Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rusty James on Purple Chalcedony, and Indonesian Relationships

Having been following his worldwide travels on Facebook, we asked Rusty James to be guest author for this post.  Rusty is a gem and mineral hunter who travels to the far reaches of the world to source quality mineral specimens and lapidary rough to cater to worldwide market demands.  He has been at it for 16 years, and operates under the business name Throwin’ Stones.  He sells in Tucson and Denver at various locations, does 4 shows a year in Japan, and exhibits at various other popular gem and mineral shows in the USA and abroad.  With a focus on ethics, fair trade and, sustainability for his suppliers and customers, he has developed strong relationships, partnerships, and supply lines on every continent.  Assisted by his wife Nicole and son Jasper,along with a passionate team of staff, he has built a robust online presence, and is currently in the process of launching a  wholesale company to offer his findings to re-sellers around the globe.  In  his very limited spare time, Rusty likes to share stories of his unique adventures and passion for sourcing gems and minerals.  

by Rusty James

Today I got to play celebrity (again).  I always forget how rare white people are in remote areas of Indonesia, and it takes a few moments of adjustment to put on my white guy fame hat.  A recent stop was particularly special.

We landed in a small village in central Sumatra where wild coffee, rubber trees, and chalcedony mining are essentially the only sustenance.  From there we hiked for about thirty minutes through the jungle to the back side of a nearby mountain where the villagers were mining. chalcedony.  There were many test holes in the area. We approached one that was being worked. A small fire was burning to keep the bees away and to boil "jungle coffee" as needed. 

Two miners were hard at work on a hole that was at least 5 meters deep (15 feet), which they had dug over a three day time span.  The dirt  was a red mud, soft and easy to work, but prone to collapse. I once saw this happen where a worker barely had time to jump out. There's a make shift pulley system crafted from rubber and a few buckets. A small man works down in the hole while another guy pulls the dirt up from the hole and dumps it on down the side of the mountain. Check out the video  of how this works. We watch the men work  for a while and ask lots of questions.  They haven't hit a good hole of AAA colored chalcedony in quite some time.  They tell us that this current hole produced about 15 kilograms of medium and low quality rock,  and I wonder whether it's really even worth their effort.  When they are hired to dig, they work for about $8/day.  Lately, they have been digging  for themselves, gambling with their lives in hopes of hitting the clear purple honey.

It's nearly impossible to determine the quality of the stone as its mined. It is always caked in dirt and mud. The miners. break a small chip off  the side with a machete looking for color.  If it appears to have potential, they schlep it down the mountain for further cleaning.  

After going through today’s pile back at the village, it became yet more evident how difficult the rough is to clean and evaluate.  Chalcedony is a tricky lapidary rough.  Even if a piece looks great on the surface or when backlit, a final determination can be evasive until the stone is cut.  

When  I questioned the  efforts they had just gone through, they showed me some photos of  top grade stuff  the site  had produced in the past.  Holy crap! Though one of  numerous purple chalcedony deposits in Indonesia, this mountain had produced some of the finest purple rock I've ever seen, very possibly the best on earth. I now understood why they carry on despite the low percentage of high grade material. Several years have passed  since they uncovered the good stuff. Back then, as many as 200 people would go out every day working holes. It blew my mind that single cabs of top grade purple had sold for thousands of dollars in Indonesian markets where prices rarely achieve four figures for a single gem.  My understanding of the hunt, the risk, and the amount of effort involved,  became clearer.

There was more than just purple chalcedony that enriched this adventure.  First we endured six hours  pothole-mania and bobblehead bouncing on the grueling roads. Then I had thought we would simply go on a hike, check out some holes, meet a group of nice people, and maybe have another chance to buy some rock. But upon returning from the digs to the village, we began to have glimpses as to how special this trip really was. The miners told us that afternoon  that we were the first "tourists" to ever come to this 100 year old  village and the first white faces 99% of the villagers had ever seen. Knowing this led to a deep feeling of  gratitude and inspiration.

When the family we were staying with learned we would be leaving soon, all three generations dressed in their good clothes for a photo without telling us. They  showed us the place on the wall of their home where it would go next to images of the mine owner at an earlier Indonesian gem exhibition where  he had sold some of  best purple chalcedony cabs known to exist. There was also a proud photo of the miners standing with famous military generals they had met.

Neighbors started coming over.  One of the older men took the ring off his finger and gave it to me. I humbly attempted to decline. Ultimately I put it on to keep, responding with many bows and thank yous. Having recently been in Japan, I had started started bowing to just about everyone of late.

The photos were plentiful: first with the kids, then with the main family of the house where we stayed, and then with three generations. They were all dressed in their best clothes..This visit was clearly a great honor to them as it was to me. I'm still in awe of how special the moment was.

Tears were shed when it was time to depart.  Love was expressed in English, even though it was not the language of anyone in the family.  It tore me up, All we had really done was make the trip. We didn't spend much money, as there wasn't much good rock to buy.  But to these people, making the effort to come and visit them meant everything in the world.  They waved until we were out of sight. The children screamed goodbye until we couldn't hear anymore. 

For me, moments like this are a reminder.  I consider the rocks, the exhibitions, the physical labor, the struggle to sustain self-employment in times when markets are down, the haggling, the hellish drives, long flights, jet lag,  challenges of eating strange food,  sleeping in noisy environments where families stay up late for a second meal during a month of  Ramadan fasting, the bugs, the sweat, and unexpected risks inherent in bringing colorful stones to market: None one of it means as much as some of the relationships formed and time shared. The money, the flashy gems, the  notoriety for introducing  cool stones to places in the world that haven't seen them,  and  numerous passport stamps: It’s all secondary to the kind of  the relationships that that often go with it. 

Even if only for one day, I have found that  showing up with a smile on my face, eager to share time and experience across language barriers with those who cross my path  can mean so much to to so many people.  The choice to be happy can change lives and bring joy to places where hope is meager and survival paramount. Experiencing this means more to me even than the success I’ve been so fortunate to enjoy.

It's easy to forget that it could all be gone in an instant.  I drove away from the village knowing that I will probably never go back and that another 100 years could pass before another white face shows up in  that village. Despite the 6 hours of hell on wheels to get there, only to turn around 20 hours later and return through that same hell before starting that next part of this journey, I can safely say that the experience was entirely worth it.  It changed me. 

The various enterprises operated by Rusty  are at the following sites:
@throwin.stones  (instagram for product announcements) 
@throwin.stones.sales (instagram direct sales) (coming soon)