Left: Empress Gilbert; right: Gilbert's new coral collection
The exotic name, the glorious cascade of fiery ringlets … They’re all real, she says. And a big, bubbly personality goes with them. Empress Gilbert was born into a loving Jewish family that migrated to Las Vegas, with family in Dublin and Germany. Her father took one look at her “pink cheeks and bright orange hair and decided she looked like a little empress,” Gilbert says.
Her earliest connection to the precious and rare minerals she now sells at her showroom in the Dallas Design District, Empressive GeoDesigns, had humble beginnings. At age 4, she stole a penny from her mother’s wallet to buy butterscotch candy then lied about it. “My mother got a big basket of rocks from the garden and told me to go door to door and sell the rocks to show me how hard it was to make money,” Gilbert says. She sold each one for a penny, tears streaming down her face, her copper locks barely contained under her tichel, or scarf.
These days, Gilbert sells her rocks for a small ransom. A natural raw emerald on a Lucite pedestal fetches upwards of $50,000, while a 4-by-3-foot uncommonly clear quartz that just arrived in the showroom in early June has an asking price of $150,000. She has the largest collection of rare jet-black quartz in Texas, one of the most in-demand minerals among interior designers, ranging between from $16,000 to $20,000 each. Blue and green lapis from Afghanistan and green selenite from Australia are also rare and highly in demand. “I can’t keep anything blue or green in the store,” she says.
From vibrant red Australian Mookhaite to neutral beige Mexican Desert Rose, Gilbert’s inventory of minerals runs the gamut from bold to subtle. “I have pieces from Croatia, Russia and Madagascar,” she says. “I have zincite from Poland that sells for about $36,000, one of the only specimens available in the country. And I have papers for it, which are unusual to have.” Zincite is difficult to obtain since it grows in mines and chimneys in Poland. “It’s generated by the heat,” she says. “It’s almost like candy; it’s very delicate.” She says she won’t buy from China, where they often replicate and enhance minerals, and she stopped buying fossils years ago, when they became too easy to fake.
Gilbert also creates custom and ready-made lamps, tables and accessories from the thousands of geodes and minerals she sources. Earlier this summer, she received a shipment of dozens of large coral from Malaysia, including brush, brain and rare black corals. It’s all naturally harvested — often washed up on the shores after typhoons — and certified for import by the United States government, she assures. “Large coral is trending quite a bit, so I’m bringing more of it in.” Prices range from $400 for a smaller piece of brush coral to $3,800 for a 24-inch piece. “I like brush coral because you get a lot of look for the price,” she says of the coral’s delicate, filigreed design that blooms outward like a fan.
Gilbert opened her first freestanding showroom last summer, and a year later, business is booming. Her biggest customers are interior designers and oil-and-gas companies. One energy client from the Trans Pecos region has spent more than half a million dollars in less than a year on minerals for his offices, loading them up on his private plane. She’s also working with regional artists to produce sculpture and hand-blown crystal goblets wrapped in jewels and precious minerals, which will be available in the store in late 2016. 1339 E. Levee St., Dallas, 214.343.0000.