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True Treasures of Afghanistan:
Based on multiple assessment reports, Afghanistan has been home to more than 120 types of gemstones, mostly coloured ones.
A coloured stone is any gemstone other than a diamond. Gemstones are known for their rarity, durability, and beauty. The beauty of a gem stems from its colour, clarity, lustre, cut, and transparency.
Each of these has a vital role in the value and price of a gemstone. For example, a clear emerald with fine colour would be more expensive than a low-quality diamond.
Besides beauty, a gemstone’s value also comes from its hardness (resistance to scratching) and toughness (resistance to breakage), making it durable over time.
Based on the Mohs Hardness Scale, minerals are categorized by their degree of hardness on a scale of 1 to 10; Talc has the lowest hardness level of 1, and diamond has the highest 10. The coloured gemstones’ hardness range between 5 and 9. For example, turquoise’s hardness ranges between 5 to 6, whereas sapphire and ruby have a hardness of 9. Hardness is different from toughness, which is defined by a gemstone’s resistance to breaking, chipping, and cracking.
Nephrite and Jade are considered as the toughest gemstones. Clarity is another factor in contributing to the beauty of a gemstone. The Gemological Institute of America categorizes three clarity types for coloured gemstones:
- Type-A gemstones are inclusion-free stones such as aquamarine, citrine, topaz, and green tourmaline.
- Type-AA gemstones are usually included, such as ruby, sapphire, garnet, peridot, amethyst, and spinel.
- Type-AAA gemstones are almost always included, such as emerald and red tourmaline.
The majority of coloured stones are allochromatic, meaning that they are colourless when they are pure. Their colour is the result of the inclusions of other elements inside the gemstone. Examples include rubies, sapphires, emeralds, spinel, quartz, and topaz.
Here we introduce the top coloured stones of Afghanistan with their properties and origins:
Ruby & Sapphire: Ruby and sapphire are gemstones from the mineral corundum — extremely hard crystallized alumina. Both of these gemstones have the same chemical compositions and mineral structure.
Their hardness is nine on the Mohs hardness scale, qualifying them as the most durable coloured gems. The impurities and inclusions in these gemstones do wonders and determine their colour. A brilliant red is known as ruby, while blue and other colours as sapphire.
Afghanistan Ruby mines are found in Jegdalek, usually formed in marbles as their base. Sar-e Jegdalek mines are located at approximately 60 km east-southeast of Kabul.
Research by Gary Bowersox, the experienced gemologist and gem hunter, shows that about 400 mines are active in this area. Small groups of 5 to 6 miners or larger groups of 15 to 20 work the mines, depending on the size of the mines. The research also indicates that 75% of the mines are pink sapphires, 15% ruby, 5% blue sapphire, and 5% mixed blue to red-pink.
It is also said that these mines have the potential of year-round mining of rubies and sapphire, which are mainly demanded for high-end jewellery making, given their higher hardness and elegant colours.
However, very little has been done to elevate these mines’ extracting techniques, processing, and value addition to the current international standards.
Spinel: Spinel comes in different shades, including pink, red, lavender, purple, blue, and even black. The stone has a hardness of 7.5 to 8 on the Mohs scale.
Spinel is among allochromatic gemstones, naturally colourless when they are pure, and their colour stems from the trace of elements inside the gemstone, such as cobalt, iron, and chromium.
Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province has been known as the source of spinel, widely recognized in the poetry of some of the region’s great poets. The Afghan spinel is often found in pink and fine red colours.
Emerald: As the iconic coloured stones of Afghanistan, Emeralds have a hardness range of 7.5 to 8 on the Mohs scale. In contrast to diamonds, which have their own grading system, natural emeralds are considered one of the top precious gemstones in the world and are valued in a distinctly different way.
Emeralds are relatively durable, but the existence of natural inclusions gives each gemstone a distinct personality and uniqueness that can also affect its toughness.
Emeralds are valued by their hue, brilliance, cut, clarity, and weight. Some primary characteristics determine the value of a natural emerald.
Colour: The green hue found in emeralds is the main factor in establishing both their quality and value. The unique green tint is exclusive to natural emeralds, which cannot be found in other natural gemstones.
Hue refers to the exact green colour an emerald gemstone displays with a variety of different tones. Saturation refers to the degree of darkness in a colour.
Medium to dark green are the most desirable emeralds, allowing an elegant shining polish after a brilliant cut. Emeralds usually come in very light to light to light-medium to dark degrees.
Afghanistan has hosted emerald mines for thousands of years in the Panjshir valley. The emeralds mines are highly inaccessible with challenging routes and are at elevations of approximately 2,130 meters and 4,275 meters in mountainous terrain on the eastern side of the Panjshir River.
