Can the Gem Trade Put a Shine on Afghanistan’s Economy?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, beyond their mesmerizing shine, these gems could help build a better economy in Afghanistan.
You might go there for the promise of silk carpets. And the antique daggers, the decorative boxes encrusted with sky-blue lapis lazuli. Or maybe the place is the lure. The shops themselves are jewel boxes, offering emeralds from the country’s Panjshir province, rubies from the Jegdalek mines. Welcome to Chicken Street.
Go ahead and snicker at the name. In Kabul, this is the bar-none place to find treasure, silly name and all. But the most interesting thing about this spot isn’t for sale. Until just a few years ago, the stones glittering in the jewelers’ vitrines had traveled long and far from their origins in the rugged Afghan mountains to be cut and polished. Now, in a subtle move that may help Afghanistan’s economy, local tradesmen are cutting out the middleman — by cutting their own stones.
Entrepreneurial gem cutters like Khoja Esmatullah are coming out of the woodwork in Afghanistan. Though his country’s economy lies in shambles, Esmatullah didn’t hesitate when he heard about the opportunity to enter the gemstone business. After all, there weren’t many jobs to be found, and while his foray started out of necessity, it has since become a passionate affair. “When I cut and polish a stone, it is as if the stone would talk to me,” the young lad explains.
He learned his craft in India as well as in a building located in a quiet mud-brick alley off a noisy street at the bank of the dirty Kabul River. That’s where — if you’re lucky enough to find the right unmarked door — the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul lies. Here, in what seems to be one of the most beautiful houses in Kabul, with small patios and carved wooden doors, Abdul Azim Hakokzoda teaches a future generation of Afghan gem cutters.
It’s a lucrative business. Though they’re still a sliver of the global gem trade and hard to quantify, one government report estimates the gemstones mined here to be worth between $30 million and $80 million annually. For its part, the World Bank estimates that 90 to 99 percent of all gemstones mined in Afghanistan are smuggled out of the country. The Indian city of Jaipur, known for its many gem cutters and jewelers, is one of the centers in this elusive sector.
As Hakokzoda explains it, there are two steps for transforming an inconspicuous stone into a shiner. First the cutter has to evaluate it and see what kind of cut best suits the shape, color and quality of the stone. Then it gets cut and polished. For this, not much equipment is needed: one machine with two interchangeable grindstones (one for cutting, one for polishing), special powder and oil. Doesn’t sound like much, though tradesmen need an average of 15 minutes to evaluate stones and anywhere from a few hours to one day to turn a rough stone into a piece suitable for jewelry.
It’s tough to mine and process the stones given the precarious political situation in this still war-torn country.
Every year, five to six graduates leave the school, which is a joint project of the Afghan government and international donors, but no one has an official figure of how many gem cutters currently work in Afghanistan. According to Hakokzoda, there are three master craftsmen, including himself, as well as around 100 other artisans in Kabul. While it’s hard to find even one of these individuals, Hakokzoda says the industry has developed considerably.
Afghan emeralds are considered among the finest in the world by some international experts, though the price of a single gemstone fluctuates wildly, depending on its color, clarity and size. Gary W. Bowersox, for one, is an American gem hunter who has been traveling to Afghanistan since 1972 and says he has sold local emeralds for anywhere between $1 and $14,000 per carat. Meanwhile, another international expert says the best specimen can fetch more than $40,000 per carat. While the country therefore has potential to grow within the colored gemstone market, it’s tough to mine and process the stones given the precarious political situation in this still war-torn country.
To help on that front, the Afghan Ministry of Mines issued a lofty gemstone policy a few years ago, promising the development of mining, as well as cutting and polishing. The only problem? This doesn’t seem to have been implemented. Esmatullah says he didn’t get any help in setting up his cutting business. And Bowersox notes that the market has been forced underground due to an array of legal and bureaucratic issues, such as prohibitively complicated export procedures and high royalties and taxes. In fact, fine stones are still rarely cut and polished here. (The Ministry of Mines didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.)
Meanwhile, big companies like Gemfields are beginning or continuing to heavily invest in other countries, including Zambia — and Afghanistan risks slipping further behind. So for now, Kabul remains more like a backwater when it comes to the gem trade, and some are skeptical about the region’s prospects for becoming a new cutting capital for precious stones, and not just because of its obvious dearth of tourists. “The market reality unfortunately still proves that, for a producing country like Afghanistan, it is better to try to get the highest price possible for rough stones than to count on an efficient cutting industry,” says Jean Claude Michelou, vice president of the International Colored Gemstone Association.
But that isn’t stopping stone cutters like Esmatullah from pursuing their emerald-tinted dreams, or teachers like Hakokzoda for that matter. “Kabul,” Hakokzoda dreams aloud, “could become like Jaipur.”