Buying Gemstones in Afghanistan: A Beginner’s Guide


Tourmalines are some of the best Afghan gemstones a beginning buyer can purchase. "Tourmaline Rough, Afghanistan."
Tourmalines are some of the best Afghan gemstones a beginning buyer can purchase. “Tourmaline Rough, Afghanistan.”

I’ve received many emails from military people stationed in Afghanistan or in the general region with questions about Afghan gemstones. Many are eager first-time buyers looking for advice. So I’m writing this article as a thank you to those who serve. Hopefully, this will answer some of their questions.

General Gemstone Buying Advice

No matter where in the world you are, remember this: gem buying is an expert’s game. If you have no experience with the business of gemstones, the odds are not with you. “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Keep that old saying in mind. Buying and selling gemstones is an “anything goes” type of business.

You’ll run into all types of scams and scammers in the gem world. (You’ll even find them at well-known stores and trading areas). Mines in particular seem to attract more cons than any other locations. The miner or seller isn’t your friend. Just because you’re in a mining area doesn’t mean you’ll find good prices or high quality.

Keep in mind that if you’re a Westerner in a foreign country, you might be perceived as a rich outsider. That is, you’re considered fair game. (You’re “the sucker”). Don’t take ideas like “fair play” for granted. Local business customs may differ from what you are accustomed to. If you’re going to play the game, you can’t just take people’s word. Negative information is rarely volunteered. You need to assume you’re always in a “buyer beware” situation.

Have the gems carefully examined. Send samples away to quality gemology labs. This is always a good practice. Even an honest vendor may not know enough about gems to answer your questions correctly. Send a piece to be checked, seal the parcel in a bag so it can’t be opened, hold the sealed bag until you get the lab results, then make the deal. Yes, it’ll take some time, but you’ll run less risk. This is a common practice in the gemstone business. If the person selling doesn’t want to wait or have their gems tested, that should tell you something.

If you try to test the gemstones on your own, you need to use tried and true methods. The refractometer, spectroscope, dichroscope, microscope, specific gravity liquids: these are the tools of the trade. Don’t use shortcut gadgets that supposedly will identify the stones electronically or some other way. They don’t work.

“Aquamarine with Quartz, Spodumene, and Feldspar,” Darra-e-Pech, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.
“Aquamarine with Quartz, Spodumene, and Feldspar,” Darra-e-Pech, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.

Afghan Gemstones: Recommendations

Some gems are easier to buy than others. Some are more difficult. Why? Some types of gemstones attract more fraud than others. They have synthetic counterparts that can be easily “salted” into rough and cut at the mines. Other gemstones lack synthetic counterparts (or at least commercially viable synthetics), so you’ll be unlikely to encounter substitutions at mines or local trading areas.

Here are the Afghan gemstones I recommend for the inexperienced buyer.

Tourmaline

This is my personal top choice. There is no synthetic tourmaline in existence. These gems are well known and commonly bought and sold all over the world. The crystal shapes are very distinctive and easy to spot, even for a novice. Tourmaline is fairly easy to check for clarity with a 10x loupe. Clean material is reasonably available. Pricing starts very low but can get very expensive, depending on the color and type.

What To Buy:

  • You want clean material. Don’t bother with included pieces unless the included areas will cut off easily.
  • Size wise, you want nothing smaller than 1 gram (5 carats) rough.
  • Almost any color may be available. Look for bubble gum pinks, mint greens, blue greens, blues in particular, reds, purples. Basically, any pretty color.
  • You want light to medium-colored stones. Stay away from dark material.
  • If you’re buying tourmaline rough, see my article on the white paper test.

Aquamarine

This stone is the blue-green to blue variety of the beryl family. Synthetic aquamarine isn’t commonly available commercially. These gems are well known and commonly bought and sold all over the world. The crystal shapes are very distinctive and easy to spot, even for a novice. Aquamarine is fairly easy to check for clarity with a 10x loupe. Clean material is reasonably available. Pricing starts very low but can get very expensive, depending on the color and type.

