There are many myths surrounding the discovery of sapphires in Kashmir. Amongst the most amusing is that related by the explorer Albert Ramsay in 1934. He wrote: "It seemed that in the old days a band of men with beards dyed red found some blue stones exposed by a landslide in the hills of Kashmir. These men had come from Afghanistan, part of a mule caravan on its way to Delhi. The stones, as curiousities, were put away in the bags on one of the mules, and then, in Delhi, they were traded for salt. Thereafter they were sold to someone who recognized them to be rough sapphires: and they were resold and resold and resold, until finally, in Calcutta, they brought in rupees a price which was equal to $400,000. The news of this transaction got back to the Maharajah of that time, who discovered that the sapphires had been picked up in his own Kashmir hills. In great wrath he went to Calcutta and demanded them. Every single transaction in the long train had to be undone. The man who had sold the sapphires gave back the $400,000, and so it went back through many towns, until, at Delhi, a merchant received back a few bags of salt. Today, I should think those sapphires are worth $3,000,000."
Whether or not there is truth in this anecdote, its mention of a landslide has come to be the most accepted version for the discovery of these beautiful sapphires. Historians believe the event to have occurred at some time between 1879 and 1882 in the Kudi Valley, near the hamlet of Sumjam (Soomjam) in the Padar (Paddar) region of Kashmir in the Himalayas. By 1882, the stones began to appear on the Indian market in Simla.
Upon hearing of the superb gems, the Maharajah sent a regiment of sepoys to protect the mines. Extensive and productive mining went on for the next five years in what has come to be called the "old mine". Even in these prolific years, recovery was exceedingly difficult due to the altitude - 4,500m - and inclement weather conditions. In fact, the area was only accessible in the short summer months of July-September.
Revenues had decreased dramatically by 1887, leading the Maharajah to approach the British Indian Government for support. Eager for an eventual profit from the mines, the British sent the geologist T.D. La Touche to the Kudi Valley in September of the same year. After an extensive geological survey, La Touche ascertained that there were, in fact, two mines. The aforementioned "old mine", from which the finest specimens originated, consisted of a series of shallow pits on the northeast wall of the valley. The new mine, a trench located approximately 100 metres south of the old one, was never productive. It was leased together with the first mine to C.M.P. Wright and the Kashmir Mineral Company from 1906-1908, but after recovering a few quality examples from the latter, they gave up due to the dearth of fine gem material and the ever problematic weather conditions.
From the initial recovery efforts to present day, mining has remained sporadic, becoming increasingly difficult with the eroding relations between India and Pakistan. The Maharajah lost power in 1967 and since then, the Indian Government has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to lease the area.
While there are some fine stones on the market, their supply is limited. The present sale contains several excellent examples of gem quality Kashmir sapphires. There is the sugarloaf cabochon ring (lot 829). As the renowned expert on sapphires, Rolf Schwieger confirmed in a 1990 article in "Gems & Gemmology", "today most of the (Kashmir) stones on the market are small, and only rarely does one see faceted gem-quality stones over 20ct". This particular cabochon is deemed so special as to merit a comment in addition to its certificate.
The Belle Epoque necklace, lot 828, set with sixteen exceptional stones is also worth noting, as is the Art Deco bracelet by Cartier, lot 830, set with eight such gems. Representative of the famous firm at their best, the bracelet is not only set with exquisite sapphires, but the stones are elegantly enhanced by a buff-top stone at each of their four corners, an embodiment of Cartier's attention to detail. The creation of these two jewels, uniting sixteen and eight well-matched stones respectively, must have taken several years.
To add to the treasures is lot 790, a single-stone ring, set with another superb gem which, like all those we have mentioned, demonstrates the velvety, cornflower blue that makes the Kashmir colour the most desirous of hues.