A Precious Industry
Jul. 8, 2015
Indonesia is enjoying rapid economic growth that has spurred new trends. One has people snapping up jewelry made with gemstones in what has been called “the stone rush.” It’s good news for rural areas of the country, where gemstones are found, but the rush to mine them is also causing problems.
At one specialist market in Jakarta, shoppers come in droves in search of jewels and accessories. Most of the customers are men, who buy rings made with gemstones such as jade and agate, and are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Rings costing around $800 fly off the shelves.
Wealthy Indonesian men have traditionally used rings as symbols of their success, but in the past few years, men at all levels of society have taken to wearing them. Popular actors and musicians often sport rings as a fashion statement, fuelling the trend among their fans. One of the men browsing at the gemstone market sums up the phenomenon by saying “now all Indonesian men love wearing rings.”
A shopkeeper sheds some light their motivation, saying “people in Indonesia believe you will be blessed with good fortune if you have a ring on your finger.” But the good fortune is not reserved only for the wearer. The shopkeeper adds “our sales this year have increased by 60 percent.” That explains why over 200 new shops specializing in gemstones have opened in the past two years.
For some, gemstones represent more than just a fashion statement or a good luck charm. They are an attractive investment. Another customer says “I’ll be able to sell gems to other people at double or triple the price. You can expect bigger returns in investing in natural stones than depositing money with banks.”
Other people reaping the benefits are miners in production centers such as the western province of Aceh. One miner, Ibnu Hasyim, is thrilled with his latest discovery: a 20 kilogram haul of black jadeite. He believes he can get around $80 for it.
Ibnu averages about $500 a month. That’s a big increase from the $25 he used to live on as a farmer, making it difficult to support his wife and two children. “I couldn’t even afford to send my kids to school,” he recalls. “I’m just so glad that I decided to take this job and my kids are actually going to school now.” He has also been able to buy a TV and refrigerator.
Not all stories are as happy as Ibnu’s. In February, two villages both laid claim to a 20-ton jade boulder. The military had to be called in when the situation threatened to turn violent.
Environmentalists say indiscriminate mining is contaminating water and causing landslides. Muhmmad Nasir of The Indonesian Forum for the Environment says “The government should regulate things as soon as possible. Otherwise, the environment may suffer irreparable damage.”
NHK’s Jakarta bureau chief Yusuke Ota joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu to talk about the issue.
Shibuya: Yusuke, are officials in Indonesia working to expand this trend beyond their borders?
Ota: The government wants to develop gemstones into a growth industry for the country. That will lead to exporting them. In fact, overseas promotion has already begun. The Indonesian Ministry of Trade sent people to Japan in May for an international jewelry expo. They displayed many kinds of agate in order to promote Indonesian gemstones. And when Indonesia hosted the Asian-African summit in April, the government presented agate rings to foreign leaders. That was done with the hope that Indonesian gemstones will catch on abroad.
Beppu: But there have been serious social and environmental problems. What’s the government doing to address these issues?
Ota: Officials in Aceh, where a lot of the mining takes place, met with miners and urged them to stop fighting with each other. They also want them to adopt methods that are easier on the environment. When the health ministry was conducting a study they found many mosquito larvae around the homes of gemstone dealers. They’d left water outside that they’d used to wash the stones. The ministry said that there could be a massive spread of dengue fever if nothing is done. Whether the industry will keep expanding largely depends on what kind of rules the country sets to oversee it.