Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Luster for Colombia's Gem Industry ; the Government Has Established the National Emerald Federation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Luster for Colombia's Gem Industry ; the Government Has Established the National Emerald Federation

Article excerpt

In a country permeated by the cocaine trade, keeping legitimate businesses free from taint can be a daunting task. Colombia's emerald industry is no exception.

Emeralds once accounted for as much as 6 percent of Colombia's exports, peaking in 1995 at $452 million. But a history of violence, drug ties, and a lack of quality control have left the industry in shambles. Last year, exports bottomed out at $74 million, a mere half a percent of the country's $16.5 billion in exports.

Now the government of President Alvaro Uribe is looking to shore up the emerald trade. In April, the government ironed out the final details of the new National Emerald Federation, the country's first association of miners, exporters, dealers, and jewelers. The Federation is designed to administer a long-dormant 1 percent tax on emerald exports and reinvest the money in the industry.

Also, hopes are that by November, the Center for Technical Research on Colombian Emeralds (CDTEC), which will help modernize the gem trade, will begin operating with federation funding. Industry officials say that this and other investments in education, technology, and infrastructure will go a long way toward restoring the Colombian emerald's credibility and value.

"The history of the emerald industry has been split in two: before and after the signing of [the federation] contract," says Carlos Arboleda Otalora, first president of the Federation. "Our goal is to return to the level of over $400 million in exports."

But restoring the industry to its previous luster won't be easy.

"No one knows the amount of emeralds in Colombia," says Juan Guillermo Zuleta of Ingeominas, the government body that oversees emerald exports and registers origin and carat weight.

The tax levy, which was passed way back in 1996, may have pushed a significant portion of the trade underground. And inspired by the DeBeers diamond cartel, mining bosses tried unsuccessfully to boost prices by limiting production, controlling "leakage" from the mines, and sitting on undeclared stock.

Through much of the 1990s, Colombians became notorious for trying to hide gemstone flaws with various inexpensive, unstable solutions. …

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