Phil Zahm’s Interview with Stacey Collins

 

First Trips

 

The first trips anywhere are always much anticipated. There's a lot of doubt around it, but it's so exciting to go somewhere you've never been and they have gems...you just don't know what to expect, so you're going into this great unknown. And going into the dangerous continent for me was huge. Africa's known as "The dangerous continent" in some circles because it is.

Going as a white man over there.... as a white man in a black culture, you can't really disappear.... the first trip I didn't know anybody...there was a time of what, 6 or 8 years that I didn't go back because I had such a bad buying trip.

I go through Europe and from Europe you catch a flight to Nairobi. I had $33 grand cash on my body.

You get close to Nairobi and you're coming in late at night and you have to fill out a landing card. Who you are, your passport number, how much money are you carrying, where you staying, how long you going to be there. So I'm thinking, "S---, do I tell them? Do I tell them how much money I got?" I thought, well if I don't tell them and they find out, they might take my money, so I decided I'd just fess up. So I said, $33,000 cash, staying at the Fairview Hotel. So I get through customs, it's a breeze, nobody looks at anything, no checking. I changed some money there at the airport and got in a cab going to the Fairview Hotel. They put me in this room. It's called the city hotel in the country. It's this beautiful hotel up on a hill overlooking Nairobi. They put me in the far wing, in a room at the very end on the ground floor.

In the middle of the night I hear this bam bam bam. I'd already thought how dumb, not only do I tell them I got $33 grand, but what hotel I'm staying in. They're going to kill me. At like 3 in the morning I hear this rap rap rap like metal against the glass pane of the window. I sit up and I whipped out my pocketknife. Back in those days you could still carry a pocketknife...I had pretty big, like a buck knife or something. So I pull it out. I'm sitting naked in bed with my knife in my hand like I'm going to fight for my life. Nothing ever happened. It was fine.

But I'll never forget that next morning walking into Nairobi. Walking into the city to look - no contacts at all - to find gems. Nairobi is like the prince of East African cities. It's the bastion of capitalism in Africa, East Africa. Walking to town, it was like 1/2 mile, 3/4 of a mile. You had to walk down some little streets, and then down an alley that goes through Oorou Park, this big park and then you come into the city. All these Africans, all these blacks walking and they have like these nice suits on, some tattered suits and black shoes and they were checking me out. At the time I guess I was about 30, 31 years old. They kept looking at my shoes. I don't even remember the shoes I was wearing, but I thought, "How weird, these people just look at my shoes. What is that about?" I still don't know.

But I was just very impressed with how spiffy everybody looked, how professional they looked, you know? I came to see that that is just like a big act that they put on over there, you know? It's just a cultural thing that you wear these kind of clothes when you work in the city, but not that anybody's professional or necessarily honorable or anything like that.

But...I did meet this Greek guy. He was mining orange tourmaline out in the Szabo Game Park. So I had to drive with him and spent two nights out at this game park in just a funky little place. We played some kind of Greek poker and I lost $200, these guys totally set me up. The Greeks are notorious con artists and this guy, Demetri, was just the epitome of a charming con man. Ultimately he cut his own throat, not literally, but financially and socially because of that. He had every opportunity be so successful. He had so much talent, charm, but he just couldn't tell the truth, you know, if his life depended on it. But I got to go out to Szabo Game Park with him and be there watching them mining. I was there at the mine where they mine this orange tourmaline and I bought a bunch of it like a fool because who the hell wants orange tourmaline?

It's rare and I think now I could buy some and I could integrate it with my inventory and some people would be very fascinated with it and would buy it. Orange is a much hipper color now than it was 25 years ago. I got involved with him, I bought the wrong stuff, paid too much money for things and I came back and I did pathetically poor with it. I didn't go back to Africa for years and years and it was really a shame because it was a tremendous opportunity there. Nobody was going to Africa. And when I started going again in the late 80's, and then I was going like 2, 3, 4 times a year for like 15 years. I spent a lot of time over there.

Even then, that many years later, I was one of like 3 Americans that were going over there and going out to the mines or working in these towns and buying rock and buying cut stones and bringing it back to the States. There's really a new enterprise. Nobody wanted to go. The Indians didn't want to go, the Jews didn't want to go. They're the guys with the money, or the proximity. No Americans were going....but from '89 to '94, those years especially were huge in my business. I was there right when Tanzanite really took off and did really well.

So when I went back the second time... a buddy of mine who'd been going there for 6 or 7 years and he was younger than me and he was a really smart guy...He shared with me who I might work with if I go. He wrote me out a whole thing and said, "Don't ever show this to anybody, I'm dead meat if this ever gets out." But he gave me a list of 7 people that he had worked with...I flew to Nairobi...see Tanzania was still off limits up until about '89 or '91...

It was closed to the Western world. You couldn't even cross the border.... Julius Nyere...closed off that country to the western world and he was a really brilliant guy and he cared a lot about people...He basically brought communism or socialism in and they went back into the Stone Age. All the work the Europeans had done to build these beautiful tree lined streets with farms...He didn't kick them out, he just said, "You work for us now. The government owns everything that you've built: your factories, your farms...they are no longer yours." He socialized the country. This happened in the '60's I think.

So for like 20 years they reverted to a very simple, agrarian society. Fascinating. And they loved that guy. He only died a few years ago. I remember I was there when he died. He was like a hero. So because of it, for the first years I was going to Africa, I couldn't even go to Tanzania. Well, I could have flown in, but it was really sketchy, you know. So the Tanzanian gems, the tanzanite and some of the savorite and all the things that have come out of there...they're smuggled across the border to Mumbasa, a poor town in Kenya, but close to the Tanzanian border. So that's how the gems came into Kenya. Most of the production was actually in Tanzania, but Nairobi was the capital center, the commercial center.

I flew to Nairobi, I flew to Mumbasa, it's a 45-minute flight. I went to this guy who my friend said, "Check this guy out, he's got good deals on Tanzanite." He showed me this one parcel of tanzanite. I remember he walked out of the shop on the street - he had a tourist shop, he was selling like masks and things like that - he shows me this tray of tanzanite. We pour the stones out. It's $100,000, I said, "I'll take it." I didn't even have to give him a dime because my friend vouched for me.

At that time '88, '89, to have somebody just shake your hand and give you $100,000 worth of gems without even knowing you, no legal stuff. Cool. And I mean I did great with that stuff, I think I doubled my money on that in the next few months. Then I spent more than that. By then I was probably spending a couple hundred thousand bucks a trip over there. I started going like every three or four months back there. But it was a trip because Africa's just a different world, you know? You've got to bribe everybody.

Whenever I'd leave the country I'd have to get a guy from the Department of Mines would come up into a room somewhere in an office and we'd bribe him and he'd put the official government seal on the package and wrap it all up very official. Looked so professional. It's all just total con artist thing. It was just a whole different way of doing business than we do here in the states, you know? So I learned a lot from that. Nothing really ever bad happened to me in Kenya. It was fun. It was a beautiful place.