Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2017, Vol. 53, No. 1

Emerald Dealing in Afghanistan

Rough emerald parcel from Afghanistan.
Figure 1. This 260 g rough emerald parcel was used to demonstrate the methodology in grading and negotiating the purchase of rough gemstones in the field. Photo by Eric Welch/GIA.

Dealing rough gemstones is never easy. This is true even for gemstones dealers with decades of experience such as Arthur Groom of Eternity Emerald (Ridgewood, New Jersey). Groom has traveled all over the world to purchase emerald rough, and his current focus is Afghanistan. In Tucson, he demonstrated to us the art of rough purchasing and the critical decisions that must be made during this process.

Groom started by opening a parcel of about 260 g of rough emerald (figure 1), which he valued at a minimum of $600,000. He recounted the decisions he had to make in the field in Afghanistan when buying this parcel from miners. Just as with individual colored gemstones, the first thing buyers need to look at is the color of the whole parcel. Tip number one: Always spread out the stones after you get the first impression of the parcel. This is important, because colors always look better when stones are clustered together; spreading out the stones helps the buyer see the appearance of individual stones and better sort them into several groups. Next, do a quick estimation of the percentage of each group relative to the whole parcel. For example, a parcel may contain about 20% lighter-colored emeralds.

Arthur Groom – Eternity Emerald
In this interview Mr. Groom shares from his lifetime of experience purchasing rough emerald from miners in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. He advises buyers to pay attention to color, clarity, and crystal shape, and to negotiate in good faith with the miners, as respect is the key to building a long-term relationship that benefits both buyer and seller.

Since evaluation is the most critical step in rough purchasing, there are several aspects buyers must pay extra attention to when estimating the value of a certain piece or group. The color, the model (shape) of the crystal, and the clarity features are the three key observations that determine your decision. When looking at color, it is especially important to consider the crystal’s core. This is essential for Afghan emeralds, because many of them have a lighter core (figure 2). Stones like these will lose color after faceting, which demands extra planning and often results in a higher weight loss. For emeralds, darker rough is more likely to maintain its color after cutting. The lighter rough tends to lose color, especially when cut into melee.

Crystal showing lighter core.
Figure 2. Upon close examination of this emerald crystal, sorted out of a large parcel during a buying trip to Afghanistan, Arthur Groom found the crystal core to be much lighter in color. Photo by Andrew Lucas.

The rough dealer must visualize how the finished stone can be placed inside the rough based on the model, as it dictates the final yield of the rough. Groom demonstrated the types of emerald that achieve high weight retention and others that do not. There is a large quantity of pencil-shaped rough coming from the mountains of Afghanistan, material once regarded as waste by some miners and buyers. Groom said that with today’s technology, these stones can be cut into melee that command on average $500–$1500 per carat. Old Soviet ammunition from the war three decades ago is still used to blast the emerald-bearing rocks due to the shortage of mining dynamite in Afghanistan. This is a problem for emerald mining, since many larger stones are broken during the blasting. The broken crystals also limit the weight retention. For instance, a perfectly preserved rough crystal can reach a yield of 60%, compared to only 10–15% for a broken one.

The “Four Cs” of colored gemstones are generally the same as for diamonds; however, a fifth “C” is crucial for emeralds. This is clarity enhancement, a common practice in the emerald trade. Imperfections are removed by cutting them out or treating fissures to lower their visibility. In the case of emerald, the latter is more common if higher weight retention and better proportions are desired. The buyer must find the emerald’s fractures and make a decision on the possibility of enhancing them and leaving them in the stone. The essence of rough evaluation is to comprehensively consider all the factors and find the balance between them. Mastering the process requires years of practice and familiarity with both the rough and the finished stone markets.

After evaluation comes the art of negotiation. If the buyer is enthusiastic about purchasing the parcel, the negotiation takes off from there. Based on Groom’s experience, buyers need to stay cool and offer reasonable prices to get what they want. The key takeaway here is that as a buyer, you need to know the value of the parcel and show the miners that you know what you are doing. Ridiculously low offers should be avoided, since that would immediately cast doubts on your capability and reputation. Once both sides realize that a fair deal is going to happen, the “sweet spot” for the price can be reached quickly.

Dealing with gemstones is ultimately about dealing with people. Afghan emerald miners (figure 3) are a very strong-willed group. They always come together to sell their stones. These miners do not owe banks money, so there is no pressure for them to sell the goods. In this situation, winning their trust is the key to motivating them to bring in more stones that fit the buyers’ needs. Groom reminded us that respecting the locals and bringing value and benefit to them will guarantee good business and long-lasting friendship.

Buying rough in a Kabul miner’s office.
Figure 3. Buying rough emerald in the field under less than ideal conditions, like a miner’s office in Kabul, requires discipline and a systematic approach. Photo by Andrew Lucas.

Andrew Lucas is manager of field gemology for education at GIA in Carlsbad, California. Tao Hsu is technical editor of Gems & Gemology.