Professional Jeweler Archive: Afghanistan's Gems in Jeopardy

December 2001

Gemstones & Pearls/News


Afghanistan's Gems in Jeopardy

Gem revenue could help Afghanis rebuild their country, so dealers shouldn't stop buying, says an observer of the gem scene there


An oft-repeated story says Afghani fighters battling the Soviets in the 1980s would erect tents over areas they thought might contain gem veins. Then they’d hide and wait for the Soviets to bomb the tent, creating a small crater and revealing the gem reserves.

While the story has taken on the unmistakable patina of myth, one aspect is certain: Afghanistan is richly endowed with various gem minerals, many discovered and brought to market during the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan.

But now, as U.S. bombs drop on Afghanistan, the gem supply has been compromised. Supplies from Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are in jeopardy, and availability of local gems could be affected for months or years.

Gem dealers who supply the world with lapis lazuli, emerald, ruby, kunzite, spinel, aquamarine and other beryls wonder how the disruption will unfold. Because the war on terrorism also involves Pakistan, Tajikistan and other nearby countries, gems coming from the entire region will be affected.

More or Less?

Two theories circulate among gem experts. One suggests supplies could grow, at least initially, in well-known gem trading areas along the borders, such as Peshawar, Pakistan. But major dealers who buy Pakistani and Afghani gems say the trading may be over for a while. “If it was tough to import from Pakistan before; it is 20 times as tough now,” says one dealer who asks not to be identified. “Even people with strong government connections are immobilized.”

The U.S. will likely scrutinize imports from the region with greater care, and some dealers say they don’t want to risk jeopardizing their merchandise.

Alternatives

Retailers and consumers probably won’t see major shortages of any particular gem species. Stocks of lapis lazuli already exported from Afghanistan are plentiful, so there’s no danger of immediate shortages. Ample supplies and high-quality ruby, tourmaline, emerald and aquamarine are mined elsewhere. Nigeria has emerged as a major source of tourmaline, as has Namibia. Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar keep surprising with new supplies of ruby and sapphire, as well as spinel, garnet, chrysoberyl, emerald and other beryls.

Peridot from Pakistan is controlled by warring tribal groups, so supply consistency is questionable; it’s expected this superb material will become increasingly hard to find as the war intensifies. Arizona and Myanmar are alternatives.

The Washington Post reported the al Qaeda terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden has reaped millions of dollars from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by RUF rebels in Sierra Leone and has stockpiled even more diamonds. The Post quoted unnamed U.S. and European intelligence officials and other anonymous sources close to the al Qaeda network. Reuters and Associated Press reports have suggested bin Laden also may have money-laundering operations involving Afghanistan’s colored gemstones.

Gary Bowersox, an expert on Afghanistan’s gem wealth, says it would be virtually impossible for bin Laden to be involved in colored gemstones because most significant mining areas are controlled by Northern Alliance forces, who view him as an enemy. Bowersox adds that revenue from gem sales helped the Northern Alliance finance its war against the Soviets and now the Taliban.

Though some dealers say they will avoid buying gemstones from Afghanistan, others state that a boycott of the country’s gems would only aid the Taliban and al Qaeda because it would weaken the Northern Alliance and the lives of ordinary Afghanis who have virtually no other means of support.

All things considered, the fate of Afghanistan’s gems seems tenuous in the short run. But nature has taken a longer term view. Mining gems may be a casualty of war for now, but the gems still lie in the most secure place in Afghanistan: under ground.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.


Necklace features lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

Photo by Robert Weldon

Matching peridot trillions from Pakistan, courtesy of Steve Avery, Lakewood, CO.

Photo by Robert Weldon

Ruby from Tajikistan, courtesy of Geovision, Honolulu, HI.

Photo by Robert Weldon


An Eyewitness View

Professional Jeweler received this e-mail from gem dealer in Peshawar, Pakistan, detailing mining and trading in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve omitted the writer’s name to protect his safety.

Nuristan is the main area for gem mining in northeast Afghanistan. Nuristanis are an independent-thinking minority in the complex group of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. This area has always been controlled by Nuristanis (Roxanne, wife of Alexander the Great, was from Nuristan, and he married her because he could not conquer this mountainous area to gain control). It’s filled with small tunnels, high mountains and sheer cliffs. The Taliban wanted the area when it took power but knew fighting the Nuristanis would be futile. The parties made a pact stating the Nuristanis support the Taliban as long as it doesn’t disturb their way of life. The northern part of this area enters Northern Alliance territory.

Once Nuristanis mine the gemstones, they are sold to Pathan (a tribal group) middlemen who resell them in Peshawar, Pakistan, the gem trading center in the region. Nuristanis take about 15% of the estimated value the gems will fetch from traders who sell to foreigners or export them. The Pathan is the region’s dominant tribe, and the middlemen selling to each other are from different subtribes and speak different dialects. This is one of the most complex trading systems for gemstones in the world.

This is normally the most important time of year, as gemstones reach Peshawar after the summer mining season. But many people are fleeing the areas the gems must pass through.

I stress the gems do not finance the Taliban. They finance average Afghanis, who have nothing else. I estimate $5 million in revenue a year from gemstones in the Northern Alliance area, mostly for Pansjhir emerald and Sar-e Sang lapis lazuli. In Nuristan the estimate is $2 million dollars per year for tourmaline, kunzite and aquamarine. This is what the locals would receive and is a substantial amount to run their villages and infrastructure. Remember, there is no central government to assist them.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications