"The U.S. has gone diamond crazy," says dealer Rex. Harris. "The price of diamonds has doubled in the last year and a half. More and more, people are getting into loose stones. It's not something we've really seen before in this country, although they've always done it in Europe, as an investment. And then you take something like emeralds, which cost 50 percent more than diamonds. Most emeralds come from Columbia, and the government down there has stopped running the mines - you just can't get any emeralds."

This is nothing new, as the astute reader of history will know: Marco Polo, John Baptiste Tavernier, Louis XIV and countless others invested heavily in gems. They are, after all, portable, compact and rare.

"Gems are in our blood," says Herbert Duke, who is promoting the International Gem and Mineral Show at the Sheraton Park through Sunday. "When you want to escape from a country, you take jewels. Jewels are becoming more and more popular, and we want people to know their gems."

An introduction: supreme select malachite ($30/lb.). tiger's eye ($15/lb.), spectrolite (20c/gram), rhodochrostie (10c/gram) or the rare alexandrite - named after the Russian Nevski and not the Greek Great - at $6,850 for 1.37 carat, or about 1/4 gram.

In the mineral department, we have gold: Pan for it yourself at just $2.50 a shot, ill Capps, who wears a brown 10-gallon hat, a string tie and a digital watch, will let you search in his specially created wood and plastic stream.

People get into gems in some strange ways. Paul Dixon of Waynesboro, Va., got a degree from the University of Maryland in counseling, taught automotive engineering in Virginia, took a cross-country trip six years ago and became addicted to jewels. June Culp Zeitner, known as the First Lady of Gems and Minerals, says she fell in backwards when she married a geologist 37 years ago.

So the first lady and friends came for their first-hand encounter with red beryl from the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah, a recently discovered precious stone that goes for a mere $3,000 a carat; the hottest new gemstone in America, fire agate, being guarded by a seven-foot-long boa constrictor; a 165,000-carat topaz crystal, or a herd of hand-carved ivory and gold elephants from Sri Lanka - the source of King Solomon's gifts to the Queen of Sheba? And, of course, gem fans can get the latest on the Holy Land Mineral Tour, where you can "go behind the scenes of one of the busiest diamond exchanges in the modern world."