I recently accompanied Reeds Owner Jeff Zimmer on a gemstone buying trip overseas. Here is a little look as to what goes in to these trips to purchase sapphires and rubies for our stores.
Have you ever slept so soundly that you forgot where you were? After over 24 hours of travel, waking up in my Bangkok hotel left me wondering if all I had experienced was just a dream. If you missed the story of how I ended up in Thailand, check it out here. This was my first experience with Jeff in Thailand. We were there to purchase sapphires and rubies for our stores. Jeff travels overseas several times a year but he was kind enough to take me along to show me all that goes in to maintaining the best gemstone selections for our jewelry stores.
My First Day in Thailand
It’s 6 am in Bangkok and I am standing in the shower trying to get my wits about me. Jeff told me the night before to meet him in the hotel lobby at 6:45 am so I’m doing my best to wake up. Adrenaline is helping. I head down the elevator to the huge lobby and was greeted by several employees. Each time, they stop what they are doing to bow respectfully. I quickly learned yesterday to return the gesture to them as a friendly greeting or way to say thank you. One young lady handed me a floral garland that smelled so nice. I slipped it in my backpack where I had my camera, laptop, audio recorder and a few snacks. I honestly didn’t know what to expect today so I grabbed whatever I could. We wouldn’t be back to the hotel until nightfall.
An Early Start
I got into the main lobby 5 minutes before Jeff had asked, but of course he was already there. “If you’re on time you’re late.” he often said. We went to the dining area where there was a huge buffet of fresh fruits, salads, meats and other hot selections waiting for us. After our time in Thailand we were heading to India. Jeff warned that I should not eat fruit or uncooked veggies (or water) while in India as my stomach probably could not handle the water they were grown in.
I wasn’t taking any chances and planned to only eat what Jeff was eating while in Mumbai. So I planned on getting as many vitamins as I could while I was in Thailand. The fruit was so fresh and had more flavor than I was used to. I will never forget how good the mangoes were. We loaded up on a vitamin rich breakfast while Jeff explained what we were doing that day.
Heading out in Downtown Bangkok
After taking the water taxi to the other side of the river we walked about two miles to the gemstone district. Do we have appointments? How do we know where we are going? I had so many questions but I needed to simultaneously anticipate what I would encounter and film the situation for later. Jeff moved fast and the cars and mopeds moved faster. Crossing a street in Bangkok was similar to New York or Chicago with fewer rules in place. Plus the traffic came from the opposite direction, so I needed to keep that in mind. I wanted to film Jeff walking the streets but this was difficult since I didn’t know where we were going. Jeff navigated the streets of Bangkok like it was his own neighborhood.
We did have a few appointments lined up, but Jeff wanted to visit several other companies, so we entered their lobbies and simply asked to be seen. This did not always work out, but we were always greeted kindly and treated well. It was so interesting watching Jeff get to know each person we met with for quite some time before they got down to business. I could tell it was important for him to not only find the best gemstones, but build trust and establish a relationship with each business we visited.
How Do You Select Sapphires?
Our first visit was with an old friend of Jeff’s who he not only bought sapphires from, but partnered with in order to gain access to other businesses and ruby cutters in Thailand. I won’t divulge the company name here, but he was very well connected, and even acted as a translator for us at times. After some time catching up with his friend, the man’s son entered the room carrying several large trays. He set them down, one on top of the other. I noticed the top tray was filled with boxes of sapphires. Each bag was pre-sorted by carat size, cut (shape) and quality. Jeff selected the initial bag he was interested in and poured it carefully out onto a tray in front of him. The tray had white paper on it that he used to take notes on and sort the sapphires out.
A Long Process
Jeff then picked up a stone with tweezers and inspected it with a jewelers loop, one by one. He did not need to look long before placing them into a new pile. After about 20 stones, he placed one into a third pile by itself. He looked through about 80 stones and at the end only 3 were in the small pile. The bag itself had a parcel price on it. That was the price per carat if you purchased the entire bag worth of sapphires. Jeff had only wanted 3. He asked what the price would be for just those stones.
Sellers didn’t seem to like selling only the best stones out of the entire bag, but this is what he was asking for. I thought of it as if I walked into the grocery store and opened a carton of blueberries and took out only the best ones and asked what I would have to pay for them, leaving the small or withered ones for the next customer. They went back and forth on prices and Jeff jotted a few notes down on the paper and circled the 3 stones. He then placed all of the other rejected stones back in the bag. This process repeated, bag after bag after bag, hour by hour he looked at stones. He was like a machine!
