I had already planned a trip to Namibia in South West Africa when I first came across the show ‘Gem Hunters’ on the Travel Channel.
BY EDWARD FLEMING
I was interested that it appeared to give a blow-by-blow account of how to go abroad and buy stones. Certain scenes are obviously ‘sexed up’ for TV and some boring details are clearly omitted but most of it seems plausible.
For my first ‘gem hunting’ trip I decided to focus on Tourmaline, found in Namibia’s gem-rich ‘Erongo’ region, and put the shows methods to the test.
The Black market currency exchange
On the show – Cash is exchanged on the black market often in a back street to get a better exchange rate and avoid commission.
In reality – If you don’t already have a trusted contact in the country this can be very risky, robberies are common and being on my own I didn’t feel comfortable following up on any of the leads I got. Safer to go to a bank.
Using jewellers for information
On the show – The gem hunters will visit retail shops and, posing as tourists, will get information about stone prices, availability and source location.
In reality – An invaluable source of information.
Getting to the mines
On the show – Clearly experienced and well financed, the gem hunters have a car, driver and often a guide. Although journeys can be long and uncomfortable getting around isn’t much of a problem.
In reality – If you’re not so well financed you’ll find yourself hitch hiking or relying on shuttle buses with the locals, often miners themselves. Perfectly safe and an interesting, authentic experience. This may well help you gain contacts but the remoteness of some locations and infrequency of passing vehicles means you can spend hours waiting for a lift. Take plenty of water.
On the show – The gem hunters will find a bar in a mining town and instantly recognisable as stone buyers, news gets around that buyers are in town and the stone comes to them.
In reality – I was approached whilst checking into my hostel! Within minutes of my arrival 10+ guys were offering me stones. This can get a little hectic and sellers can be pushy but mining and stones are the main source of income for a lot of people in these communities, so keep your head, be aware of what’s going on around you and take a look at what they have.
On the show – The Gem Hunters often dig their heels in and pay a fraction of the initial asking price.
In reality – Markets dictate the price and sellers know this, but will always test a new buyer. Use your charm and knowledge to agree on a price that works for everyone. Often when you make a purchase you’ll exchange numbers and sellers are happy to give you other numbers for stones (everyone’s on commission). This information can be as valuable as the purchase. Goods such as tinned food, clothing and especially shoes can always be traded.
During my five-week stay in Namibia I visited various mining areas and villages in the Erongo region finding both rough and faceted Tourmalines, Garnets and Aquamarines. The gemstone business in Namibia is well established and you can’t help but run into people from all facets of the trade.
Opportunities for trade and development exist all over the country and investment by the government has created a safe and welcoming environment for foreign buyers.