Panjshir emeralds have different characteristics from mine to mine. According to gemstone experts familiar with Panshjir emeralds, the best emeralds come from Mekini. They are richer with the bluish-green colour; a very distinctive property from other emeralds in Panjshir.
Their Commercial value is comparable to Columbian emeralds. In contrast, Emerald crystals from the northern-most mining areas such as Aryu, Buzmal, Darun, and Darilz tend to be lighter.
Kher’s Kanda emeralds are yellowish-green to dark bluish-green, usually accompanied with white colour inclusion in solid crystals with Mica and Albite.
Whereas emeralds from Kamar Safid mine are usually found in lighter green colour. The main characteristic of Kamar Safid mine is its perfect lustre. Recently, miners have also found samples of emerald in Laghman and Nuristan provinces.
Clarity: In emeralds, clarity is about how the gemstone looks like on the inside. Most emeralds possess inclusions that are small bits of other minerals, gas, liquid, and crystals that the emeralds conceive in the crystallization process. Almost about 99% of natural emeralds present these features.
In fact, the fewer the inclusions, the higher the value of the gemstone. Inclusions in emeralds are exceptional and natural. Indeed, an emerald without inclusion is immediately suspected as being a synthetic or an imitation.
Tourmaline: Tourmaline is a popular gem around the world, known for its various types and shades. A Tourmaline can easily be tested with a 10x loupe for clarity. Their prices start very low but can get very expensive, depending on the colour and type.
Tourmaline has a hardness of 7 to 7.5 based on the Mohs scale. In recent years, Afghanistan has become famous for its spectacular colour tourmalines of different types and sizes. Some of the most desirable tourmalines are from Nuristan and Kunar provinces.
Price: Some of the most famous types of tourmalines found in Afghanistan are:
Chrome Tourmaline: Chrome tourmalines include chromium and vanadium; thus, it reveals its vivid green to light blue shades. The chrome tourmaline is actually a distinct green tourmaline variety known as chrome dravite, found in eastern Afghanistan. A visibly pure to slightly 5%-15% bluish-green gemstone makes the most stunning colour of tourmaline.
Rubellite Tourmaline: These are the family of tourmaline resembling in purplish-red to a brilliant-red. Rubellite’s inclusions and the intensity of its colour are the most important consideration in determining its value.
Indicolite Tourmaline: The pure blue colour, with some green hue, makes this type of tourmaline extremely rare. The more refined blues are found only in small sizes, often under 1 carat. Larger gemstones tend to have a more robust green component. The indicolite tourmaline is occasionally found, and Afghanistan has been listed as one of the primary sources along with Brazil, Nigeria, the USA, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Namibia.
Bicolor Tourmaline: Some tourmalines provide a visual record of their crystal growth by displaying two or more areas of different colours. These are known as bi-colour tourmalines. Most often, they feature combinations of green and pink, or some variation of both. They are also known as watermelon tourmaline due to their similarity of colours.
Lapis Lazuli: Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of lapis-lazuli from the Sary-Sang area of Badakhshan province. Nine different zones have been identified containing ten different lazurite grades, the largest being 250 meters long and extending for 125 meters downdip.
The archaeological data indicates the mining and trading of this beautiful blue colour gemstone for more than 7000 years. The Egyptian burial sites dating before 3000 B.C. contained thousands of Lapis jewellery items.
Evidence shows that powdered lapis were used as cosmetic eye shadow and in later years as painting pigments by Egyptians. The Afghan Lapis also added to the beauty of India’s Taj Mahal Palace. Some lapis include calcite and pyrite and reduces the value.
The best-known lapis mines in Badakhshan is the Madan 4, with less inclusion and intense blue colour. They have been sold up to $5000 per kilo.
Afghanite: Afghanite is a rare mineral, with its only significant deposit located at Sar-e Sang, Kokcha Valley, in Badakhshan province.
This beautiful blue colour gemstone was first found in Afghanistan in 1968 and is therefore named after Afghanistan. It forms large and beautiful crystals and is almost always embedded on a white marble. According to the Mohs scale, the stone has a hardness of 6-5.5 and comes in light blue to darker shades.
Market Information: Trade map and Afghanistan National Export Strategy data show that Afghanistan has exported gemstones and jewellery from 2010-2020 to 10-20 destinations.
In 2015, the official data of Afghanistan’s gemstone export figures reached $184 million to the global markets.
In 2017, the top export destination was the United States with US$8 million and UAE as the second with US$7 million. China and France are positioned as third importers.
Other countries such as India, Japan, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Australia have also imported gemstones from Afghanistan.
Whereas the artisans and other mining experts believe that most Afghan gemstones find their way to Pakistan for further value addition.