The Zanskar Range is an austerely beautiful region of peaks, rivers and gorges in the northwestern Himalayas, so remote it has been called the land ‘beyond the snows’.
In 1882, it suddenly came into very sharp focus when a group of traders arrived in Shimla with a handful of eye-catching stones from the Padar Valley. The stones were the velvety cornflower-blue colour of a peacock’s neck, and had surfaced in the rocks following a landslide. They were sapphires — the most beautiful the world had seen.
Apprised of their beauty, the Maharaja of Kashmir swiftly dispatched guards to the area, and from 1882 to 1887, miners worked day and night throughout the short three-month summer, unearthing sapphires of up to 3 x 5 inches in size. When the ‘Old Mine’ was exhausted, the Maharaja appealed to the British Geological Survey of India for help, and the miners moved down to the valley floor.
The sapphires there were inferior in quality, however, and since 1927, nothing of note has been found at all, adding rarity to the beauty of these Kashmir sapphires, and lending them an almost mythical aura.
India’s association with diamonds goes back further, to the days of Pliny the Elder — whose Natural History (77 AD) referenced diamonds being washed from river gravel there — and beyond.
By the time of Marco Polo (1254-1324), diamonds from the Godavari delta in eastern India were furnishing the treasure chests of the Great Khans of the Mongol Empire; and in 1668, the French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) was presenting a casket of these Golconda gems — so named after the Sultanate that owned the mines and the magnificent fortress of the same name — to Louis XIV.
So struck was the Sun King by their luminosity and transparency that he called the gems ‘pools of crystal water’. Henceforth, only diamonds would befit the magnificence of the sovereign, he declared, granting Tavenier a barony and ordering him to bring the diamonds to the attention of the world.
Tavernier duly published Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1676) and is now known as ‘Father of the Modern Diamond Trade’.
The diamonds he had shown to the King were nitrogen-free gems that the GIA now classifies as Type IIa diamonds, the most chemically pure and transparent of all diamonds in the world. Today, they represent less than two percent of the world’s production of gem-quality diamonds.
The Peacock Necklace
The majority of the world’s most beautiful and highest-valued sapphires come from Kashmir and several have passed through Christie’s.
In 2015, a spectacular circular-cut sapphire of 10.33 carats, set within a diamond surround and mounted on a gold ring, sold for HK$19,160,000, setting a new record for the highest price paid per carat for a sapphire at the auction house.
An extremely rare sapphire and diamond ring. A circular-cut sapphire weighing approximately 10.33 carats, set within a brilliant-cut diamond two-tiered surround, mounted in 18k gold. Sold for HK$19,160,000 on 2 June 2015 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Three years later, the Peacock Necklace, set with 21 top-quality Kashmir sapphires that had taken more than 100 years to assemble, as well as a further 15 years to cut and polish, fetched HK$116,537,500 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
Superb sapphire and diamond necklace. The total weight of the certified sapphires 109.08 carats. The total weight of the certified diamonds 50.63 carats. Sold for HK$116,537,500 on 27 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
The ‘Mirror of Paradise’
As for the Golconda diamonds, while the mines closed in the mid-19th century, the name is still associated with the most celebrated diamonds in the world.
Chief among them is the Hope Diamond, a 45.52-carat Type IIb diamond containing traces of boron, which is thought to be a re-cut of the Tavernier Blue or French Blue that once graced the crown of Louis XIV. Stolen during the French Revolution, it eventually found its way to Washington D.C., where it is now on display at the Smithsonian.
Famous Type IIa Golconda diamonds, meanwhile, include the Koh-i-Noor or ‘Mountain of Light’, a 105.6-carat, Type IIa stone now in the British Crown Jewels, and the 182-carat Darya-i-Noor or ‘Sea of Light’ in the Iranian Crown Jewels.
Others have been auctioned at Christie’s. On 19 June 2019, the so-called ‘Mirror of Paradise’, a 52.58-carat, rectangular-cut diamond set in a platinum ring, sold for US$6,517,500 in New York.
In the same sale, the Arcot II, a beautiful pear-cut diamond that was originally gifted to Queen Charlotte, the wife of British King George III, by the Nawab of Arcot, in the 18th century, fetched US$3,375,000.
The ‘Mirror of Paradise’ diamond ring. A rectangular-cut diamond of 52.58 carats, D colour, Internally Flawless clarity, Type IIa. Sold for US$6,517,500 on 19 June 2019 at Christie’s in New York
The Arcot II. A pear-shaped brilliant-cut diamond of 17.21 carats, D colour, Internally Flawless clarity, Type IIa. Sold for US$3,375,000 on 19 June 2019 at Christie’s in New York
All of which make the offerings in the upcoming sale very exciting indeed. ‘The tones and saturation of these sapphires are almost unprecedented, embodying a mesmerising velvety quality coveted by gem collectors,’ notes Vickie Sek, Chairman of Jewellery for Christie’s Asia. ‘It's extremely rare to see Golconda diamonds on the market and each one is unique, displaying old-mine cutting, rather than the uniformity of machine-cut diamonds. Golconda diamonds were often used in important Indian and western royal jewels.’
Kashmir sapphires and Golconda diamonds on the market
Gems-quality sapphires are extremely rare. And as the Kashmir mines are only known to have produced sapphires for a very short amount of time — just seven years in the case of the initial mine — there are very few on the market.
The same goes for the colourless Type IIa Golconda diamonds — the most magnificent diamonds in the world.
‘Both Kashmir sapphires and Golconda diamonds are virtually non-existent on the market as there is hardly any production from either mine,’ says Sek. ‘The rarity of both gemstones surrounds them with an almost mythical allure, attracting collectors from across the globe.’