I was there to document this process. I wasn’t very comfortable at first breaking out a camera and recording this since I didn’t know my surroundings, but almost everyone was very open and okay with me doing whatever I needed to. After a few hours I had enough sapphire footage to edit a short film. Jeff moved on to round sapphires, pear shapes, 1 carat, 2 carat, bag after bag. He consistently was rejecting 90% or more of the goods. I was looking over his shoulder trying to figure out if I could see what it was that he didn’t like. I didn’t want to ask in front of the owner of the gems so when I finally had an opportunity, I asked him to show me. Jeff told me he was checking for luster.
He started by looking at the sapphire face down and then flipping it over. He showed me a stone that he selected next to one he rejected. You really could see how much vibrant his stone was from the others. All of the stones in the bags have been presorted to be the same size and quality, but some are almost cloudy compared to some that jump right out at you. These are the ones that Jeff wants and why he rejected so many. How exhausting, I thought.
Negotiating the Carat Price
Once Jeff had made his selections, he began to negotiate the prices for the stones he wanted. This was another long process. Jeff knew from past experience what the stones were worth and didn’t want to over pay for them. In some cases he selected 20 sapphires that he wanted to make into a bracelet, but needed to keep the cost down so the final price would be good for the customer. If he was not able to get the price he wanted, he calmly scooped them back up and placed them back in the bag. “Those took you 2 hours to select and you just dumped them back??” I thought to myself. I had never seen anything like it. “If it’s not right for the customer, it’s not right for us,” Jeff stated.
He thanked our partner and bought the stones they had agreed upon with a handshake. “That’s it? We’re leaving?” I thought as we exited the office. All of that time for only a few stones. This was something that I had to get used to, as it would repeat throughout the week.
Buying Rubies in Chanthaburi
The next morning we sat down at breakfast bright and early. We had to hurry. A car was coming to pick us up at 7 am to take us to Chanthaburi, an old ruby mining town near the Cambodian border. Jeff had gone here for years to buy gemstones. The mines were dried up but they still cut many rubies here and one of the best cutters in the world had agreed to let us come to his home to look at his selections.
As we approached his house, a large gate opened to a beautiful stone drive with several cars parked in a port. The home was huge, and was also his cutting factory. It was like something out of a movie. We were quickly greeted and showed around. There were several rooms on the main floor with workers cutting and polishing stones. They were using old wooden tables and doing everything by hand.
A Unique Situation
We then went upstairs to one of the only air conditioned rooms in the massive complex. I was more nervous to film this than I was at any other place we had visited. The owner of the home/factory did not speak English. An old man walked in with several large trays of assorted rubies and Jeff sat down and pulled out his jeweler’s loop. We were offered tea and fruit while we worked.
Our friend who accompanied us was translating for the owner and there seemed to be tension in the room as Jeff attempted to negotiate prices he felt were too high. They went back and forth, tray after tray. After several hours of sorting and conversing, Jeff’s selections were made. We thanked them for their hospitality, recorded a quick video outside by the river, and we were on our way back to Bangkok.
A Long, Successful Day
When we got back from Chanthaburi, we had a quick dinner and headed to bed. It was a long day of travel and gemstone buying, but it was worth it to find those perfectly cut and vibrant rubies.
Watch this video to see my experience buying rubies in Thailand:
Wrapping up our Trip
The next day we headed back out to another appointment and then went to lunch. We would be visiting a jewelry manufacturing facility that afternoon and then off to the airport to spend the next 8 days in India looking for diamonds. After an authentic and spicy lunch we met another friend at the Shangri La lobby and took a drive to his facility. Jeff wanted to see how his manufacturing stacked up to what we did back home. At Reeds, we manufacture most of our jewelry right here in Western New York. It was an interesting tour and we learned some concepts and tricks that we could utilize in our own business.
Once we were done with our tour we headed to the airport. Jeff had priority boarding and separated from me after we got our tickets. I was once again left to find my way through one of the largest airports I had ever seen on my own. Eventually I made it through the lines and met back up with Jeff in the lounge. It was already evening and we wouldn’t arrive in India until around 1 am. I was excited, however. I was about to visit another country for the first time and start the most important leg of our trip. Buying diamonds!
Again, if you are curious on how I ended up in Thailand and the struggles I had getting there, check out that blog here.