By Antoinette Rahn
Think back to your 20th birthday; what were you doing? How did you celebrate?
Steve Ulatowski did something that would more or less “begin” a life based on a leap of faith; he started his business, New Era Gems. That was 43 years ago, and by most accounts, that leap of faith has paid off, explains his wife, Jennifer Ulatowski.
Given his early exposure to the fascinating world of rockhounding and mineralogy and its cast of many experts and characters, it makes sense why Steve would leap.
“From what he’s told me when he was six or seven years old, his family lived near Los Angeles, and he stayed at a summer camp, and the man who ran the camp was a rockhound,” Jennifer explained. “One day, while Steve was out looking for rocks, he saw a different looking boulder, so he rolled it back to camp where the man cut it for him, and they found agate.
“Years later, the wife of the man at the camp, whose husband had died, gave Steve a slab of that same rock he found, rolled back to camp, and the man cut. He still has that slab.”
Bit By the Rockhounding Bug
After that initial and life-changing introduction, Steve was hooked and hungry to
learn and see more. By the seasoned age of 11, Steve had created his first gem cut, which he named after a girl he was sweet on. Soon after, he was faceting to make a little money. An early entrepreneur, indeed. Since that time his journey has included hunting for rough in locales thousands of miles from home, while working side-by-side with miners and dealing with mine owners directly; selling at many gem shows throughout the year in all corners of the globe; cutting and carving when and where he can; and meeting new people who inevitably become old friends in no time, according to Jennifer.
Keeping that type of schedule takes a lot of coordination, patience, as well as a self-sufficient partner and team keeping things moving on the home front/home base, and Jennifer said she’s happy to be that person and support for her husband.
“I’ve known him since I was 16. He was good friends with my old boyfriend,” she said, laughing. “A group of us would all hang out together and go to Steve’s parties. Back then, his parties were famous.”
Adventures Around Every Corner
It was just three years after meeting Steve that a 19-year-old Jennifer found herself en route to Tanzania to meet Steve. By that time, he had been traveling to that area of Africa as a primary element of his gemstone business for years. Little did she know that trip would be yet another memorable experience in life with Steve.
“Steve had arranged with my dad to get me to Africa where he was working, and we got engaged at Mount Kilimanjaro — it was incredible,” Jennifer recalled. “We’ve been together 33 years and married since 1994. I love him more every day.”
One thing life is not for the Ulatowski clan, which includes Steve’s children from other relationships and Steve and Jennifer’s daughter, as well as New Era Gems staff who are also family, is boring. Over the years, Jennifer explained, she’d never know what she’d find cooking on the stove in her house. Once she came into the kitchen to see something boiling away in one of her Calphalon pots, and when she asked Steve what it was, he replied, amethyst. In her good Calphalon pot, she exclaimed. Another not-so-boring aspect is the shortage of soap in the Ulatowski household. This is because Steve uses soap bars to develop cuts and do a practice run of a carving before he carves a rock.
On the home front, which is also the headquarters of New Era Gems, in Grass Valley, California, business operations and coordination of activities is ongoing, including fulfillment of orders from the online shop (www.neweragems.com/shop). Plus, there is the rock, 72 tons, give or take a few tons, on-site, as well as the decorative yard that Jennifer and a few staff members design and maintain.
“I have a nice setup. It’s welcoming to people who come by appointment to buy stone and see Steve when he is home,” she said. “I put a lot of rocks in the yard and use rocks to create art. It appeals to people, especially kids, when they come with their parents. Right now, I’m working on a pond bordered by ruby, zoisite, with quartz.”
Grateful to Work With Rock
Little more than a year ago, the idea that Jennifer would be working on a decorative pond on their property was just a dream and a near impossibility. After suffering a serious accident, Jennifer suffered near-complete shutdown of multiple organs, was in a coma for some time, and discovered some memory loss and motor skill issues upon waking. Following multiple surgeries, an extensive physical and occupational therapy schedule, and help from family and friends, Jennifer continues on her road to recovery.
“Everything in life is a learning experience. It makes you humble,” she said. “I am so lucky to be here and to have my family. Once I’m fully better, stronger, and shows are happening again, I can’t wait to join Steve and our team at shows again.”
The other part of that equation is Steve returning home from Thailand, where he’s
been since just after the 2020 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in February. Due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has not been able to enter the U.S., and it looks like he’ll be there a few more months yet, Jennifer said. In some ways, it’s been positive, as Steve can do a lot of his business there and then ship the material he buys back to the U.S.
Whether it’s amethyst boiling in a pot on the stove, Jennifer sneaking into the workshop to watch Steve as he carves a stone, the duo on the road attending shows, or on separate continents doing business as New Era Gems, the Ulatowskis, as Jennifer said, count themselves blessed to be living and doing what they love.