Don’t go to Pioche (you can, just don’t time travel to there, ok?)

Pioche, Nevada (pronounced Pee-O-Shee) isn’t much of a ghost town any more.  Today it now has about 1,000 residents thanks to the boom in gold and silver prices.  Forty years ago, however, it was a near empty relic.  Lying along the Western edge of the state and abutting the Northern Slopes of what was, of course, later named the Pioche Hills; an eastern spur off the southern part of the more impressive Highland Range, Pioche is easy to find.  It lies along US93 as it winds itself South towards Las Vegas 165 miles away.  These days Pioche is a more somber town than its glittering neighbor to the South.  It didn’t used to be that way.  It used to be Hell on Earth.

Pioche today.
Pioche today.

The town got its start in1863 when a bunch of Mormon farmers, lead by William Hamblin, settled the valley.  The original town site was called Panacker after what they named the valley floor; the “Panaca Flats” (Hamblin and his kin were thought to be the first white people to settle here).  Shortly after settling the area Hamblin is then credited with the discovery of lead-gold-silver ore (the Panaca lode), but this is not entirely true.  In reality Hamblin convinced some Paiute Indians friends, who had no use for such glittery things, to show him where said metallic rocks could be found.  His staked claims resulted in $40 million in ore (to put this into perspective, in modern dollars this is about $2 billion!).  Don’t we all wish we had friends who could basically hand us $2 billion in gold and silver?

Hamblin was poor and bit too incompetent to develop the mine himself, couple this with the delays caused by the Civil War and the fact that the Paiutes were no longer his friends and were sick of all the white men invading their territory, and he was essentially forced to sell the claims to a French banker from San Francisco by the name of Francois Louis Alfred Pioche in 1869; hence the town changed its name to “Pioche”.  Hamblin eventually died in awful desperation to return to his original hometown of Gunlock, Utah, this was part in thanks to the awful, violent reality that was Pioche (more on this later).

By the time Francois Pioche bought the mines Nevada had already become a state, yet law enforcement was a little lacking (and what law there originally was had been corrupted by bribes and threats), so violence ruled supreme.  Tombstone, Dodge, and Deadwood have nothing on Pioche.  By the time the town had experienced its first natural death some 75 people had died via “lead to the head” or beatings.  Violence was so ubiquitous that the mine owners and foremen imported their own muscle to protect the mines from encroachment, bandits, and poachers at the rate of 20 men a day.  These hired guns were basically assassins and their death rate was so high that they quickly filed the cemetery on Boot Hill at the top of town.  This cemetery even has a section known as “Murderers’ Row” with over 100 executed men (most of whom were executed without trial).

The story of a bartender just known as “Faddiman”, as reported by Lambert Florin, was typical of the town.  When a job for an opening in a saloon was posted in Pioche Faddiman jumped at the chance for work that didn’t involve being underground.  Friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers alike told him not to go: “You’re as good as dead if you go to Pioche.”… “No bartender ever lasted longer than a year in Pioche.”…

Feddiman told everyone to get bent, “I need a job and I don’t care where it is.  I can take care of myself.”  He made his way to the then mining camp and stayed there.  His second week on the job he cut off an intoxicated customer.

His last words: “You don’t need another drink.”

The customer promptly shot him in the face, stepped over his body and emptied the till.  He went next door to the butcher shop where the curvaceous “N-word Liza” worked, raped her, slit her throat, and stripped the till.  When he proceeded to leave he was met at Liza’s door by the Sheriff who shot him in the head.  The killer’s name was never known, but was pretty typical of how the rows of unmarked graves that line the cemetery at Boot Hill grew so long so fast.

Violence was such a way of life that in 1873 the Nevada State Mineralogist reported to the State Legislature “About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers […]. You can go uptown and get shot very easily if you choose […]. I will send you a paper with an account of the last fight…I was in hopes eight or ten would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community. Peaceful! Sure, if you stayed out of the way of the bullets.”

The town at its peak in the mid 1870s had 6,000-10,000 residents, 72 saloons, and 32 brothels.  it was drunk, gun-fueled mess.  The local paper wrote: “Some people do not hesitate to fire off a pistol or a gun at anytime, day or night, in this city.  Murderers who shoot a man in the back get off scot free but the unfortunate devil who steals a bottle of Whiskey or a couple of boxes of cigars has to pay for his small crime.”

