By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
Down the Emerald Road
Ray Zajicek’s early love of Emeralds paved the way for a business built on their sales.
While in graduate school at the University of North Texas in 1970, Ray Zajicek encountered an opportunity that would change the course of his life. Zajicek was enrolled in a Latin American Studies program and was approached by a Japanese company that needed translation help buying Emeralds in Bogotá, Colombia. He accepted, and the Ito Gem Company paired him up with company principal Satoshi Ito, who became his mentor.
“I was translating prices from Spanish to Japanese so he could negotiate,” says Zajicek. The pair spent so much time together—Zajicek worked with the firm for a couple of years—that it was impossible not to learn about gems from Ito, who taught the pupil “how to look at, study and evaluate Colombian Emeralds,” he recalls.
Lessons were intense. Zajicek learned to loupe stones in search of surface-reaching fissures, which would naturally be subject to cedar oil, a common treatment at the time. The life expectancy of the oil was not long, causing fissures to reappear within time.
“He taught me about stones to avoid, ones that would lead to problems,” Zajicek adds. “We rejected the vast majority; the price was not as important as the cleanliness of the stones.”
While staying at the Tequendama Hotel—a hotspot for dealers at the time—around 1971, Zajicek met some prominent U.S. Emerald dealers, including Mayer Abraham of Ambuy Gems. Abraham was kind to the young dealer in training, which Zajicek remembered in the next leg of his Emerald journey. Tragically, his Japanese mentor died in a car accident, effectively ending his Ito Gem contract. Zajicek decided to ditch graduate school and start his own Emerald business.
Setting Up Shop
In 1972, Zajicek went to New York City, where he thought Emerald sales might be more robust than his hometown of Dallas. While finding his way around, he remembered his friend Abraham and went to see him—a wise move in retrospect given Zajicek was able to make his first sale.
From there, business and Zajicek’s continuing Emerald education blossomed. With frequent trips back to Bogotá, Zajicek learned to cut and was buying increasing quantities of cut Emeralds. In between trips to Colombia, he hit the road in the States to sell. Eventually, jewelers asked him for jewelry, a request he happily obliged. He added a finished line made in 18K yellow gold (“I’m not a fan of white gold,” he says) and platinum. The designs were classic—such as three-stone rings with Emerald centers—as his interest lay in procuring the best Emeralds he could source.
“We basically form a frame around pretty gemstones,” he says. “Our focus is on the quality of the gemstone rather than the jewelry design.”
Zajicek met other dealers, too, like Leon Ritzler, who became a friend and brief business partner, acquainting him with other gems, like Zircon and Aquamarine. “He traveled to Bangkok and I traveled to Colombia,” Zajicek reflects. (To date, Zajicek has traveled to more than 80 countries to sell stones and to Colombia more than 150 times.)
Something else the two had in common? A purpose—helping to bring this trade association and its Spectrum & Cutting Edge AwardsTM to life. Zajicek and Ritzler, among others, were founding members. Involvement in other industry groups followed, such as the Diamond Dealers Club and serving as a founding member of the International Colored Gemstone Association. Other accomplishments include president of AGTA, 1985–1986, authoring the first AGTA Confidential Source Directory (now the Source Directory), winning more than a dozen Spectrum & Cutting Edge AwardsTM, and more.
Despite this exposure to other categories and cliques, Zajicek’s devotion to Emerald remained. He never strayed to sell other gems beyond the occasional Sapphire. However, his monogamy did wane when it came to Emerald’s color—greens eventually had to share case space with red Emerald from Utah when Zajicek added some to inventory. “We love the GIA Type III Beryls—green Emerald from Colombia and red Emerald from Utah,” he says. Though red and green are complementary on the color wheel, Zajicek’s zest for both has to do with formation in the earth’s crust and their numerous inclusions, making them a challenge to cut.
