It was the year 2000 and I had landed on African soil for the first time. It was the furthest I had traveled from the US while being responsible for a team of ten. I was on a college trip with a handful of students that went with me to help build a storage unit for a local Kenyan farmer concerned he was going to lose his corn and bean crop that year because of a lack of protection from the elements.
"Losing even one small farmer's crop in Kenya can mean the difference between life and death for an entire small village."
It was our objective to build a 10 x 10 storage unit out of Cyprus trees and tin. Typically one wouldn't anticipate a project like that taking a week to build and ten people to accomplish the task, but when supplies and tools are scarce, everything slows down...way down. Have you ever tried cutting Cyprus branches off a tree, using machetes to whittle those branches into makeshift nails, and then attempting to drive them back into the trunk of the tree to secure those logs together? Impossible.
That's how the project started. If it weren't for some German steel nails we were able to procure, and a handful of "modern" tools that an American expat had imported to Kenya to do his own construction work, that's also where the project would have ended. However, with much sweat, a little blood, and a parasite I caught that had me begging for either life or death (it didn't really matter at the time I was so incredibly sick) we managed to complete the project and save the grain!
A few days before the end of our trip, I got to talking to that American late one night about his experience of living and working in Kenya. We talked about everything from Kenyan geography to the personal challenges of working in what often seems like such an antithetical culture. I'm always interested in sitting and talking with people who have at least visited Kenya to see what their experience has been. Most people who have been to Kenya can at least speak to what it's like to chase the cheetahs on the open plains of the Masai Mara, but few can speak to what it's like to be immersed in the culture and all the joys and challenges that brings. This man had experienced it all, and found himself pretty well networked in the community as a result.
Toward the end of the conversation, I asked him if he could recommend any "trinket" I could pick up that was completely authentic to the culture and couldn't be found anywhere else in the world. That's when he asked me if I had ever heard of Tanzanite, and this is how the brief exchange went...
"It's a gemstone."
"What's a gemstone?"
"It's something that is mined out of the ground, cut and polished and put into fine jewelry."
"That sounds cool. Where can I get some? (I asked fully anticipating we'd be visiting the local market the next day.)"
"If you've got an hour tomorrow night, I could introduce you to my dealer at your hotel." "Um...ok. I'm in."
Now, the closest I had ever come to working with any kind of "dealer" at that point in my life was picking up my prescriptions from the local pharmacy. While I wasn't worried about the situation, I was definitely aware that I was about to dip my toe into a body of water I knew nothing about.
The next night came quickly and I was excited to catch a glimpse of these so-called "Tanzanites", that's if I could see anything at all. The night was upon us and the only light to be found were some dimly lit faux garage style lanterns on a few of the pillars of the open-air lobby at the base of the hotel I was staying at. With about $400 in my pocket, I was ready to go. My American acquaintance and I were hanging out on a couple couches waiting for his guy to show up. He looked over his shoulder and spotted a stout and stern Kenyan man approaching us. The Kenyan was about 5"7" in stature and solid build, wearing a jet-black warm-up suit, black sunglasses, and black ball cap. He strolled up and sat down next to this other man I had met just days before. Very few words were exchanged. A head nod or two. A "hey, how are you man?" coming from the Kenyan, followed by a brief pause and then "Where can we go?" My American contact suggested my hotel room and they both stood up. I figured since I was the one buying, I should follow suit. So I stood and led the way up to my hotel room.
Mind you, this Kenyan had no briefcase, no satchel, not even an envelope. He had his hands in his warm-up jacket pockets the whole time. I saw absolutely no sign of this mysterious gemstone called Tanzanite, and now I'm leading these two guys up to my hotel room.
"This started feeling like a drug deal for sure, only this one I didn't get a call from pharmacy ahead of time telling me my prescription was ready for pick up."
One top of it all, these guys are behind me following me up the stairs. The question did briefly cross my mind. "Am I about to trigger an 'American Goes Missing During a Humanitarian Trip To Kenya' headline on the second page of the Grand Rapids Press?" Thankfully, as you can tell, that storyline didn't play itself out as briefly considered that night. What did happen next was...well...absolutely exhilarating.
I unlocked the door to my hotel room, flipped on the light switch (which again created about 1/2 the amount of light as most American hotel rooms). I started heading to the tiny desk that was in my room when the Kenyan said, "How about over here." He stood next to the bed, reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a black velvet sack. Double knotted at the top, about five inches deep and four inches around. He untied the knots at the top, opened the mouth of the sack, and proceeded to pour out maybe 100 beautiful shiny purplish-blue rocks on the bed. I sat down on the bed and quickly ascertained that, while there were a number of smaller pieces, most of these rocks were probably .5 to 1.5 inches in size and in all kinds of different shapes. Rounds, squares with sharp edges, squares with flat edges, rounded squares, tear drops, and diamond shapes.
There they were. "This is Tanzanite." my American associate proclaimed. After running my fingers through this small pile of some of the most amazing rocks I had ever seen, I was in awe and ready to buy! Of course not wanting to give away my novice hand, I played it cool hoping he'd never be able to tell that I didn't have a clue what I was doing in that hotel room that night. "Tell me more about these gems...Where did the come from? What kind of prices are we talking about?" As a now twelve-year veteran jeweler, I now know how quickly it becomes obvious when someone who acts like they know a lot about gems really knows nothing. You can only fake your way through a conversation about a subject you know nothing about for so long.
"I gave myself away when he told me what the per-carat price was, and I asked him what a carat was."
The end. I just laid my 2-7 off-suit poker hand down hard on the bed. That's when I decided to quit trying to pretend that I had anything of that night figured out. I just hoped my $400 would get me a bunch of those beauties to take home. Certainly my well-earned post-college savings of $400 should get me a sizable chunk of that pile, right?
"I've got $400. What can I get for it?" It was in that moment, when I saw the dealer's reaction to what I considered a VERY generous offer, that I realized I came to the queen-sized table ill-prepared; and he came having previously coined the phrase "great expectations." I quickly followed up my question with, "I didn't even know this stuff existed before I got over here, so I didn't come prepared to buy any. But I'm headed back tot he United States, and if I can sell these things and make some money, I'll be back for more." That put him a little more at ease, and that's when he started picking through the pile. He pulled out one...little gem...two...little gems...three, four, five, six. I wish I could say I realized much faster than I did that the small pile he was picking out was for me, but of course I was fixated on what I now have to estimate was easily $100,000 (in 2000) worth of 4+ carat extra fine Tanzanites laying on that bed. He slid my six small gems over to my side of the bed. I proceeded to pick them up and look at them, again as if I knew what I was doing. After briefly inspecting each one, I handed him my $400 and the deal was done. Whew. I walked away from that night with my life and six small low to medium grade Tanzanite gemstones in my hand ranging between .50 carat and 1.25 carat each. Ok, only one bigger than a carat but they were all a sight to behold, and they were mine. The childhood rock-hound in me was pleased with my purchase and ready for what came next with those beauties.
So, "What came next?" you might be asking? Stick around, because soon I'll be talking about the beginning of Baraka Gems, how we got our name, some backroom dealings with precious mineral con-men and the disheartening moment when I thought the business might be done before we even got started.