One of several fires during the 1870s that burned most of the town to the ground.
One of several fires during the 1870s that burned most of the town to the ground.

September 15th, 1871 a structure containing over 300 barrels of blasting powder went *boom* during a town fire killing 13 people, injuring 47.  The fire ultimately resulted in over $500,000 in damage ($25 million in today’s dollars),  and left upwards of 3,000 people homeless.

A mini war between the Raymond & Ely and the Hermes Mining Company over control of the main lode claim in 1872 broke out resulting in dozens of murders.  William Hamblin was tapped as a key witness in the subsequent trial over the claim rights.  Just before he was set to testify one of his drinks was poisoned.  In a frightful terror upon the realization that he was going to die he rode for his family in his hometown of Gunlock, UT.  He only made it as far as Clover Valley, UT before succumbing to the poison’s inevitability.  He is buried in Barclay, UT.

The town had its own awful stupidity too.  It was made the county seat of Lincoln County and in 1871 an $88,000 courthouse was erected which far beyond the original estimated costs budgeted at $16,000.  The courthouse became known as the “Million Dollar Courthouse” due to the public being swindled by financing, refinancing, and the issuance of public bonds for the building totaling more than $1 million.  On a note of awesomeness, the building was condemned in 1933; three years before it would have finally been paid off.  It has since been restored.

This courthouse cost over $1,000,000 in 1870s money.  Let's put it this way: would you spend $50,000,000 today for said building in the middle of nowhere NV? No, you wouldn't.
This courthouse cost over $1,000,000 in 1870’s money. Let’s put it this way: would you spend $50,000,000 today for said building in the middle of nowhere NV? No, you wouldn’t.

A curious thing happened in 1876 that is unique to Pioche as far as I can tell.  For some reason women began to flood the town and men began getting married in droves.  This was due in part to the strong will of the women as much of that of the weak will and decision making abilities of the alcohol inside the men.  The bachelors were so scared of waking up married that they formed a men’s liberation movement.  I shit you not.

The July 8th, 1876 edition of the Pioche Daily Record reports:

“An association is being formed in Pioche amongst the unprotected male sex, the object being to protect themselves from the encroachment of the female sex, which of late have become so dangerous, that the poor male is getting to be the object of pity.

“Many lately have been caught up and married before they hardly knew it.  Females are arriving from all directions by stages, by private conveyances…  In consequence of this frightful state of affairs, that men are getting so timid that they hardly venture in the streets for a short walk for fear that they will be married me before they return.  This association proposes to ameliorate the condition of affairs.”

The Single Men’s Protective Association held its first meeting in a small, smoke-filled room.  The idea was to devise a plan to protect the men from the “tricks” of the women who were apparently thirsting for the hand of these miners.  The new organization elected a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and one Joseph R. Hoag as Sargent at Arms.  Hoag’s role was to ensure that no females enter the secret meetings.  The men agreed to $5 dues and a pledge that none of the men present would get married for the rest of 1876.  This was when the doors were broken down and the women of the town trampled Hoag in outrage.  The men scrambled falling over chairs and diving out of glass windows to escape the women.  Again, I shit you not.

The influx of women and the rash of marriages in 1876 did have an upside: the town went almost two months that summer without a murder!

By the late 1870s the gold and silver lodes began to dwindle and the town was nearly empty by 1900.  Pioche had a resurgence during WWII when the need for Zinc and Lead for the war effort took precedent.  Today the old town has many historic buildings restored and is one of the great ghost towns to visit and explore.  The next time you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, NV swing on by Pioche and relive the weirdest, most violent days of the frontier.



How to launder money

OK, time to think like a criminal! Let’s say you are a syndicate boss for the Chinese triads in a North American city like Vancouver, Los Angeles, or New York; your job is to get a huge, fat stack of cash to your jefe in Hong Kong.  The money you have, millions of dollars of it, was obtained nefariously and you need to not only conceal its existence, but also be able to move it out of the continent to Asia without anyone knowing such a transfer was taking place.  What do you do, and how do you do it?

Easy, put all that wealth on your wife’s (or girlfriend’s) fingers, in her ears and around her neck and no one will even think twice when she walks through airport security. Using a proxy to bid, you purchase one of a kind jewels from a prestigious auction house; your Christie’s, your Sotheby’s, your Bonham’s, etc…  You purchase said jewels at one of these public auctions so that everyone is now aware of how much they sell for and the items have now established a price precedence that can later be advertised.


