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Roughing it: Buying at the source: How hard can it be?

Be cautious when buying at mines

Buyer beware—this glass was offered as tourmaline.
Buyer beware—this glass was offered as tourmaline.

How amazing it would be to go to a remote mine, find gems right out of the ground, and buy directly from the miners. Pretty amazing indeed, but it rarely works that way.

Our first visit to Tanzania saw us spending five days at an alluvial mine in the Umba Valley. It was wonderful; we got to work closely with local miners, buy from them and the Maasai tribes people, and even try our own hands at digging.

What we didn’t get was amazing material. The mine owner sold us some excellent goods, but he was only at the mine because we were. Normally, alluvial miners sell their finds as soon as possible, often to the mine owner. Mine owners or brokers take the rough to the city and keep it there.

There’s no better place to buy synthetics than at the mine—the likelihood of finding good gem rough there is extremely remote. Don’t get me wrong. I love going to mines. We’ve been in remote mining regions all over the world, and I never miss a chance to see new mines. I just don’t expect to buy much there.

Build good relationships

Sieving gravel in Tanzania's Umba Valley.
Sieving gravel in Tanzania’s Umba Valley.

When choosing a new country to visit, I have to consider who I know there and how I can work with them.

I was having tea one evening in Tanzania with an acquaintance who asked me why I would work with a broker. It meant I was paying more for the rough gems than I would going to the gem market and buying on my own. For me, it’s an easy answer. By working with one or two brokers and giving them the lion’s share of my business, I not only get to see far better material than I would on my own, but it will only take a week to buy stones, rather than the month it takes my colleagues.

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One year, my primary broker in Tanzania asked if I was interested in a high-end piece of sapphire rough. I was. The owner got on a bus and rode eight hours to bring the goods to me on the strength of my broker’s recommendation. He knew I had the money, and that I appreciated fine rough. I did buy it, and cut it into an amazing 7.87-carat colour-change gem.  

My brokers arrange for rough to be waiting for me, give me a safe, clean, well-lit place to work, let other brokers, miner owners, and dealers know that I’m in town, and handle translation and payment for me. A good broker is the difference between an okay trip and a fantastic one.

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