Back to the stone age: Gemstone craze sweeps Indonesia

From Aceh to Papua, a gemstone fever is sweeping the country.

On a workday afternoon, the Jakarta Gems Center is crowded, mostly with men seeking out their favourite stones.

Nur Rahmat is in the market for more, even though he already wears two large, brightly coloured stones set in silver rings on each hand.

“I collect gemstones as a hobby,” the 35-year-old father of three says.

“My wife doesn’t mind as long as I don’t cheat on her,” he says with a grin.

A wave of enthusiasm for locally mined gemstones has swept Indonesia in recent months and traders say business is booming.

It is a hot topic in coffee shops, on television and on the internet. Stalls selling stones have sprung up on the side streets and in alleyways in Jakarta and elsewhere.

Hans Wisena, who owns a shop at the Jakarta Gems Market, says sales have tripled from two years ago. He boasts average earnings of 10 million rupiah (760 dollars) a week.

“It used to be only old people wearing gemstones, mainly for their supposed metaphysical properties,” Wisena says.

While women are as fond of gemstones as they have been in the past, in Indonesia it is mostly men that have found a new appreciation.

They look for stones of brilliant colour or unusual cut for their own collections, instead of buying them as gifts for their wives and girlfriends, Wisena says.

There is a stone for everyone, he notes. Prices range from 20,000 rupiah (2 dollars) to millions of rupiah (hundreds of dollars).

It is not entirely clear what sparked new interest in stones.

Some traders say sales of local gemstones started to pick up after rumours that former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave a silica ring to US President Barack Obama during his visit to Indonesia in 2010.

“I think people have just realized that Indonesian stones are also beautiful and they are cheaper,” Wisena says.

The Bacan stone, a form of chalcedony – which is related to quartz – is among the rarest and the most expensive. The gem, opaque or translucent, is known for remarkable blue to blue-green colour.

Another much-coveted item is picture agate. Features within the stones often create natural, well-defined images.

Religious buyers tend to look for agate stones with images resembling the word Allah in Arabic, or a person praying.

“In parts of Indonesia there are people who believe that stones can cure illnesses such as cancer,” said Sobar Kurnia, editor of the monthly magazine Indonesian Gemstone.

Some stones are believed to improve perception and increase stamina, while others are said to elicit compassion, enhance personal courage and protect one against danger, Wisena said.

“But such superstitious beliefs are diminishing. People mostly buy stones for their beauty and uniqueness,” Sobar said.

There are no reliable figures on how much the gemstone industry is worth, although an advisor to the Stone Traders Association, Tommy Suharto – the son of a former president – said sales could reach 20 trillion rupiah (1.5 billion dollars) annually.

This kind of growth has attracted the attention of local officials. South Sumatra governor Alex Noerdin last month required all civil servants in the province to wear locally produced gemstones, set in rings or pendants.

Back at the Gem Center, Meneng Jiwo, a Javanese mystic clad in a batik shirt and black headband, says he wears gemstones mostly for their healing power.

“People wear gemstones for fashion, but I’m wearing them for therapeutic properties,” Meneng says as he sifts through a pile of rings at the market.

He came all the way from Yogyakarta to Jakarta to buy rings for his stones, which he says are from Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia.

“The Badar Hitam stone can help blood circulation,” he says. “The healing power can also be explained scientifically, because the stone consists of minerals and other earth elements.”

Tri Untoro, a gem shop owner at the Blok M market in southern Jakarta, says he regularly travels to Bacan island in North Maluku province to buy rough stones directly from miners.

In Jakarta, an uncut piece of Bacan can fetch 300 million rupiah (22,000 dollars), he boasted.

“In the past the Bacan stone was worth almost nothing,” he says. “Local people traded it for rice or instant noodles.

Sumarni Paramita, a gemologist at the Adamas Gemological Laboratory in cetral Jakarta, says the fever has spawned local gemstone contests, and raised demands for certification.

“People from various professions have come to us to learn about gemology, because they want to try their hands at the gemstone business,” she says in her cramped Jakarta office equipped with stereo microscopes, monochromatic lights and refractometers.

“I have been invited to be a judge at gemstone contests and there are demands for us to open branches in places outside Java,” she says.

But she wonders if the spike in interest for local stones might be just a fad.

“In many other countries a lot of these stones are just ordinary stones,” she says. “I don’t want to say some stones are more precious than others. To me all stones are precious.”

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