Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Gemstone buying trip to India

My mates thinks I’m brave and my parents think I’m crazy, but India is where I’m heading and it’s definitely where it’s at. Gemstone buying that is, in search of the next big thing for next season’s jewellery collection.

As a designer/maker with my own label, I travel each year to far and distant destinations, all by my lonesome, in search of interesting materials to use in my designs, like shells & Corals from Hawaii, Turquoise from Arizona, Pearls from China, and Murano Glass from Venice. This time, my customers have requested I jot down an insider’s guide to gemstone buying in India, the coloured gemstone capital of the world....
Stepping from the comfort of the hygienic, air conditioned aeroplane and onto the steamy tarmac runway laden with cabin baggage and coat tied around waste, I’m instantly smacked with the heat, humidity and smell that is India.

The road traffic in India is like a D Grade symphony using their car horns as instruments! But if you can ignore the total disregard for rules, it’s quite mesmerick to watch how travellers duck and dive and wonder why the government ever bothered painting dotted lines for lane control. It takes your breath away watching whole families balancing on a single motor bike as they weave through chaotic traffic conditions. A child just old enough to stand is at the helm holding onto the handle bars whilst the father, seated and driving, wears the only legally required helmet (for safety of course) and the mother sits side-saddle at the rear clutching her baby precariously dangling under one arm, whilst the other arm is rapped around the husband’s skinny waist! It really is as crazy as it sounds, and is something I never get used to seeing, as I hope to god I don’t came across any human, or for that matter cow road kill during the journey.
Pictured left: Emerald & Ruby Graduated Rhondell beads.
Yet, if you can ignore the constant mess, litter, dust and wondering cows, you can stumble across the most amazing jewels of architecture and indeed workmanship in all aspects of industries, which rivals some of the best artisans in history. Perhaps this is the reason India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and not just because of cost effective labour alone? They don’t copy like the Chinese are known to do, rather, they have their own identity, albeit a little fussy for my liking, particularly in jewellery, it’s ultra intricate and well, show-stopping. For instance, in my opinion India gave us the true meaning of chandelier earrings, and my goodness they are amazing. If you like a bunch of very posh grapes draping from your lobes, you won’t go further than 20 G’s of tiny faceted pink sapphire teardrops (briolettes) crafted with superfine gold wire to provide perfect movement and sparkle in 3D form like a Christmas tree, and oh yes, you will sparkle. Always in vogue on the red carpet, with thanks to Boucheron, but probably a third of the price!

India is renowned as the Gem capital of the world for good reason, they simply love colour and lots of it in their jewellery designs. Wherever you visit in the country, you will see some of the most exquisite jewellery in an astounding variety of colours. Their high streets have been graced with some of the world’s most famous jewellery designers, like Pippa Small, which is hard to believe when you see the way in which they do business, cross-legged on the floor! The main streets are peppered with jewellery and gem shops, but if you can brave the back streets, check out the shoebox sized shops where you will see colourful gems scattered all over their well-scratched glass counter tops, selling, sorting, and of course, crafting. Brokers bustle from shop to shop carrying large quantities of precious gems in old canvas bags, which in most countries would require an armoured security van and major CCTV coverage.
Picture:back streets where shops are located, and cattle rome!
But trade shopping in India is not for the faint-hearted especially if you don’t like overwhelming smells, lackadaisical hygiene standards and rodents! Whilst Indian’s are often tarnished with being untrustworthy, it’s surprising to find they are often genuinely good, honourable people, like my supplier Daya (pictured). However, whilst they do take pride in their work, they unfortunately also have a relaxed work ethic that “near enough is good enough” so it’s difficult to get exactly what you want, and is often where mistakes occur. If, however, you return for more business the next year, you will certainly earn their respect as a genuine buyer, when you can be a little more demanding and they will be more eager to please.

The first time a met my supplier, he diligently organised my accommodation, picked me up at the airport and everyday collected me from the hotel to take me into his shop, which was very reliable indeed. Whether big or small in business, Indian traders appreciate all business and there is no snobbery which is astonishing given the nature of the industry. I know my supplier also supplies well known design houses like Bulgari so I can get my hands on anything from rough cut diamonds to 10 carat Marquises cuts and of course in any quality to suit any budget. This time I managed to invest in some cherry sized coloured gems for some of my private customers, like the 22 carat Oval AAA Grade Orange Citine which throws red flecks set in a pendant designed to float on fine gold chain.
Pictured: One of my reliable gemstone suppliers, Daya.
As for the gems, which is ultimately what I’m there for, it’s like going into a sweetie shop brimming with a multitude of choice, but without the calories. The variety is so enticing, it really is so easy to get carried away, but it’s important to keep track and stick to a budget, although I always tend to break them as I usually see a “must have” string of London Blue Topaz at the last minute. Usually colour is my first approach, followed by cut and clarity. Of course, my style of jewellery doesn’t require triple A grade gems, but I always look for the best I can get with my budget.

