PHILIP ZAHM's EMERALD Road
Noted gem dealer and jewelry designer Philip Zahm talks about emeralds and more.
"My initial experience in buying emeralds was in 1978 on my very first trip to Brazil. I only knew that the town of Teofilo Otoni, in the state of Minas Gerais, was where I needed to go," reminisces noted designer and gem dealer, Philip Zahm.
“I didn't buy very many emeralds on that first trip,” he reminisces. “It was a huge learning experience for me on so many levels, and represented a big move into the realm of more expensive gemstones.” Previously, he had been working primarily with cabochons, mainly fire agates and opal, but in Brazil he purchased mostly faceted tourmaline, aquamarine and topaz.
Following this trip, he went back to Brazil several times a year and learned the language. “I also learned a lot about Brazilian emeralds and the way they were treated.” In 1981, a rich deposit of emeralds was found in the state of Goiás in Brazil, so Zahm and a friend flew to Goiânia, where they rented a car and drove fifty miles on small gravel roads to a tiny village where people were mining emeralds along the river. “It was quite an experience because no other foreigners were there. It was only the Brazilians. But, in the end, we did not find anything worthwhile.”
In 1983, Zahm traveled to Bogotá in search of the famed Colombian emeralds. “In Colombia, emeralds are the only game in town,” he adds. For three days, he sat in the office of a Japanese dealer, looking at all the emeralds that came through. “I spent over $30,000 on that trip, but did not return to Colombia for several years.”
When he finally did return, he had the help of his friend and emerald expert, Ron Ringsrud. “Ron was kind enough to share his connections and experience with me. I even stayed at a little house he owned in a neighborhood adjacent to the emerald buying district in Bogotá. Starting at 9 or 10 every morning, I would walk along the cobblestone streets to the offices and spend the day looking at emeralds. I made two more trips to Colombia over the next few years.”
Then, in 1994, he accompanied fellow gem dealer, Lee Collins, to Zambia in search of the green gems. The two men rented a car and journeyed into the bush for several days trying to buy emeralds and aquamarines. “At one compound, we spent the whole day looking through a treasure chest of emeralds in small paper bags, and we made some offers. The next day, we returned, but the man only accepted very few of our offers. Strangely, he did not even counter with a different price. It was unlike any other gem-buying experience I have ever had. Even leaving the country with the small quantity of gems that we managed to purchase was intimidating.”
Back in the United States, Zahm continued to sell a mixture of Colombian, Brazilian and Zambian emeralds. “About 15 years ago, I met a jovial young man from Jaipur who sold nothing but emeralds. I looked through his inventory here in California and bought quite a lot because the prices and quality were very good.”
A couple of years later, Zahm went to Jaipur to visit the young man whose company bought the rough at auction in Zambia and brought it back to India for cutting and oiling. “I asked him what kind of oil they use and he went to the cupboard and brought out a bottle of Johnson's baby oil. I couldn't believe it! Their cut emeralds were sitting out in a glass bowl filled with oil."
Zahm says he has seen an increase in interest and sales of fine emeralds over the last two years. "Prices have not increased as dramatically as the prices of rubies and sapphires, although it's beginning to happen. In the years to come, I believe that we will see significant increases in the cost of finer quality emeralds. Emerald is such a unique and beautiful gemstone. While other attractive gems such as tsavorite and chrome tourmaline have their own unique tones of green, it is hard to equal the rich color of fine emerald."
Philip Zahm is a member of ICA, AGS and AGTA and a consultant to The Gem Guide. (www.philipzahm.com)