What To Buy:

  • You want clean material. Don’t bother with included pieces unless the included areas will cut off easily.
  • Larger stones are best.
  • Colors range from blue-green to blue and from light to darker. The Afghan material is seldom the top dark blue color found in other countries, but some of it is a nice blue.
  • Look for the cleanest, best, dark color you can. Blue in the trade is considered better, but I personally like any blue to blue-green material.

Morganite

This stone is the peach to pink variety of the beryl family. Synthetic morganite isn’t commonly available commercially, but pink glass is sometimes used as a substitute. These gems are well known and commonly bought and sold all over the world. The crystal shapes are very distinctive and easy to spot, even for a novice. Morganite is fairly easy to check for clarity with a 10x loupe. Clean material is reasonably available. Pricing starts very low but can get very expensive, depending on the color and type.

What To Buy:

  • You want clean material. Don’t bother with included pieces unless the included areas will cut off easily.
  • Larger stones are best. (However, some smaller stones have better color).
  • The colors of morganite range from pink to peach and from light to darker. The Afghan material is seldom the top dark pink color found in other countries, but some of it is a nice pink.
  • Look to buy the cleanest, best dark color you can. Pink in the trade is considered better. (However, peach is gaining in popularity).
“Morganite (rough and cut set),” Pech, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.
“Morganite (rough and cut set),” Pech, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.

Other Beryl Gemstones

Some varieties of beryl, such as golden heliodor, yellow beryl, and colorless goshenite, don’t have the market of aquamarine and morganite. However, if you can find these gems large and clean (and low priced), they might be worth your consideration. If you have resale plans, be advised that these varieties are more difficult to sell.

Afghan Gemstones: Not Recommended

If gem buying is an expert’s game, then rough gem buying is a game just a few experts can play well. It takes a lifetime to learn what you’re looking at in all types of rough. The average consumer should be extremely cautious or avoid rough entirely.

I would strongly advise inexperienced buyers to avoid the following Afghan gemstones.

Emerald

The green variety of the beryl family has a vast, world-wide market. There are several types of synthetic emerald that can be sold as natural at mining sites and in the trade. Only an expert with the proper tools can tell the difference between synthetic and natural emeralds. Novices should avoid dealing with emeralds. Emeralds are typically highly included, treated, simulated, and/or poor quality. However, they’re some of the most fraudulently sold gemstones in the business. Since high-quality emerald is extremely rare, valuable, and popular, the incentive for deception is high. Many people have been parted from their hard-earned money because they perceived top value in emeralds that turned out to be junk stones.

Ruby and Sapphire

There’s very little sapphire or ruby found in Afghanistan. If you’re offered these gems, chances are you’re being scammed. Avoid these stones unless you’re a well-equipped expert.

Spinel

There’s a little bit of pink to red spinel found in the region. Again, it takes an expert to determine what is actually being sold. There isn’t much of a commercial market for these stones.

Topaz

There’s a lot of topaz mined in Afghanistan, but the market for this stone is poor. These stones typically have many flaws, and their colors aren’t stable. When mined, topaz’s colors may be pretty but they will fade to white or clear over time when exposed to sunlight.

Kunzite

There’s a lot of kunzite mined in the area. However, like topaz, the market for these stones is poor, and the stones typically have many flaws and aren’t color stable.

Some Final Gem Buying Advice

Avoid “buyer’s fever” in Afghanistan by cross-checking your finds and prices against the going rates for quality gemstones in the United States. Consult the International Gem Society’s price guide and gemstone listings for more information. Familiarize yourself with the gemstones and learn as much as you can before buying anything.

“Crystals of spodumene var. kunzite, crystal of tourmaline var. elbaite, crystals of albite var. cleavelandite, crystals of quartz,” Konar Province, Nuristan, Afghanistan by Géry Parent is licensed under CC By-ND 2.0
“Crystals of spodumene var. kunzite, crystal of tourmaline var. elbaite, crystals of albite var. cleavelandite, crystals of quartz,” Konar Province, Nuristan, Afghanistan, by Géry Parent is licensed under CC By-ND 2.0

 

About the author
Jeff R. Graham
The late Jeff Graham was a prolific faceter, creator of many original faceting designs, and the author of several highly-regarded instructional faceting books such as Gram Faceting Designs.
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