Rio de Janeiro, Glitzy Gemstone Capital of the World

Aquamarine, courtesy of Alyea's Jewellers, Ottawa - S. Hallett

Aquamarine, courtesy of Alyea’s Jewellers, Ottawa – S. Hallett

When thinking of gemstones, Boucheron in France, Graff in England, Tiffany’s in the U.S. and Italy’s Buccellati come to mind. So should H. Stern in Rio.

Brazil’s Mountains a Trove of Mineral Wealth

That one of the world’s largest jewelers is Brazilian should come as no surprise. Brazil is an immense storehouse of precious metals and colored gemstones. Almost every type of colored gemstone and precious metal has been found in one or another region of the country. Approximately 65% of the entire production of gemstones in the world originates in Brazil.

The exploitation of mineral wealth was an important factor in Brazil’s historical development. Such colonial-era cities as Vila Rica, now called Ouro Preto meaning Black Gold, and Diamantina were established around out-croppings of precious stones and metals. Now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they are listed because of their beautiful Brazilian Baroque architecture.

Brazil Has It All Plus Rio de Janeiro

Brazil is famous for macumba (voodoo); maniacal drivers; manioc and mate (strong tea) as well as its memories of conquistadors; filibusters and privateers. There are masses or orchids, papayas to eat after your feijoada, the national meal of black beans and rice, and batida, the potent fruit punch made with cachaca, a crude white brew concocted from sugar cane. It tastes like a mixture of rum and tequila.

Rio’s Place in the World of Precious Stones

The exciting cosmopolitan city of Rio de Janeiro, a city surrounded by lush forests, is the Brazilian showtown ne plus ultra with fabulous wealth and world-famous beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema. It is also probably the best place in the world to buy amethysts, aquamarines, citrines and tourmalines.

Rio’s place as the gemstone center of South America and possibly the entire world, is a result of the enterprise of Hans Stern, a German immigrant who founded what has become a virtual jewellery empire. That was back in 1946. Rio is still headquarters of the firm, but you can shop in many other cities and on cruise ships for gemstones from H. Stern.

The first thing I saw after unpacking at the Sheraton Rio was a green card proposing a “Free visit to H. Stern’s gem cutting and goldsmith workshops.” Transportation by taxi to the lavish headquarters in Ipanema and return to the hotel were part of the deal, so I had nothing to lose.

First in Brazil to Quote Fixed Prices

Bargaining was the way most jewellery was bought in Brazil before Hans Stern established what for years was the largest space ever built solely for the production and sale of jewellery. On arrival, visitors are escorted to the third floor for a guided tour, which is a wonderful learning experience as well as an entertaining way to spend time on a rainy day. The tour, which lasts for about 15 minutes, takes visitors through the entire cycle of jewellery production, from the discovery of the raw material through cutting and polishing, the design and actual mounting process to the display and sale of the finished product.

The hostess who accompanied me on the tour said that almost 50% of all tourists in Rio visit the Ipanema headquarters. After the tour, there is a chance to visit the firm’s museum and buy loose stones as well as jewellery.

No bargaining is done, as happens frequently in South America and every piece bought comes with a written guarantee. Stern was ahead of the times as he was the first to start using computers to keep inventory. He also organized fashion shows featuring jewellery on cruise ships and commercial airline flights. Although showmanship was part of his rise to success, it was the innovative use of stones as well as the scrupulous honesty of the company that made the firm such a success.

Most Popular Brazilian Gemstones

The most popular of all the Brazilian gemstones is the aquamarine, followed closely by the tourmaline which comes in a rainbow of colors. Citrine and topaz are also sought after, especially the type of topaz found only in Brazil called Imperial Topaz. This stone ranges from a pale wheat color, through pink champagne to a deep sherry color and is fairly expensive. Brazilian emeralds are also popular. My favorite stone was called Rubellite, a type of tourmaline in a deep pink shade.

H. Stern’s workshop is located at Rua Garcia D”Avila, Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro.  Although I didn’t have time for visits to other jewelers, Amsterdam Sauer is another option in Rio for those who are interested in gems and jewellery, although rumor has it that this firm is on the pricey side.

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