The Gems Bonanza
The abundance of gemstones could make them prime drivers of economic growth in Afghanistan.
Despite years of war and geographical constraints, there are a few things that remain unique to Afghanistan. One such strength of the country is the precious and semi-precious gemstones deposits that are found there in abundance. In fact, Afghanistan has been synonymous with being the hub of valuable gems. Nuristan, Panjshir Valley, Jegdalek and Badakhshan are the four major regions which are rich in such precious stones as lapis lazuli, emerald, ruby and kunzite.
The abundance of gemstones reserves and their many varieties make them one of the prime drivers of economic growth in Afghanistan. The gemstone industry of the country is estimated to have the commercial potential of up to $200 million according to statistics released by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Gemstone mining in Afghanistan is much more than just an act of labor. It is a specialized line of work that is performed by qualified craftsmen. The craftsmen add an edge to the process of excavation with their unique skills. They usually belong to the villages
surrounding the mines and are familiar with the topography of the area.
However, despite having great economic potential, the mining industry is in a shambles. One of the reasons for its downfall is the way extraction is done. The process involves tunnel excavation using hand drills and high explosives, which leads to the destruction of 70 percent of the gemstone deposits. This results in wastage and causes damage to gems which, in turn, lose much of their value.
Another major hurdle in the growth of the gemstone industry is the absence of trade channels. The World Bank estimates that gemstones that survive unprofessional mining techniques are exported through grey channels, with 90-95 percent of the extracts transported to Peshawar in Pakistan for quality checks. This deprives the Afghan government of royalty gains.
The situation turns bleaker because of the lack of skilled gemologists and gemstone traders in Afghanistan who can spot real stones and differentiate them from fake or synthetic ones.
A thorough inspection of gemstones is required to determine their quality and detect impurities, such as foreign objects, cloudiness and tiny fractures caused by heat that is part of the natural process of gem creation. The ability to carry out this examination is essential to ascertain the quality and authenticity of a gem.
In the absence of the required expertise, Afghanistan’s domestic gems market has seen a surge in the number of fake stones. This phenomenon has brought down the value of the authentic and graded precious stones.
Unfortunately, the government of Afghanistan has not yet invested in acquiring the latest technology to properly excavate the stones and to improve the methods of making jewelry from locally excavated precious stones.
Traders believe that some domestic sellers pass off synthetic gems as Afghan gems to foreigners, convincing them that buying the jewelry is a great bargain. As a result of such dishonest practices, the number of repeat as well as new customers is going down. Over the past few years, the number of foreign buyers of gemstones has decreased considerably.
The majority of victims who fall prey to the conning are American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Many soldiers serving in the country have been duped into buying ‘black diamonds’ and ‘ blue sapphires’, for which they readily paid large sums thinking that they would make a fortune out of selling them back home. While some spend a few dollars buying a carat or two, others spend thousands of dollars only to find later that the stones were fake.
The inability of the government to provide proper processing and designing facilities within the country has also contributed to worsening the situation. Such facilities are essential to eliminate the need for sending gems to other countries for the purpose of cleaning and cutting.
There is much more to the problems caused by the fake gems industry and the damage it has done to the Afghan gems market. Many Afghan gem traders believe that since jewelry from India, Thailand and Iran is silver coated in most cases and is made from ordinary material, it is cheaper in price and thus gives tough competition to Afghan gems at international exhibitions.
But gems experts also believe that the standard of marketing for original gems from Afghanistan is not up to the mark and therefore there is hardly any exposure of the quality products coming out of Afghanistan.
Moreover, the absence of proper export channels for precious stones has kept many interested international buyers from negotiating trade agreements with the Afghan government.
Over the years the Afghan government has taken some measures to address the concerns of gem traders with regard to the gemstones market. Gemology courses have been introduced and are being taught to participants from Kabul, Panjsher, Nuristan, Kunduz, and Bamyan provinces. These courses help the gem traders in differentiating the real precious stones from the synthetic ones.
The structural approach to promote the gemstone market will allow traders and sellers to build a trustbased relationship with their clients, which will ultimately translate into more profits as well as regaining the upper hand in gemstones market at the international level.
Other notable initiatives include a mining law to ensure a more regulated stream of exploration and mining and encourage legalization of the gem trade. This is regarded as a measure that would encourage more investment in the sector, leading to better work practices and improved methods of excavation and gem processing. Additionally, the government is seeking help to introduce targeted marketing in order to differentiate Afghan gems from other kinds of gems.
With these new developments lined up, especially with the institutionalization of value-added cutting and polishing centers in Kabul, Afghanistan is expected to be on the road to offer an internationally acclaimed gemstone industry once again.