Like all designers, I keep my ear to the ground for new cuts, like last year for instance saw the introduction of B Grade diamonds cut into tiny beads. Whilst this trend has yet to really take off in Britain, I bought a selection of colours not yet seen in trade and had them exclusively cut into cubes for that delicate twinkle that only a diamond can give. I handwire them on a 0.3mm wire and mix them up with either chain or pearls. The current trend also favours huge and very colourful gemstones, which are obviously much cheaper than the traditional white diamond, and in my opinion are far more exciting to flash about, like my own recent purchase of a 20.5 Carat Brazilian Blue Amethyst, a deep purple colour that throws flecks of hot pink, cut into a Triangular shape - Divine!
Pictured: AAA Grade Aquamarines in various colours.
When you buy jewellery with gem beads, these are often lower grades to those found in settings and are therefore less expensive. But don’t let this put you off, as they are still extremely sort after and the price reflects this. It’s also important to remember that all gems are precious, as they are a limited commodity, so whilst you may not be able to afford a gem the size of the Star of Africa, always look for colour, cut, clarity, origin and availability before determining the size (carat weight) so you get the most for your money.

What also amazes me, is the different gemstones and cuts that greet the market every year and it's such a delight to get my hands on the new and unusual. Whilst the hardness of a gemstone reflects the price, so too does rarity. A clear example is Turquoise from the Arizona mines like Kinman and Sleeping Beauty are fast drying up and so the stone is now far more expensive and sort after. Also origin plays a part as turquoise from China is less sort after due to it's availability, often deep marbling and different colour. It goes without saying, when a natural commodity becomes extinct, it also becomes more sort after, more expensive, and is therefore a future investment.
Pictured: The hotel I stay in was once a palace
What strikes me most is how happy Indian people are, even living in what I would term as poor conditions. A large proportion of the population are Hindu and they don’t believe in killing any living thing, including those pesky and disease-ridden mozzies! They are a very peaceful society plagued with famine, natural disasters and even terrorism, second to Iraq they suffer the most amount of terrorist attacks in the world! Yet they illuminate happiness, even as they live on the street, irrespective of their disorganised chaotic lifestyle, they never rush, (which is often frustrating as I run for my flight) it’s also an endearing attribute and perhaps the main reason I love to visit there. They are very religious, often visiting their temples 2-3 times daily and I believe it’s their faith that gives them this content state of mind. It’s inspiring and it certainly shames my stressed out, rushed existence. I only wish they could bottle it and sell it! Believe me, if they could, they certainly would.

India is definitely an adventure well worth exploring, like a gem, there are so many facets to the country and I would recommend it to anyone. My travel tips are simple by effective:
1). Do your homework. It’s worth finding out pitfalls that may tarnish your trip like fraudsters etc so get the facts from official tourism websites. It’s worth remembering the age old rule, don’t talk to strangers!
2). If you don’t want to get sick, stick to simple rules like; avoid eating raw vegetables as they have been washed in water; make sure your meat is thoroughly cooked; avoid eating at street stalls; drink only bottled water including when brushing your teeth and check the seal isn't broken; if drinking from a can, use a straw.
Whilst I always encourage travellers to adopt a “when in Rome” approach by eating the local cuisine, ask your concierge to recommend a restaurant even if your on a budget. If in doubt, just ask yourself if your budget will stretch to a week worth of hospital Bills and a memory you would never forget but would love to!
Good coffee is hard to find in India so if you’re like me and relish a morning cuppa, pick a “quality” hotel and enjoy it with a good breakfast before venturing out. And if you like your herbal teas, bring your own! It may be one of the tea capitals of the world, but they usually only offer basic Indian brews.
Pictured: The artworks are colourful & fine in detail like this Mughal style painting.
If you don’t fancy the prospect of contracting Malaria, avoid the monsoon season when mozzies are at their peak, slap on a good insect repellent before sundown and steer clear of stagnant water areas. Obviously precautions are better than cure so consult you’re Doctor well in advance of your trip as tablets need to be taken weeks before for full coverage.

Coming to the end of my buying trip, I contemplate my purchases and start to play with designs to incorporate my newest additions. As I sip my long cool G&T on the front terrace of my palatial hotel, I am ogling a pair of solid marble elephant sculptures, one on either side of the front steps, seated and saddled at the ready for another hard days work and shimmering in the sunlight, and I wonder how much they would be and how I can ship them home. But then I’m slapped with the realisation that my husband would kill me, followed by the obvious question of where I’m going to put them! It’s amazing treasures like marble elephant sculptures you see every minute, if you open your eyes, and reminds me that’s what traveling to old worlds like India is all about.

Melinda xx

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