That started my career of finding gems that I fall in love with and finding people who love them too.
On my way back to Canada I stopped in Holland to visit with Ed. His business was going well. I shared my experience of buying the second time in India and he shared his experience with selling to jewellers in Holland. We made a good team.
Next chapter – Hitting the road to sell gems in Canada
This time, my gems arrived from India. I carefully sorted and displayed them in clear boxes. I started visiting jewellers in big cities, whom I found to be very price conscious and wanted long payment terms. I had bought well and sold many gems. I listened to jewellers and made notes on what to buy next. I developed a clientele and my business was a success.
I didn’t much like the hard attitude of big city clients and decided to get in my car and visit small town jewellers. I liked their approach to life much better. The big city gem dealers didn’t come to see them and small town retailers rewarded my visits by making a point of buying when I dropped by. I decided to stop selling in big cities and concentrate on small towns.
Life on the road selling gems
So began my life on the road. Every year, in between 2-3 buying trips to Asia, I drove a 3,000km circuit, nine times per year for ten years (270,000km is three quarters of the way to the moon!) until I had built up a loyal clientele.
In those years, Ed and I went on many buying trips together. It felt like we were brothers. We discovered that buying gems in Thailand was much more civilized than buying in India and we stopped going to India. We visited ruby and sapphire mines and developed connections with the miners. We loved travelling to remote places and finding gems (of many kinds!)
Bangkok – one of the world’s great gem trading centers
After almost 40 years of buying gems, I still ask myself the same two questions every time I consider purchasing a gemstone. The first question is: "Is it beautiful?" If it is not beautiful, I don't buy it.
The second question is: "If I never sell this gem and own it the rest of my life, would I still love it as much as I do now?" I only buy a gemstone if the answer to both questions is "Yes".
I have worked diligently to grow PM Gems, while exploring the world and buying the gems you see on this website. It’s been a good life and I am forever grateful to those who have helped make it happen. I'd love to hear from you about your connection to the colorful world of gemstones.