What exactly did you purchase at auction?  Well, it has to be able to be worn.  So large items like paintings, sculptures, and antiques are all out of the question.  Fine Jewels like large diamond rings, jadeite necklaces, and south sea pearls are what you are looking for.  If one blue diamond ring, or one emerald pendant can be worth several million dollars this is a lot less messy to smuggle out of the country on a flight than the uncouth method favored by amateurs of strapping gobs of cash to one’s body like in The Wolf of Wall Street.

This is how dummies try to conceal the source of wealth. Don't be a dummy.
This is how dummies try to conceal the source of wealth. Don’t be a dummy.

Not only is the risk greater because it is less conspicuous, but it is much harder to argue that cash strapped to your body or stuffed into your briefcase was a family heirloom, or a gift from a lover.  This is exactly what customs and the TSA are trained to look for, but everyone has a wedding ring on their finger, so they ignore these.

In 2009 the economy took a dive and dragged down some rather large players in the scheme game.  Everyone knows the name Bernie Madoff, but Mr. Madoff wasn’t smart enough to actually have made-off with anything.  Others just as awful, but who put a little more thought into their getaway, where able to flee with much of their wealth intact.  Here in Seattle we had our own terrible white collar criminals in the Mastro family.

The details of what the Michael and Linda Mastro did are available on the web, but in short, the Mastro’s developed land, took out loans to do such, and then squelched on about $600 million in loans and skipped town when the real estate market collapsed.  They did all the normal white collar things; set up off shore accounts with dummy corporations in Belize, transferred ownership of all their fine things like their Rolls Royce and their home to said dummy corporations, and then moved to France.  It was this move to France which was almost genius as they put 40cts of diamonds onto a couple of Linda Mastro’s fingers and hopped a flight to Toronto and then on to Paris.  Like I said, “almost genius.”  These two didn’t bother moving to a non-extradition country with their millions of dollars in gems, so in 2012 French authorities arrested them and sent their wrinkly butts back to the states for trial.

Enough about the failings of the Mastros, so now back to you and your triad organized crime wealth and your future success  You need to get $5,000,000 from North America to Hong Kong, what are you buying?  Well, looking at what is up next for auction at Christie’s we find that the the June 16th “Important Jewels” auction in New York has several items that would entice even the most obtuse money launderers.  Well, just purchase the $2,000,000 sapphire ring (lot 232), the $2,000,000 art deco diamond pendant (lot 227), and the $600,000 diamond ring (lot 231) and you’re pretty darn close to $5 million right there (bidding wars are your friend because it drives up the value at the next auction).


Now that you have your fine jewels and you have put them on the fingers and neck of yourself or your loved one, you need to then charter a private jet to fly you to Hong Kong, because really, who wants to wait in the TSA line like a commoner and then go through regular customs like some poor schlub?  Not you, you’re an important criminal!

Now that you are in Hong Kong you need to turn these gems into cash.  Well, just head to one of the offices of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, or Bonham’s in Hong Kong and put the same pieces of jewelry back up for auction!  The auction houses don’t care so long as they get their commission, and the fact that these items sold recently for an extravagant amount of money means that their perceived wealth is already fresh in bidders’ minds.  A few weeks later you get cut a check for your (almost) $5 million and present this to your triad boss and get a nice promotion and pat on the back.

People don’t realize this, but there is more wealth tied up in just diamonds alone than all of the stock markets combined.  Not every family owns stock, but almost every family (at least in the first world) owns a diamond.  Jewels have been a way of obtaining and moving wealth for thousands of years.  The Maharaja in India, the crown Jewels of England, the entire reason everyone and their mother has tried to invade and control Burma for the past several centuries, all has to do with maintaining and creating wealth via pretty things.  If someone has the jewels, you need to get the jewels.  If you need cash, you either sell them or pawn them, and I don’t care how rich you are; if you need to put a million dollar ruby up as collateral on a loan you just pawned the sucker.


Drug dealers, organized crime syndicates, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corrupt politicians, all of them, buy and sell fine jewels to launder huge amounts of wealth all the time.  So, when it is your turn be smart and don’t tape cash to your body; it is undignified.

Lessons In Not Getting Screwed, or Learning Things the Hard Way, or How to Sell Gems and Jewels

I just got back from the Banff World Media Festival where I met some fantastic people and learned a whole bunch about the entertainment industry.  One common theme most everyone seemed to relate to me was, “Be careful, don’t get screwed.”

