All That Glitters

From jagged crevice to jeweller, Afghan gems travel a perilous path

jegdalek/peshawar— A sound like thunder, only deeper and more resonant, spills out over the narrow valley below. Echoes heighten the effect, rolling over the terrain like a sudden summer downpour. But on this crystal-clear day in the mountains of Hindu Kush, a day when the details of every barbed peak stand out against the sky, the sound is out of place. The silence that follows is even more unnerving: the ragtag band of ruby miners I am with stare impassively at a small outcrop where the youngest and most agile of their crew disappeared moments earlier. His task was to light the fuse on a pack of dynamite wedged down a mine shaft a hundred metres away, a job he obviously completed. What’s unclear is whether he has lived to tell about it.

These are desperate Afghans, risking life and limb and, since a new law banning mining without a license came into effect in 2005 , the wrath of their central government for a chance to carve jewels out of these mountains. It’s a tradition these miners are loath to give up, even though losing any more from their number could jeopardize the enterprise altogether. So when Mohammad Salim, a twenty-four-year-old father of three, resurfaces from the depths with limbs intact, there is more than one reason to celebrate. “We will find rubies today,” one of the miners says, embracing Salim with typically Afghan decorum.

And they do — a modest haul, but significant under the circumstances. These mountains are a treasure trove of precious and semi-precious stones (amethyst, tourmaline, pink and blue sapphires), as is Afghanistan in general. Though high-quality rubies are rare here, those found often rival the best in the world. Perhaps one or two of the dull red rocks they extract today will become glittering, fortune-fetching gems. Before that happens, however, they’ll need to make quite a journey.

That journey begins in Jegdalek, a sleepy hamlet southeast of Kabul in Sorubi district. Here, poor farmers till their fields with the most basic implements, and land mines litter the foothills. But everyone has a ruby or two, and an opinion.

“These are medium quality at best,” says one of the smugglers who will transport the stones to Pakistan for cutting and polishing. “There is a risk that they will shatter during the cutting, so selling them will be difficult.” Still, he will take them; especially since the new law, Jegdaleki rubies are hard to come by. Besides, it’s not like smuggling opium, which requires taking secret, dangerous routes through the mountains. Most gems reach Pakistan via the official crossing in Torkham, along the historic Khyber Pass, a route that has been newly paved since the fall of the Taliban. The border post, hardly the gates of Troy to begin with, has become even easier to get through. If necessary, the standard bribe is about $3.

Pakistan has no interest in stopping an illegal trade that fuels lucrative cutting, polishing, and retail industries in Peshawar, a frontier metropolis seventy kilometres across the border. For a smuggler looking to off-load raw stones, the city’s Namak Mandi quarter is the place to go. Through this warren of rubbermongers’ shops piled high with used tires, weary-looking restaurants dangling gutted sheep and chickens, unmarked doorways, dark stairways, and shabby apartments, millions of dollars worth of gems travel every year. This is where Salim’s ruby will land, along with emeralds from the Panjshir Valley, tourmaline from Nuristan, and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan.

“You’ll find everything but diamonds in my country,” says Rizwan (not his real name), another smuggler from Sorubi. He clutches a bowling-ball-sized bag of raw rubies he’s been holding on to for many months, anticipating a spike in prices coinciding with enforcement of the Afghan mining law. Rizwan isn’t the only one selling in this obscure Namak Mandi shop. A fellow smuggler has just arrived from Kunar province, and a few local dealers are also present. In keeping with Pashtun culture, negotiations begin with green tea and small talk. Some complain about the new law’s impact on business and the Afghan government’s greedy disregard for its citizens. But soon enough, the gems start to flow.

Rizwan goes first, spreading out his rubies. No one is particularly interested; the would-be buyers complain that they’re too small to risk the cutter’s blade. Then one of the dealers produces a letter-sized envelope filled with cut emeralds. These stones draw everyone’s attention, and business begins in earnest.

Under an opaque shawl, bargaining plays out through an arcane system of finger grasping to indicate proposed figures. The men break off into groups of two or three, and each seller displays his stash. One holds up a collection of purple tourmaline. Another pulls out a small glass display case lined with kunzite, already cut and polished. From a secret pocket sewn into the vest of yet another comes more uncut ruby from Jegdalek.

Somewhere in this sparkling underworld, Salim’s ruby is meeting the same fate. If it sells, it will end up in one of the workshops that line the streets here, and an experienced cutter will attempt to extract the gem from the surrounding rock. It probably won’t make its trafficker rich, though. “Gems are smuggled to Pakistan by poor men who don’t want to lose any weight from a raw stone,” says Amjad Ali, a Pakistani dealer and cutter, “but buyers who cut at international standards expect to lose some weight.” These buyers pay less for the same size of uncut stone, so Afghan gems keep flowing to inferior cutters, shutting most of the trade out of the international market.

Were it not for this conservatism, the restrictive new law, and other obstacles, the Afghan trade might be worth almost sixty times the annual $3.2 million it is today — perhaps enough to lift villages such as Jegdalek out of poverty. Rubies like Salim’s could go on to adorn the bodies of the world’s ultra-chic, or even follow the path of their famous predecessor the Black Prince, which adorns the British Imperial State Crown. But for now, men like Salim will continue to risk their lives lighting dynamite, chasing a dream as precious and rare as the shimmering stones they hunt.

Adnan Khan