A real gem

Photographs by Wayne Cuddington

Ania Geerts is a silversmith and the owner of a new jewelry store in Westboro called Zahara Jewellery.

For Ania Geerts, the road to becoming a jewelry artist began in a Mexican jungle and ended in her modern, sleek Westboro boutique.

I’ve met a lot of remarkable people, but the 32-year-old owner of Zahara Jewellery, who once lived out of her car, is one of the gutsiest I’ve come across.

In 2003, shortly after finishing a degree in political science at the University of Victoria, Geerts found herself on a plane heading to Mexico to work as a human rights observer for the Zapatista organization. With no Spanish, she trekked through the jungle to live in a remote village for a month carrying a hammock and enough food for her stay.

“My friend and I went to Chiapas to monitor the Mexican government’s actions and to report what we saw. I didn’t really tell my family what we were up to. It was a good thing I was so naive.”

She spent the next year-and-a-half backpacking, learning Spanish and studying salsa dancing. On one occasion, after a gruelling bus ride from Guatemala, the pint-sized Geerts struck up a conversation with the only other foreigner on the journey.

“I was super poor, living on $5 a day. The man, who was from Argentina, was broke, desperate and his bank card wasn’t working. He asked me for $100, which was three month’s worth of living. He was so desperate, I couldn’t refuse.”

The man promised to leave the money with a friend in a village called Taxco, which is renowned for its jewelry. A couple of weeks later, she received an email saying the money would be waiting for her.

“When I got to Taxco, I called his friend, got my money and this person found me a place to stay. When I told him I was interested in studying silversmithing, he set me up with an amazing family.” Geerts spent the next eight months learning the tricks of the trade and selling her pieces to foreigners on the beaches in Acapulco.

“I took a $4,000 advance on my credit card and spent it on jewelry and gemstones. I was ready to come back to Canada and Googled the words ‘jewelry’ and ‘market.’ The first word that popped up was the ByWard Market.”

It was 2005 and, even though she knew only one person in Ottawa, she took the plunge. The day after she arrived, she tried to get a vendor’s permit to sell her jewelry but was told there were none left.

“I started living out of my station wagon in order to arrive each day at 5 a.m. to see if I could get a permit. I finally got one and sold out my entire stock in a month. I flew back to Mexico and spent a week-and-a-half making more jewelry.”

Geerts estimates she’s returned to Taxco about 20 times. She continues to rely on the family there as well as many other talented jewelry artists around the world.

Before opening her boutique, Geerts ran a kiosk at St. Laurent Shopping Centre and would sell her jewelry at
area music festivals. Zahara, an Arabic name meaning “to bloom,” opened a year ago across from Lululemon on the busy intersection of Richmond Road and Churchill Avenue. The intimate space is elegantly styled with almost a dozen twinkling crystal chandeliers, exposed brick and damask wallpaper.

Her delightful sterling silver collection boasts sparkling gems, fossils, dinosaur bones, diamonds and pearls. She is inspired by nature, whimsical tree formations and colour and has pieces that cater to each personality type.

“My stones weren’t created in a lab. I go directly to the mines to source my gemstones. Most people in this business order from a wholesaler or through a catalogue.”

Geerts, who travels on her own, has visited mines in Mexico, Brazil and India. Many mine owners are often
baffled when she shows up.

“As a young businesswomen, I have to prove that I have the balls to be taken seriously. I know all of our stone cutters. I may not go to the mine for every single gemstone, but I know the source for 90 per cent of my stones. I want the best possible gemstone at the best possible price.”

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