Taking what I know about science, the Earth, and history to television is new territory for me and the education I am receiving from this adventure has its own parallels to my entrance into the world of gold and precious gemstones.  In other words, there is always someone who is a terrible human being who is going to try and screw you over and ruin you in the process.  Despite this risk you cannot let the prospect of terrible experiences keep you from reaching your goal.  Yes, there are monsters out there, but you have to find a way to test the waters and see who your future friends are and who your future enemies are as well (and I don’t use the term “enemy” lightly).


What I have found in the gem and gold market is that those who advertise the most (especially to older demographics like the front page of the newspaper or on FoxNews) are usually the worst and most evil; I am still waiting for one just of these companies to prove me wrong.  I used to, and still do at times, visit estate sales during the winters to find unique gems and jewelry to add to my mineral collection or to later sell for a profit.  Depending on the gem or jewel you will need to do the footwork and research to see who wants what you have.  Some jewelers will resell most everything, others want only world-class specimens, some only want specific styles and may say things like, “I only deal in Edwardian jewelry.”  Your job is to take note of this and then keep such information in mind for when you do find that beautiful Edwardian filigree ring.

As far as loose stones and jewelry go do not ever expect to be the one to receive full market value for what you have.  Yes, I know that engagement ring cost $5,000, but the most someone will ever give you for that ring is probably $2,000 (even then, that is not too likely).  This is just the way it is.  The only people who can sell jewelry for that much money are those who have beautiful storefronts with security systems, security guards, fancy glass cases, and women with huge boobs standing behind said cases.

The best deals for you will come from being patient and consigning your piece through a reputable, high-end jewelry broker or from a prestigious auction houses.  Even then, you can only expect at most 80% market price in then end as everyone gets a commission.  This usually only works with really rare, one-of-a-kind pieces though.  Don’t expect to take your JC Penny tennis bracelet to Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Bonham’s auction houses.

Some Tricks:

If you want to sell a gem or piece of jewelry for as much as you can there are a couple things you can do and chief among these is getting the stone (or stones) certified by a major laboratory like the GIA (Gemological Institute of America), the AGL (American Gemological Laboratory), the EGL (European Gemological Laboratory), the IGI (International Gemological Institute), the IGL (International Gemological Laboratory), the GRS (GemResearch Swisslab), or the BGL (Burapha Gemological Laboratory) just to name a few.  All of these labs are very honest and reputable, but some may offer a more in depth analysis and fancier report on your gems than others.

My experience with the GRS and the GIA are first class.  That is probably why these are the two favorites of almost everyone in the industry.  Most labs are very good with colored stone certification but when it comes to diamonds it is my experience that the only lab buyers trust is the GIA.  This seems ridiculous to me as diamonds are so easy to identify in the first place, but if you want the greenbacks you have to do what it takes to present your wares in the way your buyer likes.

What does certification even mean?  Well, when you spend a bundle of money to send a stone to a lab for certification what you get back is a detailed lab report as to the official color, cut, clarity, size, and overall quality of the stone.  Essentially the lab is saying this stone is what it is and are certifying it as such and putting their reputation on the line at the same time.  Sometimes, as with the GIA, they will even laser engrave a microscopic serial number into the stone upon request so that it can be tracked as it ventures through the markets.

Once a stone is certified the value of that stone skyrockets, and it can give you a negotiating tool.  A certified stone has prestige and a stone that is its exact twin without certification will sell for only 10-30% the value of its certified counterpart.  Also, if you are buying a stone it is a good idea to put a legal condition on the sale. Agree that you will only buy said stone if it can first be certified as what the seller says it is by a reputable lab.  Don’t assume that since they have the fancy store with the security systems, glass cases, and hot babes, that they are not just selling you pretty pieces of cut up Heineken bottles.

The other thing you can do is be sneaky.  Go to a jeweler who also buys or consigns stones or jewelry from estates or individuals and ask them to appraise it for you for “insurance purposes”.  Once they determine the value of the stone come back later and offer to sell it back to them.  When they low ball you, present them with their own appraisal.  It’s kind of a dick move, but it can really protect you from charlatans.

We Buy Gold!

