Blessed Bling: Religious Gemstones in the Gulf
December 20, 2017
Cheap Asian imports are disrupting the market for semi-precious stones in the Gulf.
Half a millennium ago, ships laden with precious stones sailed from Arabian ports to the shores of China, and India’s Mughal emperors imported Persian turquoise. Now, the winds of trade have changed, as gemstones real and fake flow from East Asia to the Gulf. For the Gulf’s booming religious jewelry market, worldly profits are not the only thing at stake.
The Prophet Muhammad is said to have worn a stone ring, giving gems a special place in Islamic tradition. Today, the practice is most common among some Shi’ite men who believe certain stones bring blessings such as protection, pardon, or romantic success. Rings accessorize the fatigues of Iranian paramilitary commander Qassem Soleimani and the business suits of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Shi`ite holy cities, merchants do a brisk business hawking smooth Iranian turquoise and milky Najafi quartz to pilgrims.
A globalized marketplace has threatened traditional gem miners and cutters with cheap—and sometimes fake—imports. Jewelry from China, Thailand, and India has recently flooded Middle Eastern markets, piquing concerns that mislabeled or even synthetic gems are passing for pricey local specimens. In some markets, merchants are accused of selling painted glass from China, undercutting the price of gemstones. Yemeni jewelers complain that profiteers are importing cheap stones from overseas and re-exporting them as coveted “Yemeni agates.”
Jewelry wearers who fall prey to bad luck or ill health can increasingly argue that the fault lies not in their superstitions, but in the provenance of the gems that they purchased. Even scrupulously honest jewelers will be facing a new challenge.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East. It appeared originally in the CSIS Middle East Program newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment.