Portugal/Switzerland: Wanderings 1971 (Continued…)

Switzerland (Continued…)

        We thought this part of our adventure would be a bit easier than our trip to Kenya or the brief stop over in Lisbon, but we were wrong. We had not figured on Schweizerdeutsch!

        Finding the right train became a challenge as we played dazed tourists. We couldn’t figure out what language everyone else was speaking. It sounded like nothing we’d ever heard before. With the help of a hurriedly perused travel book, we learned that Schweizerdeutsch, or Swiss-German, was the dialect of the region.

        That information was not much help when we stopped people and asked for directions to the train. They looked at us like we were creatures from another world. Actually, we were. As time passed, we became more and more frustrated to the point of desperation. Then our angel intervened. He didn’t have wings or a harp. He was nattily dressed, wore a fedora and smoked a pipe. He was sitting nearby reading a newspaper and when he looked up, there we were, two young Americans, with a very old problem.

        Our angel spoke perfect English with a slight accent. He graciously walked us to the correct train platform, tipped his fedora and bade us farewell. We’ll never forget him. Many of us have had similar experiences in which a stranger came to our aid when we needed help. On the other side of the coin, we get the chance to play angel at different times in our lives. All that’s required is being there for someone in distress.

        The ride to Lucerne was a treat. We hadn’t done much traveling by train, but it was to become one of our favorite modes of transportation.
(We didn’t know it then, but the future would hold the ultimate train
adventure on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express.)

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Portugal/Switzerland: Wanderings 1971 (Continued…)

Switzerland

        By the time we reached Switzerland, all vestiges of sadness had been replaced by youthful exuberance and eager anticipation. We couldn’t wait to get to Lucerne, home of renowned gemologist Professor Dr. Edward Gubelin. Dr. Gubelin was, and still is, an icon to gem enthusiasts throughout the world.

        We landed at Zurich Airport and stepped off the plane into temperate spring weather that reminded us of December in California. The busy terminal had an exciting international flavor with crowds of people traveling to and from exotic places. We took a cab to our hotel and found ourselves in the smallest room you can imagine. It was overwhelmed by the twin-sized bed, which had been advertised as queen, and took up most of the floor space. We had to climb over the bed to get to the closet and tiny armoire with space for two hangers and lots of mothballs. It was instant claustrophobia for two taller-than-average people. We had never before felt so confined, but big hotel rooms carried big prices and we were on a fixed budget. The little room without a view would just have to do.

        Our first day in Zurich was spent resting from our travels and preparing for our meeting with one of the most revered men in the gem industry. We got up early the following morning and took a taxi to the train station. The English-speaking hotel staff had given us directions to our next destination, beautiful Lucerne on the banks of Lake Lucerne.

        Capital of Lucerne canton, the city is named for an eighth century Benedictine monastery. The first inhabitants may have been St. Leodegar Monastery serfs who owed their allegiance and their livelihoods to those higher up on the feudal ladder.

        Lucerne is actually two cities separated by the Reuss River. Old town on the east, which is rooted in the 14th century, has narrow alleyways, covered bridges, an ancient town hall, watchtowers and landmark churches,among other historical structures. It is also home to Bertel Thorvaldsen’s world-famous “Lion of Lucerne,” a giant stone memorial to the Swiss Guards who died defending the French royal family at the Tuileries in 1792. New town on the west includes more modern buildings, ranging from the 14th to the 20th century. Lucerne has become one of Switzerland’s main tourist attractions, offering visitors a number of special events including an annual International Festival of Music.

Kenya: How It Began 1977 (Continued…)

September 1978

        We returned to Kenya with one sole purpose this time- to buy tanzanite, which was now among the most sought after gems in the world. (We introduced tanzanite on a mass scale through television in 1993. It had been marketed prior to that, but not many people had heard of the fabulous blue/purple zoisite. As its popularity grew, tanzanite, named after Tanzania where it is mined, became one of America’s most desired gems. It is also one of our personal favorites.)

        Traveling to our destination was almost as tiring this second time around, but far less traumatic. We got into a taxi at Nairobi Airport and told the driver to head for the hotel. It wasn’t long before we both realized we were going the wrong way. We exchanged nervous glances because we knew where the hotel was located. Becoming uneasier by the minute, we told,the driver he was taking the wrong route. He agreed and explained that’he was driving us to the monument memorializing Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the country. Kenyatta had ruled Kenya since 1964, when it became a republic. He died in 1978, the year of our second visit to East Africa, at the age of 85. The cab driver wanted us to see the eternal flame and share his grief at the passing of his great leader. We were touched and honored by his sincerity and our hearts went out to him.

        The driver was not the only one on whom President Kenyatta had made a lasting impression. We met a gem dealer in Kenya who will never forget him. The dealer had found an unusually large piece of tsavorite rough, about the size of a fist, and perhaps the biggest known tsavorite crystal ever. It caused quite a stir in the gem community. He and his tsavorite were invited to an audience with President Kenyatta. The man was very excited as he told us the story. It ended with President Kenyatta insisting that the dealer give him the tsavorite as a gift. After all, it was found in Kenya and should remain there. The dealer handed his tsavorite over quite graciously – and wisely.

