Tsunami Mostly Avoids Industry, but Trade Still Rallies to Help

Initial reports indicate that December’s 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunamis which devastated 11 Southeast Asian nations had little impact on that region’s gem, diamond, and jewelry industries—though longer-lasting effects couldn’t be determined yet.

Three of the hardest-hit nations—Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India—are big exporters of gems and jewelry to the United States. For the most part, though, the tsunamis did not hit gem-producing areas, which are mostly located inland.

But while few of the estimated 150,000 people that lost their lives in the tragedy were involved in the jewelry or gem industries, there were some. They included Kamal Rahman, a jeweler in Galle, Sri Lanka, whose store was on the beachfront, and Sangita Shah, of Mumbai, India, a writer about the diamond business, who died during a beach holiday in Phuket, Thailand, where the resort he and his family were staying at was devastated by the tsunami waves.

Among missing Americans, said press reports, was Peter Meyer of Larkspur, Calif., north of San Francisco, who worked in the gem business in Bangkok, Thailand. When he last talked to his family before Christmas, he told them he was heading to the Indonesian island of Sumatra for the holidays.

Mohammed Yusuf, a Galle, Sri Lanka, gem dealer, lost nine family members, said news reports, though his wife and five children survived. Yusuf himself was scheduled to meet with a client on the morning the tsunami struck. He had just finished cleaning some gems and put them on a table for the client, who had, for two years, always come just before 9 a.m. But that day, Yusuf had told him to come after 10 a.m. The tsunami’s waves hit half an hour before that, washing away his family—including his 11-year-old son who was swept away in front of him, but was then flung back, alive, onto the roof of his house.

“I can’t go back into the gem business,” Yusuf told a reporter as he sat outside a mosque. “Maybe I’ll work in a tea house, or clean a hotel. If people don’t have money to buy a cigarette, how can they buy gems?”

Another Galle jeweler, Ifti Muaheed, lost his gem shop and tens of thousands of dollars’ of gems, which were washed away in the flood. “Three generations of our family business have gone just like that,” he told Reuters.

In the days following the disaster, members of the jewelry and gem industries began providing their own assistance.

CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation, issued a public call to the jewelry industry worldwide to “immediately do its part in supporting the relief efforts…for the survivors of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.” It supported that call with a contribution of 10,000 euros (about $135,000).

“Let’s all start 2005 with a contribution to help millions of people not only survive the coming weeks and months, but also help them make a new start in life,” said CIBJO president Gaetano Cavalieri. “Our industry-at-large can and should make a sizable contribution toward that goal.” Among relief organizations it cited were the Red Cross (www.redcross.org), OXFAM (www.oxfam.org.uk), CARE, (www.care.org), UNICEF (www.unicef.org), and Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org).

The Diamond Dealers Club in New York City on Jan. 4 announced it was “pledging a significant sum from its own funds to help those so severely affected by the tsunami,” said club president Jacob Banda. He noted that the catastrophe “shattered lives across several countries, including India and Thailand, both leading members of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses and the International Diamond Manufacturers Association.”

Banda called on the “entire family of the diamond industry worldwide” to contribute to charitable organizations providing relief and to “aid those whose lives will be affected forever affected by the natural disaster.”

He said that industry members can either contribute directly to relief agencies or send funds to the “Diamond Dealers Club-Tsunami Relief Fund,” at the DDC, 580 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036.

In the aftermath of the tsunami in Asia, thousands of children have been left homeless and orphaned. To help them, award-winning jewelry designer Jane Taylor designed a pendant to be sold globally the profits of which will go to supporting an orphanage in Sri Lanka. The piece named “Rala” (the Sri Lankan word for “wave”) features two waves inside a circle and is available in 14k gold, 18k gold, and silver.

Meanwhile in New York City, members of the Indian community, including jewelers, began raising money for India’s victims of the tsunami. India lost an estimated 10,000 people. The Indian government said it doesn’t need any more aid, but will begin to help other nations.

Retailers like Seattle-based Ben Bridge also raised money and matched employee contributions.