Kashmir Sapphires - a love story
They say you’ll always remember your first love.
As a gemmologist, my first love affair with a stone was with a 2.32ct Kashmir sapphire. It was love at first sight. An old cushion cut of a saturated velvety blue with ultramarine highlights as it glimmered and glowed in any and all light… I dreamt of our future together. Set in an Art Deco ring with clean lines and diamond shoulders… What could be a better, more beautiful thing?
Sadly, this object of deep and abiding desire was not mine own. I wore it from the moment it arrived in the store until the moment someone bought it from my finger. It was a heart-wrenching moment of separation, and I still dream of my lost love.
While Diamond Girl is wholeheartedly wedded to her sparkling and scintillating diamonds (as her name would suggest), I find myself drawn to the poetry of the coloured stones. I find that without fire and brilliance distracting the eye, one may be drawn into colour, immersed in the depths of deep saturated tones, gorging oneself to excess with the hues on offer.
For me, and for many others, the Kashmir is the King of the blue sapphires. The other important localities (what certificates refer to as the origin of the stones) have overtones to their colours, which, to me, detract from the blue blue blue of the stone. To my eye, the Burmese sapphire is tainted by a navy tone and the Ceylon (Sri Lankan) sapphire has a tinge of violet. While these secondary hues may add to the grandeur of the Burma sapphire or the feminine appeal of the Ceylon, I find that they distract from the purity of that “peacock’s neck” blue (as it is termed in India) that we find in the Kashmir stone.
To add to the mystique of the Kashmir sapphire, we have a ‘milky’ appearance within the stone – extremely fine needles of rutile serve to ‘scatter’ the light within the stone to give a softness to the tone, but are slender enough not to affect the transparency of this gorgeous gem. It is this softness combined with their intense colour which combines to make this stone unparalleled within the gamut of sapphires on offer. A tenderness of touch in the truest blue… what girl could ask for more?
Add, to this utter, unchallenged beauty and gentleness, the fact that this gemstone comes from a place that is now ‘mined out’, meaning that all worthwhile gems have already been extracted. The Kashmir mine has produced nothing of consequence since the late 1930s. There will be no more of these stunning stones in the market. What we have is likely to be all we will ever see.
What’s more, the vast majority of these stones were unearthed between 1881 and 1887 at a spot among the remote mountains on the borders of Zanskar. That’s just seven years of extraction before the coffers were closed. Given that the climate of the North-West Himalayas where these sapphires were mined was so bitterly challenging to those attempting to scratch the sapphires from the soil, mining could only really be carried out in earnest for three months each year – if that! The working season of 1888 only ran from the 17th July to the 29th September due to snowfall. This is an area of land described in early reports as “the region beyond the snows”. It is so hard to reach that only a few trained geologists have ever visited, and the governing Maharajas strictly forbade the entrance of outsiders to the site.
The tale of the Kashmir is a tale of chance finding – one of the many stories of the original discovery tells of a native Shikari who was looking for a piece of quartz with which to strike a spark in order to light his pipe. He put his hand on a small sapphire instead, and found that it gave a brighter spark. There had been a landslip recently, which had laid bare the granite rocks beneath the soil. Eventually he sold this gem to a Laholi trader who took it to Simla where its value was recognised. Enquiries were made, the locality was found, and a regiment of guards were sent by the Maharajah of Kashmir to take control of the mines.
When production fell in 1887, a geologist, T.D. La Touche, was dispatched to undertake a comprehensive geological survey of the area. He tells of seeing a Kashmir sapphire in the treasury at Jammu “that measured 5 inches in length by 3 inches in breadth”, although this stone did not possess uniform colour and shaded off into white at each end of the crystal. His investigation found the mine to be exhausted, and he turned to look at placer deposits (gems removed from the original location by the effects of weathering and water action) on the floor of the valley.
After this bleak report, official mining ceased. Local poachers were undeterred however, and it was nearly 20 years until the area was again leased to miners in 1906. The results were poor. Between 1933-1938, some systematic mining was put in place with some 641,656 carats of sapphires being taken from the ground on average each year; much of which would have been of industrial quality – highly included and without good colour. After this date, all attempts at both leasing and mining the area have met with disappointment.
