Intrepid Optimist

Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age

A Blank Cheque


In 1974 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting took place in Quito, Ecuador, The venue was in the Hotel Quito International, on the ave Gonzalez Suarez.  Across the road from the hotel was the British Embassy and next door to the embassy was El Pub, an oasis for OPEC’s visiting journalists, off-duty former SAS bodyguards and a few of the more adventurous and thirsty delegates.

On the second evening of the meeting I was in el Pub  when, during a  conference break, two Saudi-Arabians popped in for drinks.  At some point in the conversation we had gotten into, they asked if and where in Quito they could buy  emeralds. Now it just so happened – as they say in the business –  I happened to know a dealer and on their insistence  was able to arrange for them to see some stones the following morning

The jeweller I knew was Juan Schwamberg. I had known Juan since, in 1971 I had rented an office from him in the calle Juan Leon Mera, in the name Mandato Colo. The office was intended for a real estate business I had started and I had allowed the CIA to occasionally use it as a safe house. Juan, of course, knew nothing of my clandestine arrangement with the Americans.

Juan was proud to be one of those reformed alcoholics.A few years back he had been wounded during an attempted robbery and was permanently on some drug or other, which forbade him alcohol. He once cracked me up with the laconic statement, which I have claimed for the title of this book, “If I hadn’t been shot, I’d be dead by now.”

Despite my assurances everything was above board and I sincerely hoped it would be, Juan was concerned about showing his jewells to unknown and especially foreign clients. He only accepted when I agreed to accompany him and as he spoke only Spanish and I would interpret for him.

The arrangement was for us to go to their suite in the Hotel Quito. Juan, already suspicious  about the plan, became even more so when we arrived at the fourth floor to be met at the lift door by two solid looking Arabs, armed with automatic weapons. They escorted us to a door at the far end of the corridor, where a further guard barred our way.

Eventually admitted into the suite, our two potential buyers cordially invited us to join them at a sumptuous breakfast buffet, prepared en suite. It was only after we had eaten and conversed in general for about fifteen minutes they asked to see what Juan had to offer. As I had noticed Juan did not have a bag or brief case with him, I presumed we would talk first and if necessary return later with the goods.

No one was more surprised than myself when, from his jacket pocket Juan produced a folded dove-grey, chamois cloth, which he elaborately unfolded on the glas topped coffee table, to display a small pile of gorgeous gems. Juan explained that, as a known dealer in Quito and following the almost fatal attempt to rob him, this was the safest way to transport them as  it was too risky for him to be observed carrying a briefcase or a bag through the city streets.

The Saudi’s, as was yours truly, were duly impressed at the sight of  some thirty brilliant green emeralds,  in a variety of sizes and cuts, shimmering before us. Through my translating, Juan gave a smooth sales pitch on how Colombian emeralds were highly sought after because of their special green colour and clarity. We padded our presentation with a description of the Columbian emerald mines of Chivor, Muzo and Cosuez and the dodgy mafia which controlled the business.

The pair sifted through the collection; examining and holding individual gems up to the light. I had the impression they knew as much about emeralds as I did. Prices were asked and given, heads shaken, counter offers refused as Juan;  a shrewd Latin jeweller and the two Middle Eastern gentlemen – traditionally versed in camel trading – negotiated. As the bargaining was on-going, a third person had quietly entered the room through an adjoining door and without any introductions being given, started poking the emeralds around and examining them individually.

It took me a moment before I realized it was Yammi himself  – His Excellence Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources and the most powerful of the OPEC ministers. Then I understood the reason for all the security taken as we arrived. This was the man who twelve months previously – during the 1973 oil embargo – succeeded in forcing OPEC to quadruple crude oil prices, which was to the disadvantage of a good half of the world.[1]

Following exchanges in Arabic between the three, Yamani asked me if Juan had any larger samples to show. I repeated what Juan had just told us and elaborated on it; stressing the dangerous business it was. Juan then explained to him that pure, large emeralds were difficult to come by and were discretely traded.   There were a many fake stones and no one would openly advertise they had a genuine large one, for fear of robbery. He mentioned that only two days before a friend of his, a Columbia dealer, had been robbed and murdered in Quito. Despite our attempts to make the emerald trade as the most dangerous business to be in, Yamani appeared unimpressed. Juan said that if  His Excellency would say how much he was prepared to spend, he just might be able to acquire one for him.

Considering the offer, Yamani calmly asked to see further samples around the US$100,000 mark. However, he would need to see them as soon as possible because he would be flying out later that day. Even Juan was quite unprepared for the offhand way Yamani casually mentioned one hundred thousand dollars – this being 1974 – as though it was small change.

Recovering his composure, Juan apologized for not personally having emeralds in this price range and it could take a sometime to procure one. A pity, Yamani said but if he  did manage to get a couple of good ones, Juan should advise him and he could fly over to show them to him in Saudi Arabia or at his office in Switzerland. Wishing us all the best he left the suite as quietly as he had entered it.

The viewing ended with only one of the pair choosing a few of the smaller gems and the price was agreed. Apologizing that he did not have enough cash with him, the buyer produced a paper block from his brief case and commenced scribbling, pausing only to ask how Schwamberg was spelt. He tore the sheet off the pad and handed it to Juan, who in turn, looked questionably at the English text before passing it to me. There was little for me to translate.

The single page of headed stationary had the man’s name printed at the top; nothing else – no address, no telephone number and what he had written was as brief. Three lines, including the name and address of a bank in Washington, ordering it to pay Mr.Juan Schwamberg the sum of the agreed amount of the sale. It could not have been written simpler or clearer but where, I asked, in an attempt to appear  accustomed to such documents, was the account number? Not necessary, the sheik told me.

Speaking Spanish, Juan and I went into consultation mode. Should we trust them? Big question? Juan then suggested I guarantee the sum? “After all,” he threatened, “They are your friends, are they not?” I wasn’t falling for this, so I lied. In England, I told him, payments by this method were normal and that I had even read of someone having used an egg (hard boiled I presumed) as a cheque. Juan, wanting the sale as much as I did, was neither pleased or satisfied with this but reluctantly accepted the piece of paper and handed over the chosen stones. Carefully wrapping the remainder of his samples we took our leave.

Back at Juan’s office I helped him with the accompanying letter addressed to the Washington bank, with directions as to where the money was to be transferred. The next six weeks were quite worrying for me. I say for me, because Juan would call me on an almost daily basis, informing me that no transfer had been made. After learning the truth from his bank manager  that, not only in England but in the world, only a fool would accept such a piece of paper for payment of that amount. Juan then advised me in the nicest possible way that if no funds were was not quickly forthcoming, I could be expecting a visit from his Columbian friends.

Thankfully – as Juan was beginning to be more precise about which parts of my body I was going to find myself without – the cheque was honoured and the money transferred to his account in Ecuador.  Juan now assured  me of his eternal friendship and his threats were not meant to have been taken seriously. Before presenting me my 10% commission on the sale he had the nerve to suggest I contact Yamani and personally arrange to fly to fly to Switzerland or Saudi Arabia with some larger stones.

I politely declined, not wishing to go through all the trouble and possibility of being paid with a credit note scribbled on a camel’s arse.

[1] Vienna, Austria, December 1975, Yamani and several other OPEC ministers were taken hostage and later released  by the notorious terrorist Carlos – the jackal.

From my yet to be published book,:  “If I hadn’t been shot, I’d be dead by now.”BRT


About bbryanthomas

Not so young man about town who, having witnessed and enjoyed life, is presently having fun, writing about those by-gone times and life in general.

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2016 by in Stories.
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