Excerpt from my 2nd novel "Monkey Business in Kenya":
Negotiating a gem-buyer's week in Tsavo Natinal Park
"When we arrived at Zomo's home, a prosperous villa by local standards, more than a hundred men, no women, filled the inner courtyard.
Everybody jumped up and pressed forward. We came to a halt in a sea of bodies waiving bags and boxes with gemstones, holding up crystals and rocks. My skin tingled with a hunter’s anticipation.
For a change, Lizzy looked scared.
“These are all just miners, traders, don’t worry. It’s always like that.” I said.
“This looks like a riot.” Lizzy whispered.
Zomo honked, inching his car on, the security guards threatening the crowd with sticks, and slowly we made it to the entrance. There, we ducked from the car straight into the main house, like movie-stars chased by paparazzi. People jostled for position but nobody was allowed in, yet.
In the office, I sat behind a big wooden table, Lizzy by my side, Zomo and his accountant behind.
Zomo was going to get 5% off every deal, payable by the seller.
When all was ready, the tea hot, the pens working, money secured in locked drawers, dishes filled with water to wash rough, torches loaded, tweezers, lenses, pocket calculator, bags and boxes at hand, Zomo opened the door.
The first seller was a miner with hands like shovels, including the dirt. He smiled with a row of immaculate white teeth and emptied a bag of rough tsavorite onto the table.
I picked up the first stone, cleaned it in water, and shone a strong light through the gem to detect inclusions or cracks. One by one, I sorted through the pebbles dividing them into desirables and duds. I explained every decision to Lizzy, showed her good colors, clean pieces, nasty inclusions. She nodded bravely, though I was sure she could only understand half of what I said.
The miner sat across the table, smiling, patiently watching my every move, every facial expression as we discussed his gems.
After half an hour, I declared fifteen of his rough as undesirable and pushed them back towards the miner. The remaining ten pieces I pulled closer to our side.
Amongst these ten good pieces there was an exceptional three gram rough with a glass-like body and an electric glimmer inside. It would cut to perhaps 5 carats, a considerable size in Tsavorites.
I pulled the good ten closer to my side of the table. “Those I might take. How much?”
“Take all.” Said the man, pushing the bad fifteen a few inches into my direction and sweeping his hand over the two piles.
Understandably, he wanted me to buy all, not only his best, but I’d end-up with a set of cheap cabochons.
“No, only these ten please. How much?” I asked again and pushed his fifteen an inch back.
He frowned, examining the good ten, holding each stone against the light and, DANG, selected the three gram rough which I wanted most and moved it a few inches to the side, still within my reach but separated from the other nine. He knew his business. Now we had three separated items to negotiate.
He smiled his big white smile and pointed at the nine. “600 for those.”
“How much for all?” I motioned for all twenty-five.
His face lit up. “2000 for all.”
I threw up my arms. “Impossible! I can’t!”
He picked up my favorite, held it up, and proudly said: “This alone is 1000. Take the whole table for 2000.”
“I can take all for 1500. Half are no good!”
He groaned in despair, pulling his hair. Show!
This first deal of the week was most important: I had to balance my negotiation carefully, not too soft but not too hard either. This man was going to give the first news to those waiting outside.
If the others thought me a soft-skinned Muzungu with too much money to burn we would be having a hard time with every deal and end up paying too much all week long.
If, on the other hand, he would tell them that I was a tight-assed buyer without mercy, those sellers with good stones would leave rather than wait outside for days only to get ripped off. The longer a seller waits, the more desperate his cash situation gets. After all, he cannot work and his family has to eat.
Lizzy followed the tedious negotiation with big round eyes. Though it was half her money she did not ask for voting rights.
After much back and forth, I bought the good pile of tsavorites, including my favorite, for 1750. The miner paid Zomo 5% commission and we parted in good standing. He promised to come back with rubies. I hoped he was going to give me a thumps-up when he stepped into the waiting crowd outside.
The rough gems we sent to the Uncle’s lapidary for immediate cutting.
