A teenage Elon Musk once walked the streets of New York with emeralds in his pocket.
His father, Errol Musk, had a casual attitude towards the family’s considerable wealth, including the stones that came from the Zambian emerald mine in which Errol owned a half share.
Elon, by his father’s recollection then probably 16 years old, and his brother Kimbal, decided to sell emeralds to Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the world's most famous jewellers – as his father lay sleeping. "They just walked into Tiffany’s and said, ‘Do you want to buy some emeralds?’" Errol recalled in an interview with Business Insider South Africa. "And they sold two emeralds, one was for $800 and I think the other one was for $1,200."
A few days later the family returned to the store to find that Tiffany was selling the $800 emerald, now set in a ring, for $24,000 -- a markup of 30 times the price Elon had received for the gem.
Errol has used the story as on object lesson in how retail works ever since. He was surprised but not concerned by the incident, Errol says, because money was plentiful.
“We were very wealthy,” says Errol. “We had so much money at times we couldn't even close our safe.”
With one person holding the money in place, another other would slam the door.
“And then there'd still be all these notes sticking out and we'd sort of pull them out and put them in our pockets.”
The incident also didn't discourage a young Elon from pursuing his entrepreneurial pursuits. He'd go on to help sell PayPal to eBay, found electric car company Tesla, and send a car on its way to Mars through his company SpaceX.
Errol said his children grew up watching him sell emeralds all over the world, after he had them cut in Johannesburg. However, he always stuck to the rules of the trade: contact the potential buyer, meet in a neutral public place ("for obvious reasons"), and be subtle about exchanging money for gems.It was kind of weird for them walk into Tiffany's," he says. "They'd seen I was sleeping in one morning, and they said, "Oh let's just try, let's go."
BI SA reached out to Elon for confirmation of the tale, but he did not respond. Father and son have a complicated history.