In this blog I’ll take you to a very fun place for me, the emerald district in downtown Bogota, the capital of Colombia. On Jimenez Avenue between 6th and 7th street, the heart of downtown, you will find the emerald district. This is the place where most of the emeralds come after they have been mined and cut and the place where they make their first appearance in the emerald market.
Bogota is an amazing city of almost 8 million people. It is nestled high in the Andes at about 8700 feet altitude and is a city of high contrast. There are high rise buildings next to colonial churches, there are universities, theaters, and shantytowns, all with a mixture of Spanish, English, and Indian influences. There is a great deal of wealth here but there is also poverty. It is a city of wild traffic and an occasional calm oasis that reflects the bygone colonial days. There is futuristic architecture, graffiti, congestion, restaurants, bookstores, and a lot of old world charm. In the middle of all this, very near the presidential palace, is the heart of the emerald district.
The district consists of several blocks of buildings where larger dealers occupy booths and offices and where you will find cutters, gemologists, and international traders. You will see small shopping centers with colonial looks and small, modest jewelry stores. There are wholesaler workshops and people in the streets selling crafts with emerald themes.
There is one special block on Jimenez Avenue, between 6th and 7th, where the “comisionistas” (emerald dealers) get together on the wide sidewalk to do business. These guys are the very heart and essence of the emerald market. Most of them deal with loose emeralds that they get on commission from other dealers or that they have bought from the mines. They move all day long between private dealers’ and cutters’ offices, jewelry stores, and the sidewalk. They meet regular buyers and sellers and close deals for thousands of dollars right there in the middle of the street.
The dealers have the most beautiful emeralds of any size and if they don’t have it they will find it for you in an hour or two. Most of them know each other and after many years have become close friends. They are always joking with each other and not taking their work day too seriously. Most are middle class people with small and sometimes not so adequate incomes to support their families. Even so, stress is not part of their daily routine. Most of the time they are a happy bunch and it shows just by watching them for a while.
One reason their job is not stressful to them is that they generally work from 10:00 a.m. to about 4:00 p.m. They don’t work on weekends, holidays (there are 20 in the year), and they don’t work on the seven days of Holy Week. That’s not counting the last week of December to January 14 to celebrate the New Year.
There is a very good reason for their short daily hours and it is the same reason why none of the offices in the district have curtains or blinds. The only light anyone trusts to examine an emerald is sunlight. That’s why all the deals are done in the street or next to a window. After four, the sunlight is just not strong enough so everyone goes home. And why get up before ten, anyway.
If you go to the market to buy an emerald, would be good to take someone with you who knows the market. There is no return policy or store credit. A handshake is a done deal and a contract. While most of the dealers are honest people there may be others that just show up for a day or two to try their luck with imitations or lab created emeralds that can fool the untrained eye. An honest dealer may offer you beautiful gems but probably not at the same price he would charge a fellow dealer. They will consider that a sale to you will replace a sale to another dealer they know and will want to make it “worth their while” by charging you a higher price.
The nature of the emeralds themselves has created this tumultuous and exceptional market. In the diamond market, everything is written down, classified, and graded according to strict guidelines. You can buy a diamond over the phone or at Costco and know exactly what you get. Boring! Boring! But in the emerald market it is very human, very personal, and a very face to face business that I love. I love to talk to the people there and feel their moods and energy. Each dealer is as unique as the gemstones they sell.
I hope you have a chance to see Bogota and the emerald market for yourself. It is a busy, exciting, fun place to be. If you go there to buy an emerald, have someone with you who knows the market and can help you negotiate for a quality gem and a good price. If you go just to see the sights of Bogota, go to the emerald market, sit at a sidewalk cafe with a good cup of Colombian coffee, and just watch. I’m sure it will be well worth your while.