Lizzy sighed exhausted, obviously expecting a rest, but the next seller, actually a crew of three dealers, rushed through the door before she could intervene.
The three co-owned a big, but badly cut, ruby. I explained to Lizzy the ways of ruby, its hues, the cutting, and a million other things.
Thus, another round of grim negotiation began. Again and again, the three got into fiery arguments amongst themselves and had to step outside. Yet, they could never agree. This went on until the Uncle told them to get their act together now, or ‘come back another day’, which in our language meant ‘don’t come back’.
Zomo’s threat worked and I bought the ten carat egg-shaped ruby for 2,200 (…yes, those were the days… as I write in 2014 this stone would have cost $25,000, if you were quick and lucky).
Except for a brief sandwich at noon we haggled, bluffed, pokerfaced and counted money non-stop for nine hours.
At six in the evening, I looked out the shuttered windows. Even more people than in the morning stood waiting there.
I took Lizzy’s hand. “Can you do more?”
“No, No, I’m totally brain dead,” moaned Lizzy, her eyes blunt and starry, “I wanna go. Please!”
The Uncle went out to call it a day.
In Zomo’s car, Lizzy said: “I see rotating gems when I close my eyes.”
“Normal. That’s the job. It’ll get better, later.”
“I hope so. I can’t close my eyes or I’ll be sick.”
We got our car from the Maasai’s garage and drove through the pitch-dark park always aiming at the only light on the horizon, our hotel.
Since we had told the manager that we would be late, they had not yet called in the rescue squat. An all-you-can-eat buffet was open until 22.00 and we arrived at 21.45. The remains didn’t look appetizing but no refills were to be expected.
“Careful what you eat,” I whispered to Lizzy. “This is a ‘never-come-back-hotel’.”
“A standing joke amongst hotel managers: ‘Can poison the guests—they never-come-back anyway’.”
We avoided shell fish and skipped the meatball Massalla.
Next day, at breakfast, Lizzy complained that she had dreamed of gems.
We drove to the garage, changed into Zomo’s Land Rover and another day began, intense, arduous and yet exhilarating, at least for me.
And then another day.
On the third day, the forth seller, a tall Maasai in bright colors and with giant earlobes, offered a box of assorted so-so roughs, nothing special.
While I examined his stones, the Maasai pulled a fist sized hexagonal crystal in a reddish mauve color from his dress and, closely watching my reaction, rolled it on the table.
I briefly glanced at the giant crystal. Nerve-ends sizzled and I longed to touch the stone but I ignored the impulse, forcing myself to continue with the other roughs in due order. Any extra attention would double the crystal’s price.
Lizzy, however, pursed her lips, took up the crystal, studied it and asked something I can’t remember. Perhaps for the first time I ignored Lizzy’s question. The Maasai immediately caught the irregularity and smiled, knowingly.
I had made a mistake but it was too late. Cursing inwards, I worked through the rest of the box.
Lizzy put the rock back on the table, shrugged.
After selecting a few roughs for negotiation, I took up the big crystal. The sizzling in my brain returned with fresh intensity. The stone looked and felt like a spinel but strangely something was amiss, or more precisely something was too much, did not belong there. My blood pressure went up. I glanced at the seller. He was a proud warrior in the prime of life, fighting scars on his face, and surly able to detect the accelerating heartbeat of an opponent.
The crystal was exceptionally clean with only some growth lines and a few inclusions.
I switched my balance from carat to gram and leisurely threw the crystal on it: 133 grams. A quarter pound! A remarkable size that would cut into over 100 carat. A 100 carat spinel was an exciting find.
However, my hands didn’t shake because of the size but because this was not a spinel. I clearly saw light and shadows splitting inside the stone. Spinel does not double-refract. I turned the crystal this way and that, shone light in it, scratched its surface and weighed it again.
Then, as if by chance, I laid it onto a paper filled with scribbled numbers.
I tried not to stare, but there it was! The crystal reproduced the numbers beneath, clearly doubling and mirroring them. This stone was double-refractive. Spinel, however, is single-refractive!