With ample inventories of Colombian greens and Utah reds, Zajicek reveals a fact about both that many might not know: there are many shades of both red and green Emeralds. Reticent to dish on specifics—he’d rather show you at his GemFair booth (#810)—Zajicek maintains that you can find every color of green imaginable in a Colombian. These certainly differ from Zambia’s greenish-blues, as Colombians tend to be bluish green. There are tone differences as well, and the closest match to a Colombian’s color, he estimates, is Emerald from the Panjshir province in Afghanistan.
His most special Emerald sold? He’s secretive on this subject, admitting only that it happened 15 years ago, and it was more than 25 carats. “It was finer than any stone in the Smithsonian,” he says.
Fast Facts on Equatorian Imports
Contact: Ray and Monte Zajicek
Years in Business: Since 1968
Email: [email protected]
Best Sellers: Loose Colombian Emerald and red Emerald (red Beryl)
Starting Retail Price for Jewelry: About $2,000
AGTA GemFairTM Tucson Booth: #810
Getting Personal with Ray Zajicek (founder)
Why are green and red Emeralds your favorite gem?
Emeralds are difficult to cut, so you must look at them in a different way. Cutting a diamond is a science whereas cutting a colored gemstone is about science and orientation of inclusions. With GIA Type III Beryls, there can be some serious areas of color zoning, and inclusions are quite prevalent. Truthfully, I’m also into them because they were my introduction to gemstones, so I just kept learning more about them. I’m still trying to get more familiar with them after all these years in business.
What Emerald(s) do you personally own and wear?
I have had an Emerald cabochon ring since the mid-1970s. The Emerald weighs 6 carats. When I bought it, it was faceted but then I cut it into a Sugarloaf cabochon because I thought it would be a more attractive stone. I also have a 2.5 ct. red Emerald and a Cat’s Eye Chrysoberyl ring. I’ll wear one of them every day.
I have a faceted Emerald that I wear in Colombia when I’m looking at stones. My faceted Emerald gives me a reference point for the quality of the Emeralds I’m looking at.
What is your best gemstone memory?
One stone took me over two years to buy; the seller kept changing the price on me. I was close a couple of times, then he decided not to sell. When I finally bought that stone, I sold it, I didn’t keep it. It was a spectacular stone; it’s rare to find something so beautiful that you don’t forget it. I kept pursuing it because the owner was eventually going to sell it, it was just a matter of to whom. This was about 10 years ago. It’s hard to find super beautiful stones—finding them isn’t like going to the grocery store.
What Emerald was the hardest for you to sell and why?
An ugly one because I was apologizing for it. My buddy and I bought a 20 ct. piece of Emerald rough many years ago and paid about $18,000 for it. We were so proud! People were offering us $26,000, but we thought it might be worth more cut. So, we cut it, and we sold it for $12,000. This is why dealers don’t need to gamble in Las Vegas. Our livelihood is a gamble.
What do you love most about what you do?
Our life revolves around gems and family. I wake up and go to sleep counting stones, and in the space in between, I’m dreaming about them. Our industry and product are extraordinarily interesting. Stone dealers are all similar in nature, and they all travel the world, learning about other cultures. I could probably travel around the world two or three times without ever staying in a hotel because I’ve met so many people in this business. In fact, it’s not really business, it’s a lifestyle.
“Ray and his wife are the kindest and most incredibly honest people I know! They always have the wildest and craziest stuff to show. They have a huge collection of red Emerald that is hard to get. I buy loose Emeralds and finished jewelry as well as some Trapiche Emeralds.”
—Ken Whipple, owner, Park City Jewelers, Park City, Utah
“Ray knows more about Emeralds than anyone else. He’ll show you problems in a stone, he’s worked hard on disclosure for decades, and there’s never any ambiguity regarding treatments. We’ve had him recut stones for us, and they always turned out better than expected.”
—Rick Krementz, retired president of Richard Krementz Gemstones
“We have been successful with sales of his red Emeralds. He’s also a fun guy—his enthusiasm is contagious. He loves what he does. And he is a history book! I spent some time with him hearing stories about his life, and his depth of experience is fascinating.”
—Brian Denney, Gems of Note, Naples, Fla.
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