Tim Roark hadn’t traveled a lot as a child, but he always knew he wanted to. Then came the Vietnam War and Tim, just graduated from Yale University with a degree in history and economics that fed his desire to travel, was off to see the world.
“After I graduated from college, my father advised me to sign up rather than wait to be drafted,” says Tim, owner of Tim Roark Inc., an Atlanta-based, industry-leading wholesaler of fine colored gemstones since 1974. He went to Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in the Navy, spending a year and a half on a tank landing ship out of Little Creek, Va. He then spent a year in Vietnam as a personnel officer for the River Assault Flotilla in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
“It seemed like a safe way to see more of the world - it wasn’t really that safe, but I did get to see more of the world! I had two R&Rs. I went to Australia and also Singapore. I finished that and didn’t know what I would do after I got out of the Navy. I was offered a job with a company that put together girls’ tours of European countries. I realized as much as I like girls, I didn’t like them in groups of 30! So I decided not to do that.”
But the experience did lead the adventurous soul overseas. “I was hitchhiking and was given a lift by a man who was on his way to Geneva for a conference,” Tim recalls. Through his connection, Tim ended up in Zambia, selling financial products for 8½ months. He returned to the United States for his five-year college reunion and later stopped off in Brussels, where he met and fell in love with a woman from Sweden.
“I ended up staying in Belgium another five months before going back to Africa,” Tim says. “I met with clients to be sure they understood what was going on with the company. This was 1969, and there was a recession around the world, and things weren’t going so well, but my clients did OK.”
In Africa, Tim changed gears and worked for an industrial mineral mining and processing cooperative, which in a roundabout way led to his career in gemstones. “It was not a very good job but I enjoyed being in Africa, and I got to travel in other African countries also. Before returning to the States, I met an African who had interesting products and seemed more knowledgeable than most of the people who were selling handmade products and curio items.
“When I was back in Atlanta, I ordered some things from him. I also studied on my own, passed the real estate examination and worked for a realtor. My friend was sending me things from Africa during my first year back, as a sideline to my real estate business. Then I decided to go into this business full time. I started doing shows, and it was successful. I went back to Africa and saw my supplier, got more products and learned more. I made lots of mistakes, but I learned along the way. It grew from that point.
“It seemed like it was a step down from what I’d done previously, to go around door to door selling unusual products and gemstones. But I have grown to love it!”
Along with gemstones, Tim Roark Inc. sells some finished jewelry and carvings. “They all pertain to the jewelry industry in one way or another,” says Tim, who offers his vast inventory of gemstones to manufacturers, designers and retailers, including some top U.S. jewelry companies.
Lifetime of Travel
Tim continues to travel six to nine weeks a year, recently visiting Kenya and Tanzania. “In Kenya, one of my best friends there is the daughter of my supplier from years ago, who’s in his 80s now. He told me that 50 percent of all he’d ever sold, he sold to me. He went through sixth grade, raised eight children. They are lifelong friends.
“I have friends in Zambia, South Africa and Namibia, people I do a little business with also. I do like to travel. I also go to Thailand and Sri Lanka. The factory we use is in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong. I have very good relationships with the people there, who are honest, decent, friendly people. I enjoy stopping for a day or so to visit them and see what’s happening and what products they have that will be good for my business.
“In Thailand and Sri Lanka, they have a large internal cutting industry. People from there go to other places in the world to buy rough stones and bring them back, and they’re processed there. Both of these countries also have materials that are mined in their own countries as well. I have excellent relations with suppliers in Thailand and Sri Lanka.
“Some have in-house cutters, and I have them do various things for my business. All of these people I like and care about, and it seems to be mutual. It’s more than walking into a shop and saying can I buy this or that . . . it’s a lot closer, a nice feeling to have.
“One of my oldest friends lives in Zambia and I enjoy visiting him and his wife. I always look forward to it. His sister lives in Johannesburg, and I have lots of friends I’ve done business with who live in Namibia. So it’s not just business, it’s people I enjoy being around, and I think they enjoy my visits. I had a day and a half off in Sri Lanka the last trip and went to the beach with a friend for a swim in the Indian Ocean.”
Back in Atlanta
Tim, one of the founding members of the American Gem Trade Association, operates out of a 1,000-square-foot space on Peachtree Street in Atlanta’s Midtown. Assisting him is Malinda Daniel, whom he calls his right hand in the business. Malinda has worked with Tim almost 30 years. “Everybody we do business with knows Malinda and she has a lot of respect in the industry.”
The company’s other full-time employee is Jessica Dillard, who aside from filling customers’ orders works in promoting sales, writing and keeping up with the website. Rebecca McCracken works part-time in bookkeeping.
Multiple colors of sapphires - the company’s best selling gemstone - and aquamarine are among Tim’s favorite offerings. “My first product was malachite from the Congo,” he remembers. “I still take a few token pieces along when I go to a show, but we don’t work a lot with malachite these days. From the malachite days, I learned about other cabochons and cutting, then progressed to faceted stones. We have a lot of unusual pieces, including sapphires, emeralds, aquamarine, tourmalines, topaz, opal . . .”
Tim can be found at shows in Atlanta, Tucson and Las Vegas. “Years ago I did as many as 25 to 35 shows a year, but we’ve cut back on the number of shows. We have to be here to answer the phone and keep our customers happy. Business is growing every year.”