This is the second installment in a series about women in the gemstone industry.
By Jennifer Heebner
If degrees could be granted in adventure, Erica Courtney would have multiple Ph.Ds. Courtney, a seasoned and award-winning jewelry designer, has not only a history of personal (and harrowing) circumstances but a professional life rich in travels and treks.
Many know her for high-end and huge colored gemstones that she can purchase from any number of dealers—and has—but the self-proclaimed “Indiana Jones in six-inch heels” and maker of “Drop Dead Gorgeous Jewels” (her tagline) is also known for pitching tents in jungles and slithering into narrow mine openings with the most fearless male counterparts.
To date, Courtney has been to 10 source countries (and counting) to visit myriad mine sites and a Pearl farm. Travels have taken her to Tanzania, Australia, Cambodia, Colombia, Kenya, Mozambique, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam. Why does the celebrity jewelry maker and real-life glamazon get dirty when it’s not necessary to make her über blinged out baubles? Curiosity and fun.
“I like to see how things are mined,” she explains. “I love the travel, and it keeps the business fresh for me. I always want to know what I don’t know and eat what I’ve never eaten. Plus, clients love to hear about the adventures.”
She’s taken a few trips with Vincent Pardieu, a well-known field gemologist hired by mining outfits and labs to scout locations and secure samples. She not only learns from his expertise but also appreciates the authentic experiences. “What we see is the real version of the mine, not one prepped for tourists,” she says.
And while she doesn’t go specifically to make purchases, one can arise if circumstances permit.
For sure, Courtney is on site for the experiences—and there have been some memorable ones.
On her first visit to a Tanzanian mine, she was a little taken back when she asked a miner for water, and he pulled a bottle from his sweat-drenched jumpsuit. She quickly learned the reality of visiting the mines; it wasn’t the Snow White and Seven Dwarfs scenario she had playing in her head. “There was no mining car filled with jewels and no lunch spread out,” she says with a laugh.
At other mine sites, Courtney and fellow travelers had to pick up a goat and take it with them to later eat, but the goat may have had the foresight to get some advance revenge. “It peed all over the car,” she says.
In certain Ruby mines, she’s had to scale walls and summon the flexibility of Spiderman to get to the gems—“These mines are not made for ladies,” she notes—while other sites have been plagued by hippos, leopards, cobras, lions, and hyenas as she and her associates sheltered in flimsy pup tents. “Scouts stayed up all night to keep watch,” she says.
She’s helped cook at mines, impressing native Kenyans at one site with her ability to roll out round tortilla-type bread. She’s stayed at six-dollar-a-night hotels in other countries, all for the adventure. “These trips take me out of my reality,” Courtney says.
The most unforgettable trip of all was in Mozambique about six years ago. Courtney was there with Pardieu in a jungle for three nights to visit a Ruby mine. Scouts traveled with the pair for safety, and part of the trip was by canoe. At a certain point, they entered rapids, and Courtney’s canoe took on water. She fell overboard, the canoe broke in half, and scouts—with rifles—jumped in to grab her. Why the rifles? The team hadn’t told her, but there were crocodiles in the water.
When the chaos subsided, scouts asked her, “Where is your shoe?” Apparently, one had gone down with the canoe, leaving Courtney exposed at camp that night for another unwelcome encounter. “I was stung by a scorpion,” she deadpans.
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