Kashmir Gems

The costliest and most fascinating Sapphire from Padder Mountains continues to remain unmatched across the globe. Though the mining is halted for more than half a century, the stones recovered earlier continue to keep the Kashmir gems in news. David Atkinson and Rustam Z Kothavala, who visited the twin mines in 1981, offer the history of the discovery

A fascinating photograph of Gullabgarh (Paddar), which has remained the base camp for mine-exploration expeditions. Photograph: Wikipedia

Since their discovery in 1881, the legendary sapphire deposits of Kashmir have acquired a reputation based on a mixture of fact and fantasy that is usually associated with the ancient gem mines of the world. Situated in the high Himalaya Mountains of northwest India and described in early reports as “the region beyond the snows,” the locality is so remote that to this day only a handful of trained geologists have visited the site. Consequently, little has been published on the deposits in recent years and even less on the stones mined there.

Because outsiders were strictly forbidden to enter the Paddar region of Kashmir until 1979, Dr Kothavala’s earlier efforts to visit the sapphire deposits were refused. In 1981, he invited Mr Atkinson to join him in a renewed attempt to reach the mines. Until the authors’ visit during the summer of 1981, the last known Westerner to inspect the site was RV Gaines in 1944.

More recently, in 1961, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir undertook a detailed feasibility survey, but the results of this study remain confidential. One reason for the dwindling worldwide interest in these mines is the paucity of fine gems produced after 1908. Such scarcity would long ago have doomed the locality to insignificance were it not for the unique beauty of the few stones that still emerge.

This possibly could be the costliest Brooch on earth, involving a Kashmir Sapphire

Similarly, the inaccessibility of the mines is tempered only by the awe-inspiring beauty of their surroundings. Even the 19th-century geologists felt compelled to devote entire paragraphs to describe carpets of wildflowers and majestic scenery in their otherwise staid reports.

Few gemmologists would dispute that a fine Kashmir stone displays a character that sets it apart in a world relatively abundant in corundum gems. Over the years, the term Kashmir has come to signify the most desirable and expensive of blue sapphires. The protracted territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over the state of Kashmir, plus the outlawing of private trade in Kashmir sapphires since the early 1880s by the maharajah, have conspired to surround the mining and trading of these stones with an aura of secrecy and suspicion. Add to that the extreme cultural isolation of the local people, whose small villages lie in narrow valleys among mountains that rise to more than 6,000 m (20,000 ft), and one has the necessary ingredients for a legend that compares with Shangri-La.

The purpose of this article is to set the particular conditions pertaining to the area in perspective. It seeks to chronicle the major developments at this occurrence in the 100 years since its discovery, review what little literature exists on the subject, and provide some insights into the very limited but continuing trade in Kashmir sapphires today. In addition, a brief commentary on the geology of the area and a discussion of the gemmological characteristics of Kashmir stones are provided

History

As early as 1882 (Mallett) and 1890 (La Touche), reports by government geologists to the Geological Survey of India concurred that the discovery of sapphires in a glacial cirque above the village of Sumjam, on the southwest slopes of the rugged Zanskar Range, was the result of a landslide that took place sometime in 1881. Minor quakes and avalanches are frequent in this geologically active region. It is clear from various letters and communications by missionaries and traders, who lived in the area at the time that the local inhabitants had been aware of several different corundum deposits (Mallett, 1882; Shepard, 1883).

Conversations with villagers during the expedition in 1981 verified that opaque, greyish corundum crystals had been used as flints and as crude abrasive tools from very early times. The exposure in 1881 of a concentrated pocket of gemmy blue crystals sparked enough local excitement to initiate exchanges with itinerant traders from the neighbouring valleys of Zanskar and Lahul. After crossing the Umasi-La Pass (5290 m) in order to reach Sumjam, in the valley of Paddar, these merchants were at first sceptical and had to be cajoled into trading the nilom (“blue stone”) for salt on a weight for weight basis. Eventually, these stones found their way to larger commercial centres, usually in the company of more traditional and humble minerals, notably borax and salt. It was in the marketing centres of Kulu and Simla (the summer capital of India) that the crystals were positively identified and their true value recognized. The news spread quickly. By the end of 1882, a syndicate of jewellers had paid the equivalent of US$90000 for a lot of fine crystals (Mallett, 1882).

From these reports, it can be inferred that the early production was quite abundant.

