Glitter, Sparkle, Danger – International Gem Trade Has Many Facets

They glitter and sparkle. Precious stones have fascinated men and women through the ages and still do -- whether at a fashion and jewelry show in London or on the red carpet in Hollywood.

They come in all sizes, colors and shapes. Some are fairly common and affordable. Others are rare, highly prized -- such as the Crown Jewels -- part of Britain’s royal heritage. Queen Elizabeth wears them on state occasions. Otherwise, they’re kept in the Tower of London, where they attract up to two and a half million visitors a year.

“What we’ve got here is very historical and worn by our sovereign, so that, of course, immediately takes it out of the public sector,” says Keith Hanson, Chief Exhibitor at the Tower. “And, the fact that some of our jewels date back over 800 years and that we have the largest top quality white diamond in the world on display.”

The use of precious stones goes back a long way. Rulers, nobles and warriors of many ancient civilizations favored them to show their status.

Turquoise and lapis lazuli were favored by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and there is evidence that cross-border trade in gem stones was prevalent thousands of years ago.

“We were so surprised to have at the beginning of our history bracelets from the tombs in Abydos in Upper Egypt using some kind of semi-precious stones, especially lapis lazuli, which doesn’t exist in Egypt,” explained Wafaa al Saddiq, Director-General of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. “This means they must have imported that stone from Afghanistan.”

The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was known to favor emeralds; the ancient Romans described diamonds as splinters from the stars; and in India, ancient manuscripts refer to gem stones as unique creations of Mother Earth.

Gem stones are a product formed by nature, mainly deep within the earth. Over the centuries, man has used all sorts of ways to get them out, including dynamite.

It is often back breaking work. South African miner George Oloefse worked at it for nearly half a century. “I have five brothers, he said. “All of them worked in the mines, because my Dad worked in the mines.”

Oloefse worked at the Cullinan diamond mine north of Johannesburg. South Africa has been a major diamond producer since the stones were first discovered there in the 1860s, and diamond mining still provides an important source of income.

Diamond mining provides vital revenues in other African countries as well.

Half-way around the world in India, the gem stone industry -- in particular cutting and polishing -- is big business.

For Jayshri Bajaj, who works in a diamond factory in Mumbai, it’s her first job and her introduction to diamonds. “It’s great to see a diamond for the first time,” she said.

Bajaj is among one million Indians working in the gem trade, a vital source of income and an important segment of the country’s growing economy.

The gem trade also helps feed families in impoverished corners of Africa, but it has a darker side. When the riches derived from it fall into the hands of despots and warlords, they can kill, and they have done so.

But in the end, the gem stone’s journey takes it to the jewelry shops -- be they the big names on New York City’s Fifth Avenue or the more affordable ones in cities and towns across the globe.

Della Tinsley of East London Design says jewelry is about the individual and marks important events in our lives. “People give you jewelry when you’re 21, when you get married, when you have children,” she notes, “and you inherit jewelry as well.”

Gem stones have been prized throughout man’s history and their appeal shows no sign of diminishing.