The Rock Hounds

The Tanjeloff family has prospecting, mineralogy, and entrepreneurialism in their blood. Grandfather Julio emigrated from Argentina around 1960, fleeing the Perón regime, but not before investing in gemstones and minerals, including a rhodochrosite mine. Once in the States, the Tanjeloff clan—including Julio, son Edgar, and grandsons Dennis and Marc—traveled the world in the hunt for new gem finds. When stateside, the family ran the retail and wholesale shop that Julio opened, the Astro Gallery of Gems in New York (now at 34th Street and Madison Avenue) to sell what they unearthed.

The Tanjeloff family has enjoyed success. Julio was instrumental in exposing American consumers to unusual stones and specimens, including a gem-quality blue zoisite in the late 1960s. He wanted to market it as “tanjeloffite,” according to the archives of The Mineralogical Record, but a retail competitor named Tiffany managed to market it more successfully as tanzanite. Despite that blow, business at the Astro Gallery of Gems continued. The Tanjeloffs cut and polished their own stones, fabricated jewelry for resale, and dabbled in a variety of other gemstone-related affairs. “We found a way to make a business out of a passion,” says Dennis Tanjeloff, current president.

In fact, the Tanjeloff grandsons have long since picked up the entrepreneurial baton and passion for gemstones from paternal predecessors. Dennis runs the day-to-day operations of the store—with some help from Edgar—and younger brother Marc serves as the company’s vice president and de facto adventurer. Explains Dennis: “We bought a share in a mine in Tanzania near Dar es Salaam, and Marc is there setting up the mining project with locals.” Translation: Marc is stationed at a campsite near the dig that is a six-hour drive from Dar es Salaam, sleeps in a tent, and draws water from buckets carried to his site by a donkey. The prize that the Tanjeloffs seek—and for which Marc has forfeited creature comforts (bed, Internet access, Starbucks)—is tantalite (sphene).

“It’s an Indiana Jones situation,” Marc confirmed to JCK upon returning from a six-week stay. “There are no comforts of home.” Still, he’ll go back after the country’s rainy season and the AGTA Tucson GemFair Tucson 2010 end in late February.

The Tanjeloffs are going to such lengths because of the size of the crystals they’ve already found; they’re nearly 10 times the size of those in Brazilian deposits. If the material is “gemmy,” according to Marc, and specimens are extracted properly, “they could be worth anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million,” he says.

Grandfather would be proud—and prouder still of his heirs’ other endeavors. For example, the third generation also runs a vibrant business on eBay (user name MTMINERAL) selling specimens ranging in price from $15–$15,000. Additionally, Dennis curates private gemstone and mineral collections. To do so, he carefully selects mineral and gem specimens, many in their raw natural crystal states, according to investment value. At press time, he managed the private collections of six clients, taking particular pride in managing that of New York’s Mark Weill, son of former Citigroup chair Sandy Weill.

The Tanjeloffs also have an idea that could become a brilliant long-term strategy for the jewelry industry. The two-year-long dream project of Dennis’s, Astro Kids for Toys R Us, goes a long way toward piquing the interest of a jeweler’s youngest consumer—a child.

Dennis, inspired by his own brood of four and the Upper East Side’s Dylan’s Candy Bar, aims to replicate that alarmingly innovative, gotta’-go-there experience for kids in gemstones. At first, the goal was simply “to introduce natural history products to children in a fun and entertaining way,” says Dennis, but the more he thought about it, the grander his plans became. After some time spent negotiating with Toys R Us (which acquired FAO Schwarz last spring), the giant purveyor of playthings agreed to launch Astro Kids as a shop-in-shop within its Jurassic Park exhibit in the brand’s Times Square store. Astro Kids opened to the public on Black Friday 2009.

The new venture sells “anything related to minerals,” according to Dennis. Contents of the 375-square-foot micro-shop include fossil shark teeth necklaces, dinosaur teeth, meteorites, tumbled stones, geode kits with instructions for cracking open at home, and an in-store geode-cracking station. “Parents today want to spend money on something that’s educational for their kids,” says Dennis, who is in talks with the FAO Schwarz division to launch Astro Kids at the store on 57th Street.

According to Dennis, the Tanjeloffs own the concept, provide the staff, and stock the merchandise, while Toy R Us controls the retail space. With millions of annual visitors to the Times Square store, the space is good. For an industry notorious for stodgy, antediluvian ways (think intimidating stores), this kind of out-of-the-box thinking and clever partnering could be the start of something significant.

“We are exposing customers [to gemstones, minerals, and jewelry] at a very young age. Four to 14 is the target age group,” Dennis says. “Astro Kids could get big very quickly.”

Hopefully not before Marc gets a well-deserved break after his 24-hour flight home from Tanzania. He’s back in his own bed, at least for a little while. “I’m much more comfortable,” he says.