Ian Brown knows the jewelry industry. He’s grown up working behind the counter, discussing the details over dinner and spending countless holidays helping customers choose just the right gift. But when he and his wife, Catherine, decided to leave the well-established, family-owned business they’d been a part of for decades, Ian couldn’t imagine the adventure that was just around the corner. His decision to take the ‘road less traveled’ left him in shock, in the jungle without phone, computer or a flight out.
Sometimes, taking the road less traveled leaves you wondering if it really was the right path. That’s exactly where Ian found himself in June during a buying trip to Sri Lanka. He’d agreed to make the trip on behalf of a friend who needed him to investigate a gem source there. Given Ian’s 15 plus years of international buying experience, his friend knew he could handle the trip.
It wasn’t long before Ian realized the source wasn’t ethical. Although he was at a great disadvantage not speaking the language, Ian caught the guide adding an additional 30% to the cost to line his own pockets. He needed a new game plan.
“I decided the only way to source gems the right way was to head straight to the source,” recalls Ian. “I needed to go into the mine territory to develop my own contacts.”
Ditching his personal cell phone in order to “lose” the unethical guide, Ian spent an entire day traveling deep into the mining territory. At 9pm at night he stumbled onto a hostel run by an older man named Ratna in the city of Rathnapura.
“When I showed up at 9pm at his ‘inn,’ I was stressed and didn’t know what my next move would be. I’d chosen this place because it had the word ‘gem’ in the name. This man opened the door and had no shirt on, 2 inches of hair growing out of his ears and was bald. But he had kind eyes. I explained what I was trying to do and he understood my basic message because I used gem terms he knew.”
Exhausted, Ian made his way to his 12x12 room, complete with mosquito netting and lizards. This would be home for the next three weeks. The inn had no Internet service and very sketchy cell phone coverage. Ian had little communication with the world outside, not to mention with his family.
Over the next few days, Ratna and Ian developed a friendship based on their mutual love of gemstones. Although his English was poor and the translations weren’t all that accurate, Ian started to understand that Ratna got his start in the mines at a very early age and had become a chief in this small town. Miners and brokers came to him daily to visit his 8x6 office made of cement. High humidity and foreign cultural standards dictated Ratna walking around shirtless. Ian, after several days, decided to do the same.
“We would sit there four or five hours selecting gemstones until we couldn’t do it anymore,” said Ian. “Then at night they would lock down the entire compound so you couldn’t leave. Trying to communicate back to the US was impossible.”
Ian worked all day at the mines and then, starting at 10pm (9am Eastern Time), he’d plug his computer into the only Internet in the compound – one that ran up the side of a mountain and in the window of his room. He’d work another 4-5 hours trying to communicate with his buyers back in the states and his family. He worked feverishly every day, squeezing everything he could out of every moment. Time was precious. Each additional day behind schedule meant another week not getting home. Flights only left for the US every two weeks, and the trip to the airport took an entire day.
Every day brought new information, new methods and procedures for mining, heating and cutting gems. His 15+ years of international buying experience couldn’t touch the amount of information and education he was getting in Sri Lanka.
Ian puts it this way: “I went over as an infant and left as a toddler. I learned the traditional method of heating stones with coconut shells, lye and hot coals. I learned how careful they are to mine in an eco-friendly way, ensuring the land and its surrounding environment are not stripped of the natural resources to the point where it can’t regenerate. I learned how proud the Sin Halese were of their gemstones. They had such a great deal of respect for their resources. They appreciate the rarity and beauty of them and get excited when someone else appreciates them too.”
What Ian found was a much deeper appreciation of the hard work, effort and multicultural hands that contribute to the finished product of fine jewelry. Knowing the individuals who helped extract the stones from the earth makes him look at the finished pieces in his case differently.
“Starting my boutique retail store in Woodstock, GA (I & C Jewelers) was a leap of faith for Catherine and me, but we knew we wanted more one-on-one time with customers. After this buying trip we decided to start a wholesale company as well called Elemental Gem, and it has been a tremendous success. My trip to Rathnapura compelled me to venture into the wholesale side of the business, not simply to further my own financial interests, but because I fell in love with the raw stones over there. I know each stone I brought back and I remember the first time I saw each one. They are beautiful and unique and I want to share them with the industry.”
Check out Ian’s wholesale website at www.elementalgem.com or give him a call at 770-235-5437.
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