Ralph takes a chance on Brazil
Welcome to my first ever blog. I’ve been feeling the pull of the 21st Century after long resisting its siren call, but have recently succumbed to the temptation.
Why? I’m passionate, a bit crazy in fact, about my craft, my life as a gemologist, and through the recent plunge into redesigning the Vandenbergs website, I realized I could share my passion in new and significant ways. I could offer advice on how not to get scammed and share powerful stories about how and when gems have been discovered, along with my personal tales of exploring Canadian diamond mines and De Beers’ backrooms.
I’ve always been a storyteller, so I’m thinking this will be fun. But, I’m scratching my head wondering where to start when I have 40 years worth of stories to tell. Since I’m still a bit of a traditionalist at heart, I’m going to take you back to where it all began.
One of the many blessings I’ve had following this passion has been travelling the world looking for gems. In the early years, Brazil was my destination of choice. It was a gem hunter’s paradise in the 80’s and 90’s. Don’t get me wrong, Brazil still has game, but back in the day Brazil was IT. And, it was wild.
So, I found myself in Brazil two or three times a year. I would grow my hair, my beard, and pack my oldest and most worn-out backpack and clothes in the hopes of looking like a poor traveler that had nothing of value on him worth stealing.
I remember on my first trip, I had managed to scrounge together $10,000 USD. It was an unimaginable amount to me at the time – the early 1980’s, the worst recession in Alberta since the war. Times were lean. Yet I was headed to Brazil to try and buy gemstones. People thought I was crazy.
Somewhere deep inside, I knew that the goal to our success at Vandenbergs would be to differentiate ourselves, to offer our clients stunning and unique quality gems, hand selected. I was right. It set us apart then and it still does to this day.
When I arrived in Brazil, I had to exchange my money into Cruzieros. I quickly learned from the locals that there were two ways to start my gem buying journey. I could either go to the national bank, where the exchange rate was set at 1:1, and get 10,000 Cruzieros; or I could go to the money changers at the door to the bank – literally at the door – where they would give me 10:1.
I could walk away with 100,000 Cruzieros! The only hitch? If I changed money at the government rate, I could get an export permit. If I changed it with the money changers, I would have to find ‘alternate’ methods of exporting the stones. Decisions. Decisions.
Well I was much younger and fearless back then. Transaction done, I was ready for my treasure hunt. I bartered for Emeralds as large and as perfect as I’d ever seen; nearly cried when I saw the fabled Imperial Topaz from Ouro Preto; and oh the reds, particularly the fiery reds of the Rubelite Tourmaline.
It was this trip, these stones that ignited a fire and a passion in me that would last for so many years to come.
I found my way back to the Rio airport, broke, exhausted and exhilarated. My heart pounded as I pushed the customs button, red light or green light? To this day, I still wonder what would have happened if I had gotten a red light on that very first trip.
What red light?
Well you may recall the choice I made on arrival? No exit papers. So leaving the country with my newly acquired precious cargo was questionable. Back then there was a pole that had a green light, a red light and one button on it – for arrivals and departures. Everyone coming into and leaving the airport had to push the button. If you got a green light you went through customs with no problem, if you got a red light, you would be searched.
The Brazilian gods must have smiled that day. I made it home with my treasures. Some of my favourite pieces from that very first trip remain in my safe to this day, reminders of my youth, my passion, and my never-ending desire to find the best for our clients.