Dispatches from Afghanistan with Vincent Pardieu, I: Lapis Lazuli in Badakhshan

By Gemologist Vincent Pardieu

Edited by Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

Gemologist Vincent Pardieu recently traveled to Afghanistan to see the famous Lapis Lazuli mines in Badakhshan. The following are excerpts from his personal Facebook account. Pardieu’s trip was to build up his own private reference collection for gem origin studies—not to purchase gems for resale. Also find him at @vincent_pardieu. Learn more about gem origins here. Photos by Vincent Pardieu.

Arrival in Afghanistan

Welcome to the Ulu1… I arrived in Kabul for the 6th time since 2006, and the first time since the Taliban took power in August 2021. The airport looks about the same as before, but there are a few obvious differences at the exit: The large Ahmad Shah Massoud portraits are gone. Instead, we were surprised to find a rather kitsch “I Love Afghanistan” sign, a few white Taliban flags, and a small “Super Cola” (no less surprising) advertisement. No more Black Hawk helicopters flying around and fewer security structures. People at immigration and elsewhere in the airport were nice (as before).

New sign at the Kabul airport
New sign at the Kabul airport
Photo by Vicent Pardieu

I’m traveling with my old friend Guerchouche Karim, from Premacut Ltd. in Bangkok. Both of us are traveling as consultants for Zoa Gemstones, a gem trading company active in Afghanistan that is managed by Raphaël. I first discussed Afghanistan with Raphaël a few years ago after my expeditions there for GIA in 2010 and 2011. Raphaël was starting to do some gem trading in Afghanistan. Now with more than 15 years of experience in the country, Raphaël and his team from Zoa Gemstones were the right guys to get us the authorization we needed to visit the places I had been trying to visit for 16 years. Four times I failed to visit the Lapis Lazuli mines in the Badakhshan province, each time due to security measures that were difficult for a foreigner to navigate.

After some meetings in Kabul, we had the necessary introductions to travel to Badakhshan. There our next step would be to get the approval from the governor to visit the different gemstone-producing areas. On the very top of that list are the Lapis Lazuli mines at Sar-e-Sang. The drive from Kabul to Faizabad, the largest city near the mines, takes 14 hours.

Journey to Badakhshan

We first had to go to the Salang Pass and its tunnel at 3,400 meters altitude. Through that strategic pass, thousands of trucks bring daily supplies that are needed for Kabul and southern Afghanistan. One day the trucks go fully loaded from north to south, and the next day they are emptier for the return. Like in my past visit, it was an incredibly chaotic drive. Along the way we stopped in a restaurant where we enjoyed some local fried fish, bread, and tea, which is called chai here.

Lunch along the way to Faizabad
Lunch along the way to Faizabad
Photo by Vincent Pardieu

After arriving in Faizabad in the late afternoon, we stayed at the house of the cousin of one of the Zoa employees. For those who have never visited Afghanistan, it is interesting to note that in most Afghan houses there is, near the entrance of the house, a room with carpets, pillows, blankets, and an unlimited supply of chai to greet visitors and/or guests while the family stays in another part of the house. The house we were staying at in Faizabad was particularly well appointed, as it was about 100 meters from a local hammam2 where we could enjoy a hot shower. Then we were able to rest a bit. I could work on my notes and get ready for our important meeting the next day with the governor of Badakhshan to try to get his approval to visit the Lapis Lazuli mines.

Views of Faizabad, the capital of the Badakhshan province in Northern Afghanistan
Views of Faizabad, the capital of the Badakhshan province in Northern Afghanistan
Photo by Vincent Pardieu
Province History

Badakhshan is probably the oldest gem mining area in the world, with more than 9,000 years of recorded activity. Indeed, Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan was found in artifacts dated to 7,570 BC, found at Bhirrana, the oldest site of Indus Valley civilization. During the Bronze age (3000 to 1000 BC), Lapis was used in objects around the Mediterranean as far as Mauritania, and in Egypt, Lapis was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BC). So, if Mogok in Myanmar (with possibly 800 years of gem mining) is seen as a heaven for gemologists, my old friend Richard W. Hughes and I agree that Sar-e-Sang, with more than 8,000 years of gem mining, could be seen as the gemological Garden of Eden.

Plus, in 2010, an Afghan friend brought me a parcel of unusual blue Sapphire crystals reportedly from the Lapis mines. What was even more exciting was that some of the inclusions in these Sapphires reminded me of Sapphires from Kashmir. Even more surprising, these Sapphires had natural trace elements of beryllium and tungsten. There was even a “Lab Note” published in the Spring 2011 issue of Gems & Gemology about these fascinating blue Sapphires that were reportedly from Sar-e-Sang in the Badakhshan province.

Meeting With the Governor

We had an interesting meeting with the governor of Badakhshan. Mustafa from Zoa Gemstones did all the talking. The governor listened quietly and then told us that he was pleased to welcome us to Badakhshan and that he was happy with our plans to visit the mines. The only thing he asked from us in return was to come back to meet him again after the visit, as he was interested in learning our impressions. We agreed. Then he smiled and suddenly I was feeling much better: After four failures, the sight of that smile was truly a blessing.

The governor told his secretary to produce a letter for us to get permission from the mining department. One of the governor’s assistants proposed to take that photo for us to remember that moment. It’s a great shot, one of the rare photos where you can see the entire team.

To be continued.

1 Ulu is British military slang for Afghanistan.

2 Hammam is a public bath house.