In a smaller gem I might not have noticed but this giant’s double-refraction was visible to the naked eye, without further testing.
If this was true, I was looking at one of rarest gems in the world: a Taaffeite; and what a Taaffeite! Giant, clean and not badly colored.
‘Something special: Peter!’ Here was serious business. My throat dry, I dared not take up the tea for fear of spilling.
A world record gem. Patience!
Casually, I laid the Taaffeite with the other rough and thus formally opened negotiation over the complete lot. But the Maasai, again with his knowing smile, pushed the crystal to the side, singling it out.
So, the Maasai knew that I knew that he knew the crystal was special. However, I was sure he thought it only especially big, nothing else. He did not know what was spinel or sapphire or garnet much less could he ID a Taaffeite.
We negotiated a bit for the box of small roughs, just fishing around, pretending not to be concerned with the giant rock on the table, though it screamed for attention.
After a while, I again picked up the crystal and held it like a hand ax. “Big enough to kill a lion.” I said, laughing… alone, like Eli.
Everybody else frowned. Especially the Maasai did not appreciate the reference and scowled frightfully.
I felt like a bumbling tourist and muttered some excuse.
The Uncle helped with a few soothing words in Swahili and the tension subsided.
“Uh, how much then?” asked the bumbling tourist.
“Ten thousand.” Said the Maasai with a grim smile.
The Uncle laughed politely. Lizzy smacked her lips. Even for a 133 gram spinel this was an unusual ask. More money than a whole Maasai tribe might earn in a year. I would have expected a few thousand. My lion joke, it seemed, had blown up the price.
I steadied my hands and poured fresh tea, winning some time to consider: Seriously big gems are rare but often hard to sell because they evade the jewelry market. Who wants to have a quarter pound of rock around his neck, even it is a sapphire? Often such stones are broken up into smaller pieces and sold separately.
However, if this was in fact a Taaffeite, and I was 95% positive, then the laws of physics or jewelry did not apply. A world-record gem gets international press, is sought after by the museums and will be an honor for the owner; for Peter. But I had to have his back-up for such a price.
I pretended to receive a call on my mobile and walked off into a side room. There I called London and was lucky to get Peter on the line.
“I have a big Taaffeite. Very big. You interested?”
“Sure am.” He said without hesitation.
“Can you wire 50k to Kenya?”
“50? That big?”
“Over 100 carat after cutting.”
Awed silence in London.
“It sells as spinel.” I added.
“Deal!” Peter said.
“I text you my bank data in a minute. I need cash today.”
“You got it. My banker is fast.”
That done, I went back into the office, sat down, savored the moment, pointed at the big crystal and said: “10.000 is OK.”
The Uncle and his accountant gasped. Lizzy stared, mouth open.
The Maasai looked first puzzled, then happy until doubt crossed his face and he slapped his forehead, finally cursing loudly.
I had accepted his price without negotiation. That could mean only one thing—he had asked under value!
He moaned, fidgeted on his stool, looking for a way out, a chance to modify the deal. Honor forbade him to pull back or raise his price. Also, 10k, after all, was a fortune here. He definitely wanted the money. He would not refuse and run home but he desperately wanted to squeeze some extra out of us without losing face.
He glanced around the room, searching for help, but everybody stood firmly on our side, ready to enforce the unwritten rules of the trade.
Then, his eyes flickered.
He pushed the crystal back to the other rough, all onto one heap, thus formally reopening the negotiation. Not exactly a kosher move but understandable.
“Can, please, make a new offer for all?” He begged with his best smile.
At that moment, dramatically, the power-supply broke, leaving us in the dark. Before the generator kicked in, the lights flickered on again.
The Massai’s smile had frozen.
I dragged the tension just a bit longer, looked at Lizzy, nodded towards the Uncle and then slammed a hand on the table: “20.000 for all.”
The Maasai’s mouth opened and closed in disbelief, then he whooped and jumped across the table to hug me with his intense, distinguishable African body-odor. I fought him off, laughing.
“But I need a promise!” I said.
