Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ouro Prêto and the Gem Trade

I had been two weeks in Brasil by this point and by diligent scribbling had filled two hundred notebook pages.  In there with the movie posters and magazine covers, newspaper headlines and what was popular on TV and how people dressed and behaved  --  that restaurants put salt and toothpicks on the table, but not pepper, and that picking your teeth in public is permissible if you cover your mouth with the other hand  --  and all of that sort of thing that you notice when you are a spectator in a foreign place I also realized that I had seen almost no private display of the Brasilian flag, either the banner itself, in full-size or miniature, or even pictures of it.  An odd thing I would think, though perhaps we Americans have an atypical attitude toward the national flag.
    Another matter I noticed was that several times people seemed to have gone out of their way to mention Brasil’s racial and social harmony.  While some of the people I spoke with had a political agenda, the lady in the shop who was showing me 19th-Century prints pointed out a scene in church at the communion rail and said that it showed that “at mass, all are equal”.  A businessman talking about the old days of the Patriarchy explained how the godfather system served to create personal ties across class lines.  I could speculate on why they felt the need to tell me these things, but I prefer just to hear what they have to say, and truth is truth, whatever its motive.

At the hotel I hired a car and driver for the hour and a half drive to the beautiful old colonial town of Ouro Prêto.  My driver spoke Spanish so I learned all sorts of interesting facts and statistics, including current production of bauxite, iron ore, uranium, precious stones and other chthonic produce.
Typical of his calling, the driver tried to steer me into particular gem shops, but I finally convinced him he was wasting his time so he went off to have a drink with a friend and I was left to wander around the city on my own.  Once free of my driver I had to deal with a swarm of jewelers’ legmen, but finally got rid of the most persistent by telling him that I was running short of money and could I borrow something until the banks opened tomorrow.  I doubt that he believed me, but he left me alone anyway.  Ouro Prêto plainly catered to tourists, but in those days, at least, did so agreeably enough.  

On the central plaza was the School of Mines, whose museum was open and where I got to see some of the black gold ore for which the place was named (it was grayish, actually) and wondered how anyone ever realized it was gold.

Sitting in a bar, there were four men at the next table dealing in gems.  They had lots of 20 or 30 stones in folded paper packages.  The fellows were playing it close to the chest.  Two men leave the table to talk privately, then return to continue dealing.  One fellow produces a pocket balance and is weighing a lot of dark purple stones.  As I cannot reliably tell the difference between a diamond and a piece of broken glass, the game has no attraction to me, however romantic it might seem.  (“Ah, ha. The Czarina Alexandra Peridot.  523.7 carats.  Last known to be in the collection of the Marquis duChien.  But this, I fear, is a clumsy imitation.”)  In gem shops I could see no difference between the pricy pieces in the display cases and the pretty stones in bushel baskets that were sold by the scoop.  I plainly had no business in the gem trade.

1 comment:

  1. I visited Ouro Preto many years ago and a few weeks later the Amazon. There I met a fellow American of your's who clearly was in the gem trade. On one occasion he picked up a little skin pouch and showed us its contents. Like you, I was not in a position to appreciate the value of those stones. He, on the other hand, was very proud.