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Minnesota Jewelry Designer Shows Her Clients How Gemstones Are Found

Customers mine their own gems (and drink lots of wine).

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Mining gems with jewelry designer T Lee

A FEW THINGS about T Lee: She loves gems. Her regular gemstone roundtable events have a devoted following among clients, and thanks to her passion for educating others, she’s turned many ordinary jewelry buyers into collectors. She also has a reputation for promoting sustainability and green practices, and works to ensure that her metals and stones come from ethical sources. (She’s traveled to Tanzania to meet the miners she buys from.) She forms friendships with customers. And she likes to have fun. So her “Wine, Dine & Mine” trip to Southern California — which took place in September 2013 and offered the chance to mine gemstones, visit vineyards and eat gourmet meals — was a no-brainer.

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THE IDEA

Experience ‘the Cycle’

“I wanted to help people get more intimately involved in the full cycle of bringing a gemstone from the earth, through production and being cut by an artist, through the custom process, and onto their hand,” Lee says. “Finding a piece of rough that’s big enough and clean enough and high enough quality to merit custom faceting is rare. It helps them realize what a beautiful custom-cut stone is actually worth.” As for the “wine and dine” aspects of the trip: “Well, it sounds great, doesn’t it?” she says, laughing. “And this was an educated group that likes to really lean into the hobbies they have.”

THE EXECUTION

A Mine For Tourists

Lee chose Oceanview Mine in Pala, CA, for her first trip, because it made the most practical sense. Owned by Jeff Swanger, Oceanview is a highly productive mine that’s set up to accommodate tourists who want to try their hands at mining — its website is digforgems.com.

Also, Lee says, “GIA was no small part of it.” Its Carlsbad headquarters, as well as a five-star resort, were only 35 minutes from the mine. “I wanted the maiden voyage to be a slam-dunk success.”

Eight clients came on the trip; each paid $2,450, which covered airfare, lodging, insurance, most meals, mining, vineyard tours and all the other events.

Four hours in the mine didn’t turn up any major finds — “Gemstone miners spend their whole lives searching for the big one,” Lee says — but did yield some facetable stones and others that could be turned into cabochons. The group found mostly aquamarine and tourmaline.

T Lee customers on mine trip

“Someone would find something, and we’d all go, ‘Whooooo! What did you find?’” Lee says. “We’d pass it around, and this little hunk of palm-size rough, very included and not facetable, was suddenly like the most precious thing.”

Her fear that a single day at the mine might not be sufficient proved unfounded. “One day of being that dirty and working that hard — it was enough. Carrying 5-gallon buckets packed full of dirt — I was so sore the next day.”

Timing was perfect for the winery tours too, as the vineyards were in the middle of “crush” — crushing the harvested grapes. A GIA tour was also a hit; a former employee of Lee’s who now works for the institute put together a gourmet lunch for the group at the mine with his family.

And Lee’s first-ever Gemstone Rough Roundtable was a fascinating new step for her. She and Minneapolis faceter Tatyana Valkin selected rough ahead of time for the event. They marked on each parcel whether a piece was appropriate for faceting, for cabbing, or just for use as is, and listed approximate costs for working it into a custom piece. “It was very interesting,” Lee says. “It was much more challenging for all of us — not just my clients, but me — to look at a piece of rough and determine if there was a stone in there.”

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THE REWARDS

Deeper Relationships

Clients of jewelry designer T Lee on mine trip

Lee met her goal of breaking even on the trip, including wages for her time and Valkin’s. “I don’t foresee turning this into a profit center in itself,” she says.

Her larger motive was to build on her reputation as an expert in gemstones and a jeweler who offers unusual experiences to her customers. “My gut instinct is yes, I will absolutely profit from it on credibility alone. The educational piece seems to drive people back to me. I’ve heard great feedback from the group.”

She also deepened her relationship with her clients, and they became friends with each other as well. Besides the memories, the travelers took home rough they’d mined or bought at the roundtable, as well as charms made from rough, which Lee gave each of them on necklaces. “You’d have thought I gave them a 1-carat diamond ring, they were so thrilled.”

Lee hopes to do a similar trip to Idar-Oberstein in Germany — dubbed “Mine, Dine & Stein,” naturally. “I can’t see it’s something I’ll do for more than a few years, though,” she says. “I’ll think of something else next. That’s just how us one-of-a-kind artists are.”

Do It Yourself: Take Your Customers to a Gem Mine

  • “Small is better than big,” Lee says. She originally hoped to bring 20 people on the trip, but 10 — eight clients, plus her and her gem faceter — turned out to be plenty. “Just managing 10 was a challenge at times,” she says.
  • Do your reconnaissance. Lee took a break from the Vegas show in June to drive out and check out the mine and lodging on her own firsthand.
  • Offer a feast for the senses. To attract gem lovers who are also foodies, plan meals that are a special treat. Lee worked with the GIA to provide a gourmet lunch full of regional food at the mine itself, for a fully immersive experience.
  • Manage expectations. Fully disclose the odds — low — that your group will find much (or anything at all) in the way of facetable material. “A few hours of mining will most likely produce specimens only — but the finds are no less exciting!”

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