Hans Stern – The Jewel of Rio de Janiero and the world of gems

The glisten and shine of some of the world’s most exclusive jewelry is not unexpected. Anyone, who has the slightest interest in baubles, has heard or seen the name H. Stern & Company. But the real story of the famous jewelry firm is perhaps as interesting as seeing and touching the indigenous gems of Brazil and gemstones from other parts of the world. But, it’s here in Rio do Janeiro where the world headquarters is of this renown, legendary business. And it’s here in Rio that a young Hans Stern started his empire. At 78 year old, Hans Stern is still very much in charge although he is passing on more responsibility to his son Roberto. However, Stern still approves every design.

Before we meet, I walk around the museum section of the 15 storey building in midtown Rio. The imaginative displays with maps indicating where the fabulous colored stones are found and mined are informative and I’m impressed with the great wealth and variety existing in Brazil. Nearby, sitting in a huge glassed in area, are polishers, cutters, goldsmiths, all who seem oblivious to the many tourists who have come to see and learn about the art. I’m both fascinated and amazed with the intense attention these skilled people devote to each piece, even as we stand and watch. At the end of this voyeuristic jewelry journey, I’m not surprised to see there are retail showrooms filled with finished products, naturally, all for sale. However, what is soon obvious is that it’s a soft sell. Even as potential buyers linger over the vitrines, which hold small and affordable to very large and price-on-request items, the staff is available to help without a pushy sales pitch. All seem dedicated to the company and very knowledgeable about the products they’re selling.

Behind taupe colored lacquered doors, pyramidal hanging glass structures looking more like upside down diamonds, are very logical shapes as display cases. In this secluded room, are some of the most unusual and exquisite designs.

I wait to meet Mr. Stern. Soon, an elegant slim man, looking years younger than his age, greets me. Hans Stern when he enters with an assistant, creates a hush among the few others who have been invited into this special space. After years of giving interviews, I expect a bored, robotic chat. What I get is a friendly greeting, one that makes me feel this is one of the first interviews he’s given. After all these decades, there’s still a freshness and enthusiasm that Stern has when discussing his company. There’s no doubt that he’s elated with the success. His story is indeed, something to be proud of.

As a young German Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, he emigrated to Brazil when he was 16 with only $200. He admits he had no skills. One of his first jobs was with jewelry company where he was hired as a typist. He watched and learned how and where they cut gems and minerals for export. Seeing the possibility of something, although then, he didn’t know what, he took some correspondent courses relating to the industry. Soon, he decided to go to the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, where he negotiated with miners and quickly surmised that perhaps he could create an international market from the mother lode of the country’s gemstones –amethysts, tourmaline, topaz, aquamarine and citrine. The only problem, he soon discovered, was Brazilians were familiar with these indigenous stones and didn’t want to buy them. It wasn’t too long before Stern recognized the fact that tourists were buying his stock and reselling in their homeland. He became an international source. The tourist trade is still a large part of his business. Today, H. Stern & Company are the largest jewelry company in Brazil with 113 stores throughout the world and in 50 countries. Stern employs 3500 worldwide with 2800 in Brazil and 1000 in the very building where we are speaking.

“We do everything from mining, cutting, polishing, designing, manufacturing and selling. There is no other jewelry firms in as many different countries with as many shops. We specialize in colored stones and no other country has as many different gems,” he says with a grandfatherly-like smile. Imperial topaz found exclusively in Brazil, makes H. Stern & Company a great source for collectors. Stern feels strongly that their success is because, “we give service”. By this he means, if anytime, something happens to one of the purchase, no matter where a client is, if there’s a H. Stern shop, they’ll look after the problem. Only in the past few year has the company developed their own design brand with a team of creators from several countries. “We have different looks for each country since taste, age and lifestyles vary”. The designs go from traditional to modernistic. Often, now the company has three generations of clients. H. Stern & Company see themselves as trendsetters in the fashion world but Stern is aware of copycat imitations. However, it’s he who is sitting on the source of colored stones, which have reached their zenith. “Everyone already has a diamond, so now people want something different”, he says. “The most popular color depends on the skin tone.” Emeralds and aquamarines are presently the big sellers. Gold too, has seen changes in popularity over the last decade. In the past, white gold didn’t sell, but lately the jewelry mode is toward white and pink although yellow still has its followers. One of Stern’s major successes and coup was foreseeing the activity in airports so about 32 years ago, he opened in strategic hubs. “We get a lot of exposure in these places. We don’t make any money because our prices have to be in line with what we sell here in Rio. But the advertising is great.” Prices are consistent in all countries but the respective taxes have to be added

As for travel with stores world wide, Stern tries to visit each during the year. He also goes down the mines at least once in the 12 months and visits the miners so they’ll know who is behind the company.

I notice that he isn’t wearing any jewelry except for a watch. He’s cautious with his answer but says that most of the creations are mainly for women.

Quite aware that big jewelry has to be worn with discretion these days, Stern obviously has given much thought to this predicament. “There’ aren’t too many cities where women can feel safe with obvious, expensive gems”. However, as expected, Hans Stern has an answer. “You just don’t walk around like a Christmas tree here in Rio or anywhere else. You just have to be cautious.”

For a legendary chance taker, Stern knows what he’s talking about.

(The King of coloured gems died in October 2007)

(The King of coloured gems died in October 2007)