By 1994,, the mining region was considered rebel territory (Cap Beesley in personal communication with Richard Hughes, December 5th, 1994). Although most gemmologists agree that the likelihood of the specific type of geological process leading to the formation of the Kashmir sapphires occurring in just one small place is low; while there may be yet more of these delectable stones waiting to be found, there are further problems in the form of the political unrest between India and Pakistan since the partition of 1947. The Kashmir deposit lies on the border between these two conflicting countries and is, as a result, a dangerous place to go looking for treasure.
As a result of this drying up of the resource, the only way one can get their hands on this beautiful material is through the estate and auction market. This is one of the major benefits of working within this field, in that such rarities may pass through one’s hands. The problem then is how one might be able to tell the stone’s pedigree. Sadly, unless these stones have already been recognised and certificated (in which case they will carry a hefty price-tag – such is the degree to which they are coveted), these little devils don’t exactly carry passports with details of their hometowns. So how can we tell where they come from?
The ‘science’ of origin determination began with Dr Edward Gübelin in Lucerne, Switzerland in the 1940s. He systematically examined a huge number of gemstones collected from mines around the world, where their original source was known and clearly documented. By doing so he was able to identify certain features or inclusions common to each group of stones. By examining a stone of an unknown locality, these features become their ID cards, allowing a well-informed gemmologist to say, with a measure of confidence, from where that stone might have been unearthed. This was the very beginning of the science. With modern laboratory equipment, we are now able to identify a gemstone by means of analysing its chemical make-up and noting particular patterns in comparison to a comprehensive database. We can even pinpoint the tiniest inclusion within a gemstone and identify that! The mind boggles even as certainty coalesces.
So what features are we looking for in a Kashmir sapphire?
First and foremost, there is that wonderful colour. All natural blue sapphires are coloured by a combination of iron and titanium – the presence of just one of these in a stone can leave it a milky white to colourless shade. To get the blue, both must be present and correct. Kashmir sapphires may also display a pink or purple colour, although these stones are rarities amidst the rare. There might also be zoning – areas of alternating colour saturations and clarities. The more translucent areas are held to be the cause of the ‘velvety’ appearance of many Kashmir sapphires.
The most well-known inclusion of them all is rutile. This is the material responsible for creating asterism in rubies and sapphires – those lovely star stones with their bright rays of light. It is highly unusual to see a star sapphire from Kashmir, because in these stones the rutile forms as very fine needles in clouds through the material. In the Burmese and Ceylon stones, these needles are heavier and can give the silky appearance for which the Burmese stone is known. In the Kashmir sapphire, very high magnification is required to even see the individual crystals! The presence of these inclusions serves to ‘scatter’ the light entering the stone, giving a hazy quality to the stone without affecting its transparency.
Between the haziness granted by the rutile and the velvety appearance offered by the zoning within the stone, there comes a sense of soft sleepiness, of romance fulfilled in this rare and exceedingly fine material. Given the incredible blue tones, and the limpid quality of light displayed, is it any wonder that these stones are the peerless paragons of the sapphire world? Combined with the scarcity of this material in the market, these desirable features create an almost fabled status for an already fabulous stone.
The probability is that my first love and I will never meet again. But the knowledge that his beautiful brothers are scattered around the world, waiting to be found and recognised, gives me the hope that one day love might be mine once more.
Passion Fruit: A Lover’s Guide to Sapphire by Richard W Hughes –URL: http://www.ruby-sapphire.com/sapphire_connoisseurship.htm
World Sources: India by Richard W Hughes –URL: http://www.ruby-sapphire.com/r-s-bk-india.htm
Origin Determination in Gemstones. URL: http://gemologyproject.com/wiki/index.php?title=Origin_determination
Records of the Geological Survey of India,Vol 23, Pt. 2, May, 1890, pp. 59-69 by Tom D. LaTouche, Deputy Superintendent of the Geological Survey of India. URL: http://m.palagems.com/kashmir-sapphire/
Kashmir Sapphire by David Atkinson & Rustam Z. Kothavala – Gems & Gemology Summer 1983