Tsunami disaster takes a personal toll on the gems and jewelry industries

Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India are big exporters of gems and jewelry, among other goods, to the United States. However, initial reports indicated that the 9.0 earthquake off of Sumatra and the resulting tsunamis which devastated 11 Southeast Asian nations had little impact on that region’s gem, diamond, and jewelry industries, say experts, though longer-lasting effects couldn’t be determined yet.

Individual lives and business, though, were devastated and destroyed.

The Thai tourist enclave of Phuket, an island off the Southern Thailand, was also badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Initial reports said that local Thai street vendor businesses and stores near the beach were “wiped clean,” according to on-site observer, Danny Bowman (DB), who owns an internet advertising company called Phuket Directory, in an interview with Radio Singapore International on Dec. 27. “Jewelry stores, diamond stores, gold stores, the row of retailers, they’re gone,” he said.

There were few reports, at press time, of people in the jewelry or gem industries lost or injured in the catastrophe, but there were some. Fatalities included a Galle, Sri Lanka, jeweler Kamal Rahman, whose store was on the beach front, and Sangita Shah, of Mumbai, India, who died when the Thai beach holiday in Phuket where he and his family were staying was devastated by the tsunami waves. Shah wrote about the diamond business in India. His brother, Praful Shah, who runs a diamond business, is president of the Southern Gujarat chamber of commerce and industry in Mumbai, India.

Among missing Americans, said press reports, was Peter Meyer of Larkspur, Calif., north of San Francisco, who works 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.

Another Galle, Sri Lank gem dealer, Mohammed Yusuf 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 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, in a widely published story, 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.