        We hold our memories of Kenya very close. There are days when the stories and storytellers float into our collective consciousness bringing smiles to our faces. We treasure the trips, past and future, that have kept and will continue to keep – some of the most loved gemstones in the world coming to America.

Kenya: How It Began 1977 (Continued…)

        Our two weeks in Kenya were coming to an end. The time we spent there was enlightening, educational and successful. We came to love this land of contradictions with its varied landscapes and cultures. The topography ranges from snow capped Mount Kenya to warm sandy beaches, from arid deserts to grassy plains.

        We had purchased rough and cut gems including tanzanite, and the elusive scapolite, in purple and golden colors. Our one big disappointment was that we were returning home without any tsavorite, a truly lovely and rare green garnet, named for Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Nature was not cooperating. Finding tsavorite was one of the main objects of our trip, but there just wasn’t any available. On the day before we left, we received a call from some miners, telling us they had located a tsavorite deposit and that they had a nice amount of rough for us to review. Nature had changed her mind. Our trip to Kenya was now complete. The lot turned out to be “gem my” – a term used by dealers to describe exceptionally fine stones – and sold immediately when we got home.

        “Going through exit customs in Kenya was a strange encounter of a different kind,” John recalled. “The agents were more interested in Laura’s I hot curlers than they were in us. They were curious about the machine, asked lots of questions and wanted to know how it worked. After we explained everything to the best of our knowledge, they let us board the plane.”

        Our mission to acquire East African gemstones had been successful. We were very proud of ourselves. We had ventured into a strange country, interacted with new people and survived a near disaster in the air. In retrospect, we were actually pretty lucky. The heady success of that first trip established a pattern. We couldn’t wait for our next call to adventure.

Kenya: How It Began 1977 (Continued…)

        We were, and still are,proud of the fact that John was one of the first people in the world to facet rough tanzanite.”

        “I was cutting tanzanite as early as 1973, just five years after it was discovered,” John recalled. “My specialty cuts were very popular with our collector clients. Tanzanite was an instant hit in the gem world. Because of its predominantly blue color, it was at first considered a possible substitute for sapphire. But those of us in the industry, who are gem lovers first and businessmen second, immediately saw that tanzanite had a unique beauty all its own.”

        In those days, it was not unusual to buy tanzanite rough in large, several-kilo lots, which are impossible to find today. An occasional stone, finishing up at a huge 6o carats after cutting, might even find its way into a given parcel.

        From Nairobi, which is inland, we traveled along the coast to Mombasa, the country’s most important seaport. The current population is estimated at 1 million. The name is musical, the city itself peaceful and beautiful despite the heat and humidity. We had an exp’}i-lsive view of the Indian Ocean from our quaint hotel room. We’d stand on the balcony just before sundown, listening to the sounds of the ocean and marveling at the beautiful blue-green water, the color of fine tourmaline. A huge shipwrecked freighter, abandoned near the beach, added to the mystique.

        We worked hard during the day, visiting dealers and mine owners. Evenings were spent with newfound friends, many of whom owned mines. We bonded with them quickly through our mutual love of gemstones and we found ourselves fascinated by the stories from the bush that the miners shared with us. We learned that gem mining can exact a cruel price. One of the men spoke sadly of his partner, who was bitten by a dreaded black mamba snake while mining for tsavorite. Alone and unable to reach help fast enough, he died of the powerful, fast-acting poison.

Chapter 1 : Life and Love (Continued…)

John’s Story

My early life was idyllic. I was born in San Diego and spent my childhood there. I remember blissful hours at the beach and of building forts in the beautiful, then developed Del Mar hills. My love of the ocean led me to surfing, a sport I sitll enjoy. I always enjoyed building things and when I grew a litter older, I began to make my own surfboards as a hobby. Some of the friends I made in those days have remained my lifelong buddies. I guess you could say I was a real California guy! Sun,surf and sand. Who could ask for anything more?

        Then at the age of 13, I discovered another passion. My father, Robert, was a mineral collector and through him, I became interested in gem stones. He owned one of the most famous demantoid garnet crystal specimens in the world. He had purchased the gem in the early 1970’s and it was featured in the Italian Dictionary of Minerals. A private collector, who is also a friend, now owns the demantoid crystal.

        My father’s hobby captured the interest of our entire family, which include my mother, Rachel, my brother, Robert Jr., and my sister, Marilyn. I am the youngest of the three children. We traveled around to trade shows together and I learned to love the field of gems. When I was seven years old, the entire family cruised to Europe. It was at that point in my young life that I developed wanderlust, a trait that has remained with me.

        After graduating from San Diego State University, I decided to learn gem cutting. I studied diligently for four years and I was tired of books and theory. I worked part time while attending college and saved up money to buy my dad a faceting mechine, which is used for cutting gems. It turned out that my dad really didn’t enjoy cutting bu I was intrigued. The result of faceting was both visible and tangible. What a change from school! Then, an opportunity came along that set me on the road to my future. Through his involvement with gemstones, my father had met Buzz Gray, one of the foremost gem cutters in the country. Buzz told my dad that the company he worked for needed cutters and encouraged me to apply. He went so far as to put me up at his house for two days while he helped me learn the basics of faceting. I picked up the rest on my own, through trial, error and sixteen-hour days.