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

Respect the local culture

Buying at the mine in Tanzania.
Buying at the mine in Tanzania.

Of course I respect my brokers—how I conduct myself in the office, and even in the city, reflects on them. My clothing, manners, and trustworthiness all make a difference in how successful a trip is. Respect for the culture is an important part of respecting your local colleagues.

Many of the places I travel are tough for women; dress codes are conservative. For instance, I haven’t shown my knees, shoulders, or arms above T-shirt sleeves in Africa or Asia in a decade. A little respect for local mores goes a long way. Last time I flew home from Arusha, Tanzania, the couple next to me at the check-in counter was wearing short-shorts, beach tops, and flip flops. When they left, I commented to the agent that it made me sad to see Americans dressed so disrespectfully. At the beach, sure, but Arusha is a dressy city. She looked at the man behind her, they spoke in Swahili for a moment, and then she upgraded me for the first leg of my flight.

Although I buy much of my rough from my brokers directly, I always spend a few days seeing other sellers. People wait often for hours to see me. I owe each of them courtesy, no matter what they’ve brought.

When something is vastly overpriced, it helps to say, “I hope you have success with that,” instead of, “Are you nuts?” Assume the seller is acting in ignorance when he presents a synthetic. Never bargain in bad faith. Before making any offer, I test the goods. If I make an offer and it’s accepted, it’s too late to test. I’m expected to pay for it regardless. Everyone who takes the time to see me deserves my respect and courtesy.

Be organized

Sellers lined up waiting to see the author in Ilakaka, Madagascar.
Sellers lined up waiting to see the author in Ilakaka, Madagascar.

It’s always true that only I am responsible for my purchases, but when buying overseas, there are even fewer safeguards than at home and gem lust can be overwhelming.

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I use a spreadsheet to track my purchases and the money I’ve spent, but that wasn’t always the case. Many years ago in Tucson, I negotiated hard for a parcel of excellent rough, only to discover at the end that I’d made a simple arithmetic error and dropped a zero. It wasn’t a $1000 parcel—it was a $10,000 parcel. It was humiliating, to say the least, and I backed out of the deal, apologizing profusely. The seller thought it was hysterically funny and we’ve become good friends.

Had that happened in Tanzania, Madagascar, or most other places I buy, it would have been relationship-ending. It’s easy to forget how wealthy we all are compared to most people in the developing world. My Tucson friend could enjoy my embarrassment and not mind so much the ‘loss’ of $10,000. The person who’s been promised $500 in Madagascar has already told several other people who have an interest in the stones during the course of negotiation, and in a country where the average salary is less than $200 a month, that money is a fortune. Backing out of a deal humiliates the seller and broker, and represents a real hardship for the people involved.

Have your tools, money, baggies, and other important things handy. You may well be working on your feet. Keep excellent notes and record all purchases. Check your money each day to be sure you know what you have available.

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