Uncut Gems: The Afghan Jewellers Keeping Their Craft Alive

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the country’s jewellers faced an uncertain future, but with help from a platform dedicated to rewriting the stories of war-torn destinations, their time-honoured skills are being protected and preserved

Read more heritage crafts and artisan stories in Vol. 37: Craft.

through the images of an Afghan jewellery workshop sent over to us, a
shot of lapis lazuli fragments gives me pause. The fragments are
copious, and irregular in size. A few have been roughly shaped into
raindrop pendants. Other shards are untouched; uncut. The stone’s
vibrant blue hue has yet to be brought out by polishing – it’s
there, but dampened by dust.

In another picture, delicate blue studs, ringed with silver, are
attached to earring hoops; in a third, a bearded craftsman, smiling
softly like the Mona Lisa, stares out. The sleeves of his shirt are
pushed up his forearms, the fabric a few shades darker than the
stones. It’s a glimpse into a destination I can’t visit, and a
story of an old craft surviving against the odds.

Afghanistan has been home to a rich jewellery trade for
centuries; from Badakhshan to Kandahar, the country’s soils are
rich with precious metals and gems. Its lapis lazuli was once the
envy of Egyptian pharaohs, and its ancient bejewelled treasures –
necklaces, earrings and headdresses – have been showcased in
critically acclaimed exhibitions across the globe. But the fall of
Afghanistan to the Taliban, following the
US-led withdrawal of international forces in August 2021, left the
country in an economic and humanitarian crisis, and its jewellers
fearing for the future.

A jeweller at work in Afghanistan
Jewellery making in progress

A jeweller that ISHAKR works with, left, and pre-cut lapis

Prior to this, many of the country’s artisans were assisted by
not-for-profit organisations offering educational, economic and
employment support. After the regime change, some have paused
programmes (or at least stopped publicising their involvement).

The team behind social enterprise company ISHKAR initially stopped working with
Afghan jewellers. The company, which aims to open up connections
with territories considered isolated and unreachable through travel
and trade, feared their contacts would be endangered by their
connection to the platform, and were wary that trade may directly
fund Taliban rule via taxation, as well as potentially legitimising
the new government. But, having lived in Afghanistan for three
years before setting up the platform, when he worked with ISHKAR’s
partner organisation Turquoise Mountain Foundation, co-founder
Edmund Le Brun noted that not engaging with artisans might instil
equally damaging outcomes.

“Ultimately, we feel it would be more damaging for the people of
Afghanistan to pause our work than to continue,” he says. “The
people of Afghanistan are facing a horrifying economic, cultural
and psychological crisis. We have the power to carve out a positive
impact that will make a real difference to individuals’ lives.” In
the weighing up of potential dangers, ISHKAR landed on the side of
hope. Artisans would face severe economic consequences without a
market for their work, and cutting ties could also leave them
feeling betrayed, ostracised and abandoned, eroding further the
delicate chains that connected the country to the wider world.

A jeweller files some metal
An afghan jeweller, wearing turquoise

Crafting a piece, left, and one of the jewellers.

“Jewellery making is not only my passion but also allows me to
support my family and my apprentices financially,” one jeweller who
works with ISHKAR told us. “In making one piece of jewellery, there
will be around five people involved, and those five people are all
supporting their families.” For obvious reasons, jewellers in the
country have agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity.

Necklaces, rings and earrings sold on ISHKAR’s website are all
handmade, and a percentage of every purchase also goes towards
ISHKAR’s long-term partner, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation,
which provides technical training for the artisans. The jewellers
they work with have inherited a tradition of craftsmanship
long-loved. “Hand making jewellery is the tradition of our
ancestors. We must keep our culture alive,” explains another
jeweller, who teaches students the craft. “I feel alive when I
teach jewellery to my students because in the future they will be
capable of supporting themselves and others.”

A soapy hand
A jeweller sits on the floor, bend over his work

Moments from the workshop.

Le Brun has found that some feared outcomes haven’t
materialised; others haven’t been as severe as they’d expected.
“Artisans do not appear to be threatened by working with us,” he
says, “[and they] do not appear to have been endangered by working
with us. The Taliban are encouraging trade, and crafts are one of
the few types of work that the Taliban allow women to do.” For
obvious reasons, the platform continues to monitor the

There’s something comforting in the continuation of a craft;
long-practised, the techniques required to produce something of
beauty become a ritual, repeated over and over. A certain twist of
the wrist to bend a thin hair of silver just so; a slow-paced
movement that only works if you have knowledge of what is to come
before you’ve finished the initial step. Each silver link worked
into a necklace chain provides a hold on the past, and a promise to
the future. Poignant, when the present feels unmoored from

Many of the Afghan pieces sold through ISHKAR use lapis lazuli
stone, refined and perfected into something far-distant from the
colourful shards seen in the photo taken in an anonymous workshop
somewhere in Afghanistan. The brilliant stones likely hail from the
gem-rich Kokcha River valley, north of Kabul, where bold colour is
mined from ochre soils. “We call lapis a lucky stone as it brings
fortune to people,” one jeweller explains. In the world of
gemology, the striking blue stone is sometimes also suggested to
have healing powers.

Discover more stories from the Craft issue here.

The Lowdown

Shop for Afghanistan-made homewares, jewellery and more from

Ceramics from Gunia Projects, a Ukraine-based brand

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