Anyone who offers to buy gold on TV or in the Newspaper are out to screw you.  If they don’t list a “spot price” for your gold give them the finger and walk out.  Spot price should be between 90-95% current trading market price.  There are lots of mining shops, gold mutual funds, and investment funds who will pay you top dollar for your gold.

It helps if you refine your own gold first.  Educating you how to refine your gold is a blog for another day, just know that it is easier to sell 24k 99.9% fine gold than it is to sell a 12k gold plated chain necklace.

The same goes for silver or platinum, or any other metal for that matter.

Porcello Jewelers:

Porcello is a jewelry store in downtown Bellevue, WA who advertises on the front page of the Seattle Times almost everyday of the week and often has full page adverts found inside as well.  They claim to offer top dollar for the purchase of estate jewelry.  Let me sum up Porcello for you:

Fuck Porcello Jewelers.  They owe me $100,000.

Here is my tale:

A few years ago (2011), I had about twenty fine gem rings I had purchased at various auctions and estate sales.  The market value for the entire collection was in the $60,000 range and I was only interested in getting wholesale at a fraction of that price (I was hoping for $20,000, but would have taken as low as $10,000 since I had paid probably $2,000 for then entire lot).  Included in the collection was a platinum 2ct blue diamond ring which was accented with over a carat of near flawless rubies and almost a carat of VVS G-color diamonds. This piece was worth about $25,000 alone.  The man at Porcello said the ring was garbage and he would only give me $900 tops, and that was doing me a favor.  I pointed out that he had a blue diamond solitaire from the exact same designer in the case behind me for $36,000.  He held his ground.  Okay, I won’t sell this ring today.

This ring Porcello tried to screw me over.
This ring Porcello tried to screw me over.

The blue diamond ring was nothing compared to what came next.  The dude then gestured to a ring in my collection and asked, “What’s that?”

“That is a quarter carat enhanced red diamond in platinum.  The diamond is natural but the color is from irradiation.”  I replied.  Irradiation is a common technique, the blue diamond above is a result of irradiation too.

“That’s not a diamond.  That’s a garnet!” He almost screamed at me.

“No, that is a diamond.”

“I know a garnet when I see one, and that is a garnet.  I bet you $100,000 cash that if I take out my tester it’s not a diamond.” He challenged.

“Shit, you’re on, buddy. I’ve my tester right here too.”  I shook his hand and we both tested the stone. *beeeeeeep* went the testers affirming my statement that the stone was in fact a diamond.  I put out my hand and said, “Thank you for the hundred grand, you’ve made my day!”

This $1,200 ring has resulted in a $100,000 grudge.
This $1,200 ring has resulted in a $100,000 grudge.

He had security drag me from the store and accused me of cheating.  I reported Porcello to the Better Business Bureau and to the Washington State Attorney General.  If this is how Porcello treats an expert in the field what are they doing to the man who just lost his job or to the widow whose home is in foreclosure?  In other words, fuck Procello Jewelers.

Along your journey of making deals you will come across disreputable sorts like Porcello, and you will also come across sweet, knowledgeable, kind, trustworthy jewelers like K. Allen Smith in Seattle.  Just like how I am learning to navigate the world of television trying to market “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston” I once had to do the same with the world of gems and jewelry.

Good luck on your journey, and swing on by Porcello if only to ask them for my $100,000.

The Banff World Media Festival awaits!

Many of you are aware that I have made a television show.  We call the show “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston” and it is of the science/adventure/travel sort.  Imagine if you took Dirty Jobs, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and Bill Nye the Science Guy and smooshed it all together, that is what I am offering.

In each week’s episode I introduce a new gemstone, I explain where it came from, how the Earth made it, what cool examples of it are out there, what you can do with it, and then we go and get it!  In the process of our hunt we explore old ghost towns and abandoned mines, party down with locals, and see what this particular slice of the world has to offer for unique entertainment.  Depending on what we find, we may do something awesome with the stone(s); like carve it into a beautiful sculpture, make a piece of fine jewelry out of it for a Hollywood star, donate it to a museum, etc…

Anyway, after raising over $27,000 on Kickstarter, and spending another $40,000 of my own we have a pilot episode that I am taking to the Banff World Medial Festival to shop around to network executives and international distributors.  I am going to sell this show.  To whom? Well, that is up to the networks and their bid offers 😉

It’s time for shows with fat, stupid rednecks breaking things and yelling at each other to step aside for funny, enlightening adventure television.

I am stoked.