The History of Jewel Tunnel Imports
Well there is the long version and the short version. Ill give you the short version first and after that the long version. If you find the short version interesting you can then read as much of the long version as you can stand.
First off I will tell you that Rock Currier it my real name, give to me at birth by my parents for perhaps no better reason that Robin sounded to girl like to them and Peter, derived from the Latin and Greek words for rock, …well there were already a lot of Peters. And yes, it is hard to argue that I was fated to deal in rocks for a living.
My first real job lead to my lifelong fascination with minerals. It was at the big open pit borate mine at Boron, California. I worked in the chemical control laboratory in the refinery adjacent to the big open pit mine. My boss, Vince Morgan was a mineral collector and had a lot of mineral specimens from the deposit in his office and he infected me with the desire to go out and find specimens of my own. That job at Boron lasted only about 6 months but it started a life long quest to get more and better mineral specimens.
Several other jobs followed during the next ten years, the last of which was working for a company in Westchester, New York that made analytical equipment for hospital laboratories. I worked in the section that produced chemical reagents for use in their equipment. All during this ten year period I spent most of my spare time chasing mineral specimens mineral specimens rather than girls (probably to my detriment). Early on in Southern California I ran into and joined a rat pack of rabid young field collectors and we spent a lot of our spare time running around in abandoned mines collecting specimens. Later, during my 4 years back east the opportunities for field collecting were diminished because of the population density but the opportunities to visit the great institutional minerals collections museums and old collections were much greater. I spent a lot of time running around to museums, and private collections and taking a lot of pictures of specimens. I sort of consider this my college education so far as to learning about minerals in terms of what they were, and how good they got
The company I worked for down sized and one Friday afternoon I was called into the personnel department and found I no longer had a job. So I started collecting unemployment insurance and during the next couple of months I spent full time chasing minerals. I made trips up to the big asbestos mine in Quebec and bought, among other things, beautiful little clusters of grossular garnets off of the miners. I began to sell my extra specimens and soon found that I was making more money doing that than I had been making mixing up batches of liquid chemical reagents for others.
The upshot of all this activity was that I thought I might give being a mineral dealer a try, So I moved back to California and began to find my way as a specimens dealer. I talked my best buddy Bob Bartsch into going with me on a trip to India to get zeolite mineral specimens that I heard were abundant there. So off we went with round trip plane tickets and me with a $1000 in spending money in my pocket, half of which was borrowed from my dad. That was in 1972 and $1000 went a lot further then than now.
It was in India that I got the idea to name my fledgling mineral specimen company Jewel Tunnel Imports. During the time when India was governed by the British, they built railways and among them was a line that connected Bombay on the coast up through the canyons to Poona (now Pune) located up on the big basaltic plateau know as the Deccan Plateau. Amygdaloidal cavities in this basalt were where the zeolite minerals formed. In one of the railway tunnels, of which there were many, pockets of zeolites were encountered. The workers would shine their lights up into the pockets and they would sparkle like jewels and because of this the tunnel was called “The Jewel Tunnel”. It was reported in the news papers of the day that jewels had been discovered in the tunnel and thousands of people from Bombay came out to visit the place. This was one of the first generally publicized localities for zeolites in India. I never had any specimens from this tunnel because coal burning locomotives had been running through it for many years and any pockets of crystals were blacked beyond salvation. But because the specimens I brought back to the United States came from an identical geological setting it sounded like a good name for my business.
The trip was a success and I returned with gobs of specimens to sell. Which I did. Soon I was off on another trip, this one around the world to see what other specimens I could find. The Itinerary of that trip went like this. Hawaii, Fiji Islands, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, India and back home. It was all very interesting and I got specimens in most of those places, but I didn’t really get a lot of specimens till I got back to India. What I learned from such trips is that you really need to go to places that are producing lots of mineral specimens rather than just places that you have always wanted to visit that had produced specimens in the past or only a few specimens.
Soon I thought I should visit Peru and see if I could get some mineral specimens from there. It was after all, a mining country with many mines, some of which produced specimens. So off I went and arrived in Lima armed only with some US dollars and some pretty miserable barely remembered high school Spanish. I organized a trip to a number of base metal, tungsten and silver mines with a college student from the local Engineering school in Lima and managed to get a few specimens. At least enough to make a return trip which eventually worked into buying several tons of specimens per trip, mostly pyrite that sold well in the USA.
