Get a reliable local contact to be your guide.
And, most importantly, find a way to connect with the people you meet along your journey.
These are some of the precautions Vincent Pardieu, supervisor of field gemology for GIA, takes when he travels to Afghanistan to learn more about the rubies, emeralds and sapphires mined in this rich gem-producing country. He shared these tips – along with the fascinating history of gem trading on the Silk Road (the ancient route from Asia to the Middle East) and the consequences of multiple wars and politics in Afghanistan – with students and staff in Carlsbad recently.
Pardieu often travels directly to the source to verify the origin of gemstones, including observing and photographing mines and mining techniques, collecting reference samples and GPS data, and documenting his findings in expedition reports. His work is critical in order for GIA to provide origin determination reports, particularly for rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
Pardieu’s journeys may be risky, but he clearly thrives in an environment that enables him to tap into his love of travel, gemstones and learning the stories of the people he meets along the way. He has traveled to Afghanistan five times since 2006, collecting thousands of samples for GIA research.
He said he makes an effort to blend in – the clothes, the beard, etc. – and always travels with people he knows who can provide him with reliable local contacts.
“If you make a mistake on a stone, you maybe will lose a little money,” he said. “If you go to a country you don’t know and you make a mistake on a person – or you get associated with the wrong person – then it starts to be scary,” he said.
Afghan miners have been selling gemstones to foreigners for generations, Pardieu added. “They like foreigners because they bring them some money.”
It’s the people sitting at the next table for lunch, or the ones you meet along the road you have to be careful of, he said, noting that the return from a gem mine is often more dangerous than getting there.
“If you get noticed, you might get ambushed on the way back,” he said.
The first step Pardieu and his team make when they reach the village closest to the mine they want to go to is to meet with the elders. This could take some time, as they are often extremely curious about visitors and skeptical about their intentions. The elders have the final say on whether or not they can go to the mine.
“You have to find a way to connect with the people, then they will help you,” he said. If they are hunters and you like to hunt, make that connection. Use whatever clue you pick up on. “If you can’t find a way to make a connection, you are in trouble.”
Rubies from Jegdalek
Pardieu traveled to Afghanistan’s Jegdalek mines twice, once in 2006 and again in 2010, but was not able to see any mining activity on either trip. The first time the mines were closed by the government, and the second time his group was being watched by an unknown man on another hilltop and the team decided to turn around.
He was able to get ruby samples from the mine owner – after five hours of lunch, tea and questions about his life. Though a little taken aback by the amount of time he had to talk about himself before he could buy gems, Pardieu said miners are hungry for news of any kind.
Emeralds from Panjsher
Pardieu, curious why only small emeralds seemed to come out of Afghanistan’s Panjsher mines, wanted to “see with his own eyes” why. He visited the Panjsher Valley and found hundreds of mines carved into a large vein located 1,000 vertical meters above the closest village. He also learned a lot about the way the mines operate.
The miners “race around underground,” trying to be first to blast their way to the good spots, he said. Whoever gets to a tunnel first wins – or owns – that tunnel.
“There is always one guy listening on the wall to find out where the others are working,” he said. “When there is no more noise, it means they are going to blast and you need to run. If they break into your tunnel, you win – but you have to survive the blast to win.”
Buying explosives is difficult for miners in Afghanistan, so they make their own by adding farm fertilizer to munitions left behind when the Soviets bombed the valley in the 1980s. This explains the small emeralds, Pardieu said. The shock waves from these explosives damage most of the production.
“It’s all about finding the emerald that survived the blast,” he said.
Sapphires from Badakhshan
Working at the GIA lab, Pardieu found that sapphires from the Badakhshan area had inclusions of tourmaline. Until then, he had only known of this type of sapphire from Kashmir. So he set off to the mines to investigate.
He and his team were not physically able to get to the sapphire source because access is extremely limited. The path to the mine, located on a cliff 1,000 meters above a lapis lazuli mine, is unstable and accessible only from 3-9 a.m. for two months in the summer. Once the sun shines on the cliff, rocks fall down and it becomes very dangerous.
He was able to buy 10 kilos of rough in matrix – including mica, tourmaline and sapphire – for study.
Pardieu’s Last Tip:
Never forget to wish the miners good luck, Pardieu advises. Two hours after he left the Panjsher Valley emerald mine, the miners hit a deep pocket.
“If they find some stones after you leave, they will be very happy when you come back,” he said.