People We’ve Met: H. Stern

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Hans Stern, 1983Hans Stern – Photo: Russell Johnson

I forgot how it came about, but I was in Rio de Janeiro on a project in 1983 and someone asked me if I would like to meet Hans Stern, the H. Stern whose name occupies the storefronts of designer jewelry stores from Paris, to Las Vegas, to the Middle East to New York’s Fifth Avenue.

I had read about the garimpieros, the dodgy freelance gem hunters of Minis Gerais. What an adventure it would be to go to the jungle and meet them.

My jewel stalking adventure ended, however, in a dark, cramped little office in Rio, that of Hans Stern, otherwise known as “the king of the colored gems.”.

After Stern’s family emigrated to Brazil from Germany to escape Hitler, he got a job at age seventeen with an exporter in Rio, explored the world of gems and met the garmipieros. Later he would own mines and employ more than 3 thousand people, diggers and designers.

Stern said he sold his accordion for $200 in 1945 to start his business (OK, everyone has a creation myth) and had his first big break in 1951 when the notorious Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza bought an aquamarine necklace from him for $22,000.

Diamonds may have been a girl’s best friend but, as the catalyst for an unexploited market for colored gems, Stern made them think twice.

Stern personally loved tourmalines. He had a personal collection of more than 1,000 faceted tourmalines of every shade and color. Now you can see them on display in a museum at Stern headquarters. When I visited, he had to dig this uncut gem, as big as a holiday turkey, out of a safe.

tourmalineWebPhoto: Russell Johnson

I did ask him, “Can I visit the mines?” “No,” he said. “But I’ll send a car around if you would like to go to the beach.”

Hans Stern died in 2007 at the age of 85.

H. Stern offers tours of its workshops in Rio.

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