Afghan gems have a future, says a longtime dealer

In 1972, Gary Bowersox, a Vietnam War veteran who had owned several jewelry stores in Hawaii, paid his first visit to Afghanistan. Determined to grow his budding pearl business, he was attracted to the country’s 7,000-year-old deposits of lapis lazuli at Sar-i-Sang in Badakhshan Province, which for millennia have drawn traders to this ancient crossroads on the border of what there is now Tajikistan.

It would be the first of many voyages, the most recent of which was less than three months before the Taliban regained control of the country and Western forces withdrew their troops.

“I had met an Afghan who went to school in Hawaii, whose father was the leading geologist at Kabul University, so that was my main course for the country,” Mr. Bowersox, now 81, in mid-October on a video call from his home. in Honolulu.

“We met every night and he gave me lectures on all the different mining situations,” he said. “They had very detailed maps and reports, mostly made by the Russians, and that was the basis of my book, ‘Gemstones of Afghanistan,’ published in 1995. It hasn’t really changed since then.”

“I’ve been almost every year except for a few years where there were serious issues,” he said. “I have such good friends there.”

Last spring, Mr. Bowersox spent three weeks in Afghanistan, including three nights in the Panjshir Valley, where commercial quantities of emeralds were discovered in the 1970s. (In 2020, he signed a three-year contract with USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, to serve as its senior advisor on gemstones and strengthen its mission to increase gemstone exports from the country.)

“The only thing that hurts me,” he said with a laugh, “is when an Afghan says, ‘My grandfather said he should take care of you.'”

During the interview, Mr. Bowersox over his 50 years of journey through the Hindu Kush; his friendship with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahedin leader who was assassinated by al-Qaeda agents a few days before September 11, 2001; and how he believes the country’s gemstone trade will fare under the Taliban’s new rule.

The following conversation has been edited and compressed.

For people unfamiliar with the gem trade, how would you describe Afghanistan as a source?

Extremely wealthy and basically at the beginning of production. Mining has been going on for 7,000 years up and down the country. The Taliban want to get involved in the gem trade because it is revenue for the country and people in the local areas all need jobs and income. The gem business will continue, no matter who is in control.

During the 50 years you have traveled there, what were the highlights?

Hiking and camping in the summer on horseback that runs across the northeastern part of Afghanistan. The Afghans are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. There are no hotels or motels, so we just wanted to knock on a door; I can never remember being rejected. They would invite you in for dinner – even Marco Polo wrote about how friendly the people were.

In the summer of 2001, you filmed a documentary in Afghanistan with the BBC in which you talked about your friendship with Ahmad Shah Massoud. How did you meet?

We met in 1989. It started with me sending him a letter – it was before satellite phones. It took a month to get a letter back. He invited me to visit him the following summer.

I met him north of Panjshir; he would develop the emerald mines. For three or four years I would fly into Uzbekistan, drive to Tajikistan, and Massoud would arrange a helicopter to take me into Panjshir. So on each trip we had to meet and look at rocks.

He was a super guy. There was never anyone like him in the whole world. He did not really walk on the surface of the earth; he was like a foot over it.

Where were you on 9/11?

I had just returned from Afghanistan and was doing a gem show in Tennessee. I had a camper and went from town to town and had the television on. I saw the other plane crash into the towers. It was terrible. But we were still totally in mourning because Massoud had been murdered a few days before.

All my shows were closed because I used the name “The Afghan Connection.” All the jewelers canceled – they did not want the bad publicity. Ten days later, I got calls from intelligence officers and the CIA who all wanted me to come to Washington. So I moved to Washington in my camper and I worked with them for several months.

Did the Afghans think you were a spy?

It was in Peshawar [Pakistan] paper that I was a spy for the United States, but what would you say? I thought it was better than driving with weapons or drugs – at least there was a mystery.

Were you often in life-threatening situations there?

We were kept up a lot with guns going into new areas. But it’s all a matter of how you look at it. Of course, these guys showed up behind the rocks, holding guns against us, we had to get off our horses. But they have always wanted to negotiate. We got them down to $ 10 and sometimes it ended up with tea. I just went through the customs in Chicago. They would not negotiate, they would not give me tea, and they would call the guns if I did not pay. So it’s highway robbery, no matter how you look at it.

How was your experience in April?

I was not allowed to leave the USAID complex in Kabul. They did not want to take any risk or have any responsibility. They dropped me off at the airport and then my friends picked me up and we drove to the mountains [of Panjshir].

We were up every night until midnight. I saw friends I had not seen in 20 years. We talked about what we thought would happen to the Taliban, which happened. The Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras – all the tribes in the north – talked about what to do. It all closed so quickly that they never put it together.

I still think that in the future you will see the north separate. The Taliban, who are Pashtuns, have never come to terms with the other tribes. As they say, a modern Afghan only carries grudges for eight generations. There is a little forgiveness there.

With the Taliban in control, what happens to the country’s gemstone trade? Do mines still produce?

There is some mining going on, but not much. A few months ago, I talked to my emerald mine friends – we set up a system where they would bring the emeralds to Tajikistan, so that’s a possibility. And the ruby ​​mines in the east – these goods are starting to come back through Peshawar, not in the quantities they were, but still flowing goods.

I do not know the Lapis – the Taliban have surrounded that area. I have not had anything new for two to three months. They allowed shipments through Kabul, but it is apparently interrupted now. The Taliban government is so new that we do not know until they get their policies clear. What they will charge in terms of duties and taxes is unknown at present.

USAID has canceled all gemstone contracts due to the Taliban. And many of my friends are now hiding in different homes every night because the Taliban are looking for them. The situation is serious.

But people want food. And the gemstones are a source of income – not only for the miners, but for the government itself. Sooner or later, things will fall into place.

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