Celts[1] (pr. Kelts, not Selts) often have red hair and green eyes.  If a man is involved with a woman of Celtic descent, then he starts thinking about buying her stuff that is red or green.  A dark green dress, for example, or a Mandarin red silk wrap with gold and black dragons embroidered on it.  Or jewelry, if you’re at that stage of life (i.e. career, i.e. income) that allows you to go beyond the basic clear white diamond engagement ring.  Rings, ear-rings (clip or post depending on whether you’ve been smart enough to notice if she’s had her ears pierced), and necklaces.  Green or red jewelry means emeralds or rubies.

Here’s where things get complicated.  The best rubies come from Myanmar (Burma).  Mostly the mines are in central and northern Burma.  These regions fell under British control after the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885).  In 1948, Burma became independent of Britain as a republic.  Subsequently it took the name of Myanmar. It has had a military dictatorship for decades and, more recently, there has occurred the whole unfortunate genocide of the Rohingyas thing.  But that’s another story for another time.

The best emeralds come from Columbia.  The tectonic plate movement (up-thrust and subduction) along the western edge of South America pushes hot rock and gases up through yielding sedimentary rocks.  Those gases include beryllium, chromium, and vanadium.  They flow into gaps in the sedimentary rocks, cool, and harden into emeralds.  As it happens, most of these deposits are found in the Boyaca (pr. Boy-yaka) and Cundinamarca districts, which lie on the eastern slopes of the Andes.  Much of this territory was first explored by Spaniards under the command of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1496-1579).  (Jimenez led several disastrous-to-catastrophic expeditions into the interior, then died of leprosy.[2])  Much later in the bloody history of Columbia, a conventional civil war between left and right[3] molted into a decades-long struggle between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, and drug cartels.  Tens of thousands of people have died.  The leader among the left-wing rebels is the “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia or FARC).  They started off as peasant Communists sponsored by Fidel Castro’s Cuba back when it was trying to export its own revolution.  Communism didn’t work out, so they turned to Capitalism[4]: dealing drugs and kidnapping people for ransom.  Not that FARC was alone in the resort to drug dealing.  Columbia soon became the major source of cocaine imported into the United States.[5]

Nor was FARC alone in the kidnap and ransom trade.[6]  They were just very good at it.  The movie “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000) examines the business.  The movie is about Columbia, thinly disguised at the fictional country of “Tecala.”  During the filming, Meg Ryan had a steamy interlude with Russell Crowe.  Her eyes are blue, not green.  He would have given her sapphires.  So much for the hoped-for symmetry in my little essay.

Control over the emerald mines has become a key source of wealth for all the combatants.  A black market has developed.  Hence, Columbian emeralds are considered “conflict gems.”  Tiffany’s and Cartier don’t sell emeralds.  Hard thing to learn at Christmas.

[1] People who trace their distant ancestry to Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gonzalo_Jim%C3%A9nez_de_Quesada

[3] See, La Violencia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Violencia  A version of this appears in the novel by R.M. Koster, The Prince, as “La Rabia.”

[4] Kind of like post-Communist Russia and the Peoples’ Republic of China avant le fait.

[5] For one aspect of this issue, see Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2015).

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnappings_in_Colombia and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnap_and_ransom_insurance

Runnin’ all ’round my brain.

Cocaine prices per gram in selected American cities, 1999 and 2005.

1999.             2005.               Change in base price.

Seattle.                       $80-100           $30-100          -62%

Denver.                       $100-125         $100-125         0%

Los Angeles.               $50-100           $30-100           -40%

Dallas.                        $90-125           $50-80             -44%

Chicago.                     $75-100           $75-100              0%

Detroit.                       $75-100           $50-120           -33%

Atlanta.                      $100                $80-100           -20%

Miami.                        $40-60             $20-110           -50%

New York.                 $21-40             $20-25             -0%


There are a bunch of ways of cutting up this data, so to speak.

First, in 1999, cocaine was a glut on the market in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. These were major cities with a large over-all market, ports of entry, and centers of a counter-culture. In contrast, it was hard to come by in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, and Seattle. These were chief cities of “the provinces,” as the Romans would have put it. Six years later Seattle had joined New York, Miami, and Los Angeles as the capital cities of cocaine. This probably has something to do with the explosion of the computer and software industries in Seattle. Maybe writing software allows for blow in a way that designing airplanes for Boeing does not. Still, the “cocaine revolution” hadn’t reached Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago. These cities remained the ones with the highest priced (and thus least available) cocaine.

Second, even in two of the original core cities of cocaine consumption, Miami and Los Angeles, prices fell sharply. New York began with the lowest price and pretty much stayed there. Perhaps $20 a gram was the rock-bottom price for cocaine. Lots of people hustling on a big, but limited, market, all of them competing to deliver the best product to the most people at the lowest price. Adam Smith take note. Labor costs driven down to the subsistence minimum. David Ricardo take note.

Third, prices fell while the Drug Enforcement Agency was spending billions of dollars to drive up the price (and thus reduce consumption) through interdiction and eradication. Why didn’t this effort produce better results?

One reason is that cocaine producers in Columbia dispersed their coca-growing operations into more remote areas and spread into Peru and Bolivia as well. These are outside the range of US-sponsored eradication efforts. Production went up, not down.

Another reason is that, since the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, there has been a huge increase in trans-border truck and vehicle traffic between Mexico and the United States. This made it much easier to move cocaine into the United States. One government policy warred with another government policy. The thing is that people trying to make money won in both cases. What’s more American than that?

Final thing to think about: 88 percent of cocaine moved through Mexico. Eventually, the Mexican intermediaries for the Columbians wanted a better deal. Much violence followed. (See: Narcostate with a State.)


Ken Dermota, “The World in Numbers: Snow Fall,” Atlantic, July/August 2007, pp. 24-25.