“Anything. My honor!” he said.
“Don’t tell! That I buy spinel at such prices I mean. This is only between us. Promised?”
“Promised, Sir, promised.” And he hugged me again.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Lizzy whispered.
I nodded bravely.
While I counted a big stash of bills, the Maasai pledged the his ancestor’s and his tribe’s honor on total discretion, guaranteed the health of my grandkids, again and again kissed the totem hanging around his neck, pulled a few more roughs from his dress and lay them with the others.
“For free. For you.” He beamed.
Peter sent the 50k on the same day. Pocket-change for him, I imagined.
Lizzy made two more bank runs to get cash while I continued to splurge on gems from morning to evening, day-in-day-out. I immediately re-invested the, so far only assumed, profit from the Taaffeite and extended the buyer’s week into ten days.
Once in hunting mode, with dozens of sellers lingering in the Uncle’s courtyard, I, like a compulsive gambler, could not stop buying until the money was gone. Contrary to the always unfortunate gambler, however, the gem-dealer keeps the loot and, if he is a good buyer, he will make a profit… and go on new binges. Thus the circle closes into a life-time of high intensity buying, followed by near-death experiences with empty bank accounts and bare survival, until enough sales justify the next buying trip.
A cautious gem buyer (perhaps an oxymoron) might have stacked away Peter’s money for a rainy day but then a cautious person may never become a successful gem dealer.
When we had only six thousand in cash left Lizzy began pestering me to stop. Down to five thousand I finally tore myself away.
We had bought a fine selection of gemstones, from the odd yellow citrine to venomous green tsavorite to steel blue and green sapphire, from stones retailing for a mere hundred dollars to very expensive rarities.
 ‘Rough’ here means the gem as it is found in the ground, before cutting and polishing.
 Gems that are too included to display much brilliancy are usually polished into rounded spheres, called ‘cabochons’.
 This symbolic pushing around of gems on the table is an integral part of negotiation in our trade, especially when common language is limited.
 I know traders who arrange their buying weeks in such locations that the seller can’t go home easily. Nasty trick.
 This stone’s unattractive egg-shape darkened one half into brownish Bordeaux red while the other half seemed to be more pink than red. A good recut could symmetrize the stone, smoothen its color and balance the luster, but in the end we would have a five carat ruby instead of a ten carat. Of course, the sellers did not want to hear such details. They had a ten carat ruby and that was a valuable size.
 Maasais collect gems while herding their cattle. He was the tribe’s ‘gem-man’, selling what his clan had gathered and probably an important man in his ‘village’.
 ’Double refraction’ is an optical phenomena in some gems. Too technical to explain here. Please google if you’re interested.
 Allow me to explain for the casual gem friend: Spinels are plentiful, not as plentiful as diamonds, but they are a common gemstone in jewelry, always have been. Thousands of spinels are going to Bangkok every month. But only one in a thousand, if at all, is a Taaffeite. Most are not particularly pretty, they tend to be muddy pink, or brown violet, small and unassuming. Hence they are often overlooked. Misidentified as spinels they go under as worthless side-stones, perhaps are even thrown out. ID-ed as Taaffeite, however, they are so rare that I myself had only seen one or two in a lifetime. If I remembered correctly the biggest Taaffeite ever found was 50 carats or so. Most have been mined in Sri Lanka, but it was not surprising to encounter them in Kenya since the Sri Lanka and East Africa share the same geological past.
 If you think I rip-off the noble savage by not telling him what he had found, I suggest you never start your own business. My potential profit here is called ‘arbitrage based on information asymmetry’, one of the most common value-adding sources in any trade.
 Whether he would share the money with his tribe, I couldn’t control. This is as good as ‘fair trade’ gets in my business. ‘Fair’ may look different in the coffee- or tea-trade or even in some more organized corners of the gem business, but here, in the jungles and steppes, amongst wild-cat miners and day-traders, paying a good prices is all you can do. I refuse to deal with people who brag how cruelly they squeeze their suppliers but I cannot micro-manage beyond my own business.