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Roughing it: Dos and don’ts of buying abroad

By Lisa Elser

The dos

  • Know how you’re getting your money into the country. If you can wire it to a trusted person, that’s better than carrying large amounts of cash that must be declared.
  • Arrange to have your purchases legally exported and imported. Carrying gems and rough without the right paperwork is smuggling.
  • Bring gem bags, pencils, labels, tweezers, flashlights, batteries, etc. Don’t assume you can buy it locally.
  • Do your research. What gems are typically found in the area you’re visiting? How do you identify them? What do you pay at home for them?
  • Take good notes, both of what you bought and your trip in general.
  • Get your immunizations, and travel with any medications you might need. Immodium, Benadryl, and antacids are must-haves.
  • Bring a camera. You and your customers will love having good photos of your trip.
  • Treat the trip as a working vacation. Build in time to enjoy the country!
  • Learn about the culture. It will help you make friends and avoid misunderstandings or even causing offence.
  • Be careful, but not paranoid.

    The don’ts

  • If you can’t identify it, or don’t know what it should cost, walk away. Unless you’re spending a small amount for a novelty, the odds are you’re overpaying.
  • Don’t walk at night. Have your hotel order you a cab to your restaurant, for example, and the restaurant call for one back.
  • Refrain from dressing like Indiana Jones. You’re just asking to be hounded by souvenir sellers. Wear normal, clean, conservative clothing.
  • Avoid drinking the water. Even in places that are better developed like Sri Lanka, we’re not used to the local bugs.
  • Don’t wear jewellery, expensive watches, or other signs of wealth. Wear only a simple watch and wedding ring if you have to.

Lisa Elser is a professional gem cutter and owner of Custom Cut Gems in Vancouver. She trained in Switzerland after a career in IT consulting to some of the largest banks and insurance companies in the world. Elser and her husband travel the world to buy rough gems, working to ensure the stones purchased are ethically mined and benefit local communities. In 2013, she won an AGTA Spectrum Award for her 14.24-carat Nigerian tourmaline, which is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Elser can be contacted at

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