By 1883, the maharajah of Kashmir had claimed his rightful ownership of the mines and declared all private trade in the stones a punishable offence. Not surprisingly, the local Paddaris, disconnected from affairs of state, deeply resented the stationing of a contingent of the maharajah’s elite Dogra guards at the mine. This sentiment persists still in the valley, where the authors had the opportunity to talk with both the local villagers and the police stationed at the mines. Until 1887, various government officials were dispatched to the mine to oversee the collection of sapphire on behalf of the state and to prevent rampant smuggling and raiding of the site, which later became known as the Old Mine.

Their efforts reaped enormous wealth for the state and led to the fabled collection of crystals and gems held in the state treasury. As dramatically as it had begun, production slowed to a trickle as the initial pocket of sapphire was worked out.

In 1887, the Kashmir Durbar acquired the services of the Geological Survey of India’s deputy superintendent, TD La Touche, to carry out the first detailed survey and estimate of future potential. La Touche’s results were presented in his landmark report of 1890. Since then, only one comprehensive survey has been published (Middlemiss, 1931). Later surveys, undertaken by various government agencies since India’s independence in 1947 and extending to the late 1970s, remain confidential.

On the recommendations of La Touche, crude washing troughs were constructed, using lumber carried from hundreds of meters below the mine.

However, his attempts to exploit the alluvial deposits already discovered on the floor of the cirque at the base of the Old Mine yielded only one spectacular stone, and the mine was abandoned for 16 years until the government leased the prospect to private interests (Minerals Yearbook, 1906).

It is evident from the frequent change in lessees that followed that the combination of impossibly harsh mining conditions, constant raiding by unauthorized parties, and the lack of major crystals made mining less and less attractive. Nevertheless, several interesting developments during this period pointed the way to future potential for the mines. La Touche had reported finding loose blocks of corundum in the matrix on the north- slope behind the Old Mine, known as the “back slope”, but was unable to trace this material to its exact source.

In addition, he postulated the existence of further placer deposits beneath the floor of the cirque. To this day, no success has been reported in finding these deposits. In 1906, CMP Wright, of the Kashmir Mining Company, lessee of the mine, reworked the earlier placer deposit with some success before abandoning the mines in 1908. On his departure, he did report several occurrences of new sapphire outcrops only a few hundred meters from the exhausted Old Mine.

In his opinion, however, they were of little significance (Middlemiss, 193 1).

The failure of sporadic mining during the next decade to produce any exciting crystals seemed to confirm the belief that the sapphire workings at Sumjam had finally been depleted. Nevertheless, in 1924 the government commissioned a detailed mapping of the area, and several new sapphire outcrops were identified. In the years that followed, the second phase of mining began at the “New Mines”.

The results, although not as spectacular as earlier, were most profitable for the private operators-so much so, it appears, that the government decided to take matters into its own hands once more. In 1927, for undisclosed “irregularities,” the mining lease was revoked and state mining laws were hastily revised (Middlemiss, 1931). A government-controlled mining project carried out that year yielded the largest seasonal production in the history of the area. Proposals for a state gem-cutting operation were drawn up, and a revival of the sapphire industry seemed imminent. In 1928, however, an experimental batch of rough was cut in Delhi and the results were analyzed. Of over 900 ct of finished stones, fewer than 20 pieces could be classed as excellent quality, only two as large as 6 ct and one of 10 ct (Middlemiss, 1931).

The new material could not compare with the early stones. Tenders were therefore accepted once more from private parties, and scanty reports suggest that at least three different operators worked the mines until 1951. Despite large quantities of rough extracted (over one million carats in 1949, when 50 workers were employed full time during the season) only a minute quantity of “incomparable” stones emerged. With the final dismantling of the maharajah’s political power in 1947, the last connections between the maharajah of Kashmir and the Paddar mines were broken.

Post-1947

Effective control of the mines now rests with the state government of Jammu and Kashmir. Over the past 30 years, mining has been intermittent. In 1981 the mines were inactive, although at the time of writing negotiations are once again underway to lease the area to private interests.

(Excerpted from a long paper, Kashmir Sapphire, authored jointly by Dr Rustam Z Kothavala, formerly lecturer on geology and director of the Science Centre at Harvard University, and David Atkinson, which was published in Gems and Gemmology in the summer of 1984.)

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