Pretty soon I thought I should visit Brazil because it produced a wealth of many different kinds of specimens. I started out by visiting the pegmatite areas in Minas Gerais but soon the new age craze was in full swing and there was a big demand for quartz specimens. So I went up into the quartz country in Minas Gerais state around Diamontina, Corinto, Joaquim Felico etc and began to buy up quartz crystals which were snapped up by the new age fold. I had always liked quartz with inclusions and started to buy up a lot of quartz that had phantoms and other inclusions. These sold very well, so well in fact that with two partners, Ed Swoboda and Osorio Neto we opened a couple of little quartz mines, one of which produced beautiful quartz crystals with green phantoms.
Tsumeb was still going strong in those days and I of course had to visit that fabulous mine to see if I could get some specimens. It turned out that I could. I got some real wonderful specimens, but most of the money that Jew Tunnel made was from the sale of small dioptase specimens. I worked with Clive Queit who at the time lived in Tsumeb and over several years, he sent me thousands of small dioptase specimens, the proceeds of which in 1977 allowed me to put a down payment on a house or rather a property with two houses and four garages on it. This became the home for Jewel Tunnel Imports for the next ten years or so. Finally one of the neighbors complained about the noise and I had to move the business into more conventional digs.
Still relatively young and looking always to conquer new worlds, I thought I would add agate and amethyst to my growing inventory. So off I went to Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil to get some. First however I decided to go to Uruguay and to try and get some of the amethyst stalactites that Uruguay was famous for. Plane old Brazilian amethyst crystals and cut and polished agates were not particularly appealing to me.
I wondered around Montevideo for a couple of days asking in jewelry shops for amethyst specimens, and on the verge of giving up, I hooked up with a pair of brothers by the name of Polleri who had a Jewelry shop in Montevideo. Jeorge, who ran the shop hooked me up with his Brother Hector who ran the cutting factory and amethyst mine in Artigas, a small town in northern Uruguay just across the river from Brazil. A day later I was on a little puddle jumper plane to Artigas. Hector showed me the factory and mine which was a real eye opener compared to the poverty striken amethyst and agate localities I was familiar with in the USA. I bought a lot of stuff. Hector then drove me across the river put me on a bus and told me who to see in Soledade, Rio Grande do Sul. I could not believe how much amethyst and agate there was to buy in Rio Grande. I remember calling home to my three employees Bill Besee, Valorie Drake and Joe Lieberz and telling them to sit down because I had just bought $16,000 worth of agate and amethyst and didn’t have any idea of how we were going to pay for it. My how times change. $16K is still not chump change, but it seemed a huge amount at the time.
So time passed and I visited other countries for specimens and added to my growing number of contacts. During this time I went to Russia, which was very interesting, but almost impossible to do any business in because of governmental restrictions. I thought China would be even more difficult, but turned out to be a bonanza for mineral specimens and lapidary items. The Chinese government in spite of being communistic made it possible for its people to work and do business and I bought tens of thousands of specimens from various mines and localities.
More recently I visited Ethiopia, and bought a couple of tons of good amazonite specimens and Mali where I bought a couple of tons of good prehnite specimens. Bolivia though fascinating proved difficult because of logistics to do a lot of business in, though I did get a container load of sulfur specimens from there. From one of the iron mines in Brazil we got a container load of iridescent hematite that in the beginning we had trouble selling it at $3 per pound as color rock till some guy figured out how to make jewelry out of it and in the end were getting $10 each for small two inch pieces. We got one load of this and were never able to get more.
So after about 30 years of traveling the world, suffering bumpy dirt roads, bad food, cold water for bathing and small hard beds I gave up traveling. At the time I thought that business at Jewel Tunnel Imports would suffer, but that has not been the case. A little thing like the internet happened and communication, including sending pictures back and forth negated the need to do a lot of traveling.
As this resource developed I thought it might put Jewel Tunnel out of business. With the internet all my suppliers could now see what the retail prices were and have access to most of my customers. What room for a middleman like me could there be? It didn’t work out like that at all. The internet did quickly drive the price of most high quality one of a kind specimens beyond the means of a wholesaler like Jewel Tunnel to buy them, but for all the rest it turned out the market still needed a distributor in place with a showroom and warehouse.
Today we operate out of a 13,000 square foot warehouse/show room in Baldwin Park, California and are busier than ever.