Buying precious stones or gems on the boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield can be an exciting yet daunting adventure for a deployed service member or civilian in a combat zone.
The stories of people buying gems in Afghanistan and turning over a sizable profit in the states pass around like rumors, but somebody always knows a relative in the jewelry business. But, there is also the risk of synthetics being tossed into the mix. Not to be confused with heat treatment, this is used to bring out the color in some stones such as rubies or sapphires.
A customer walks into the store for the first time and asks, “How do you know which ones are the good ones?”
“It depends on what you like,” said Ayoub, the store owner and buyer for the business.
Everybody has a different taste, that’s why there are so many shapes, sizes, cuts and colors.
A customer asks if the rubies are manmade.
“They are enhanced, by a process of heat treatment that brings out the color in the gem,” said Ayoub. “Afghanistan doesn’t have the modern facilities to cut gems as well, in comparison to Thailand and India.”
The Russian-Afghan war shifted everything to Pakistan, Ayoub said. Beginning with the Russian invasion, Afghan gem merchants left their homes, similar to Cuban cigar makers moving to South America, but Afghan gem merchants are now returning to Afghanistan.
“With 30 years of war, the gem trade, what was beginning to develop but has not had time to establish due to the invasion still finds a way to maintain a market,” said Ayoub.
Afghan gem merchants who remain in the country run the risk of Taliban or corruption at the borders, but are aware of the reemergence of the market and want to bring back the reputation of Afghanistan as a leader in precious gems.
Ruby, emeralds, tourmaline, aquamarine, kunzite and lapis lazuli all have origins in Afghanistan, but when it comes to sapphires, they originate in the Cashmere region of India and Sri Lanka including Thailand and Cambodia.
In the U.S., the states of Montana and Minnesota are famous for their sapphire mines, according to the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Sapphires are highly sought after and marketed in Afghanistan, so they are easily mistaken to originate in Afghanistan.
Sapphires are actually an aluminum oxide called corundum. In its pure state, it is colorless, but may be red, pink, blue, green, purple, black, orange or yellow. Gem quality red corundum is referred to as ruby, with all other sapphire.
For thousands of years, Afghan gems have adorned crowns or taken their place as the crown jewels of monarchs or have been reserved for royal families dating back to Alexander the Great and the Pharos. Lapis was at one time limited to possession of royalty and was a criminal offense to have it in your position.
Ayoub said when he embarks on a buying trip; it may include places such as Africa, India, Pakistan and Thailand. Recently he traveled to Thailand on a week-long buying adventure to include a two-day course on new treatments for sapphires and rubies and how to identify the treatments, ranging from laser, glass fill, similar to the resin that is injected into the crack in a windshield. Ayoub said that whether you are buying gems as a business or as a consumer, you need to know what you are buying and if it has these new methods of enhancements.
He said he also invested in the necessary equipment to establish a gem lab on site and intends to employ certified gemologist.
During Ayoub’s latest trip to Thailand, after the classes and equipment buying were completed, he joined with a group of buyers he met up in Bangkok for a three-hour southeasterly trip to the border with Cambodia. Chataburi, Thailand is considered the capital of gem buying and is where the entire precious and semi-precious gem stones end up to be cut or sold in large quantities in Southeast Asia. The labor is cheap and has been the focal point for many years.
The two dozen or so buyers from mostly Asian countries would have the entire trip arranged by a Bangkok dealer who would facilitate the entire expedition. After arriving at the hotel, the buyers prepare for a three-to-four-day marathon of meeting with hundreds of gem cutters from the region. Beginning with a conference room in the hotel, the buyers would place signs on the front of their tables indicating what they are there to buy, then it begins.
No Champaign and Hors d’œuvre, just business and thousands of precious and semi-precious gems, cut or rough. If they are cut, then they do not expect to pay a tariff when leaving the country, but if they are un-cut, then they expect that the gems will be cut by other gem cutters and will not generate further local income.
Ayoub described the three days as exhausting gem buying, which involves hours of peering through a loop to examine the degree of inclusions (foreign objects trapped in the gem stone), or the tiny imperfections that run like fractures through the gems. In fact they are solid crystal inclusions consisting of calcite, quarts or fluorite, but are expected because they are part of the natural process of their creation. You would expect to find these little fissures that resemble lighting bolts or feathers created under temperatures exceeding 1500 to 1800 degrees Celsius.
If these are absent, then you should suspect that the gems are possibly synthetic and warrants further investigation. There is also the degree of cloudiness, which is a byproduct of heat enhancement. But some cloudiness is to be expected in a natural gem. The majority of rubies and sapphires sold today are heat treated to enhance the color and clarity. Heat treating was implemented by the gem industry in the 1920’s but has been around dating back several thousand years.
Retailers should tell a buyer if the stone is enhanced, but ultimately, the consumer needs to know something about what they are buying in direct proportion to the amount of money they are about to spend. Buying as an investment, you want to look for stones that are untreated and as clear as possible. But if you are buying for glamour, then the enhanced gems may be what you are looking for as they will present the characteristic color the public will identify with.
Ayoub said he recommends doing some research and have a reputable place to appraise the gems for a fee. Look for a professional who is disinterested in buying your gem or selling their gems and is providing an appraisal for a fee only. Buy a few gems that you are interested in after you figure out what you are doing. Ayoub said to concentrate on something that has a good return.
When buying gems in Afghanistan, you are basically establishing yourself as the middle man and are cutting out the majority of the markup. The markup comes from the multiple change of hands and you are basically paying for the contact and work that goes into the gems.
Gems could basically start out at a fraction of the cost you will expect to see in the west or Europe. If you are buying for pleasure or for establishing an investment portfolio, you need to look into having your gems properly certified by a company, such as Geological Institute of America. They will charge $150 per stone evaluation and will laser etch the serial number on the edge of the stone for you, it will be certificated and placed on their website for insurance or to certify your portfolio.
Why do people buy Afghan gems?
According to Ayoub that answer is two fold, “Buying precious gems on deployment adds to the excitement and story value when giving as a gift to a loved one or as a conversation piece in a collection. They also believe that by buying Afghan they are essentially helping out the small businesses and economy of the Afghan people.”
Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Coffman