Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.
You hear so much about the hands-down superiority of the Kashmir sapphire over every other variety of this blue corundum that sooner or later you feel obligated to put this dictum to a test. So I arranged for a private showing of Kashmir sapphires at the office of a connoisseur gem specialist.
It only takes one stone, the very first one I see, to make a believer of me. The stone’s blue is rich, royal and velvety, the quintessence of sapphire color. And because the gem is 24 carats, the telltale color banding that supposedly confirms Kashmir origin is immediately noticeable. Beyond such brief details, the mouth- and eye-watering beauty of this sapphire is hard to convey.
Astonishingly, this magnificent gem, which has papers tracing it back at least 85 years, probably sold for less than $1 per carat when it was still in its rough state. Today, the finished masterpiece could fetch as much as $60,000 per carat, close to $1.5 million, in a posh Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive jewelry salon.
But if $60,000 per carat strikes you as too steep a price for a sapphire, even one so pedigreed, another Kashmir stone we examined, this one only six carats, can be bought for $45,000 per carat. Smaller size and a slightly lighter tone prevent it from commanding as much as the 24-carat splendor. Yet this stone, which its owner casually dismisses as “fine but not gem, ” is better than most sapphires jewelers and dealers may ever see. Once again, the color is a serenely soft, almost princely blue with the same giveaway color banding. When put next to a fabulous eight-carat Sri Lankan sapphire, the latter seems sharper, cooler, less sensuous (although still gorgeous).
So much for the ineffable beauty of Kashmir sapphire. Rarely, except in a few tanzanites, has this writer seen a blue that was as awe-inspiring. And yet, these Kashmir sapphires may fall far short of the standard this species set after it first flooded the gem market late in the last century.
A Flood of Blue
Believe it or not, when sapphires were discovered around 1882 in Kashmir, a small Indian state in the northwest Himalayas, they were so plentiful and large that locals would pick them off the ground to use as flint stones. When they realized these rocks were facetable, they took them to Indian dealers in places like Delhi who bought them as amethysts for pennies a carat. Later, when the gems were properly identified as corundum, their prices jumped. Gemologist Max Bauer reports in the 1904 edition of “The Systematic Description of Precious Stones” that the usual price for Kashmir sapphire rough in London, then a major colored stone cutting center, was 20 pounds (or$120) per ounce (86 cents per carat). However, the price fell when the market was glutted with this material.
Who could have foreseen that the Kashmir deposits would be nearly depleted by 1925? Even after the mines were nearly exhausted, dealers learning their craft in London in the 1930s recollect that prices never exceeded $500 per carat. Despite the sharp decline in production, sporadic parcels still made their way to the West. Even today, smugglers continue to bring out occasional stones, despite heavy police guarding of the known mine sites. No official sales of Kashmir rough have taken place in nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the reputation of Kashmir sapphire endures so strongly that fine stones from this region are entitled to breathtaking premiums- based, in large part, on origin. The trouble is that proving origin is nowadays exceedingly tricky.
No matter what dealers say, selling a sapphire as Kashmir is usually more a matter of faith than fact. Indeed, many gems sold as Kashmir later turn out to be heated Sri Lankan stand-ins whose oven-induced color zoning was mistaken for the banding associated with the Himalayan variety.
For this reason, buying stones reputed to be Kashmir often involves what one New York gem dealer describes as “agonizing judgment calls.” Sometimes these calls have little or nothing to do with the stones and everything to do with the seller. “My decision is based as much on who shows me the stone and how as the stone itself,” he continues. “If the person showing it is just back from the Far East with a paper full of sapphires, he’s already got two strikes against him.”
Even when this dealer is shown blue ribbon laboratory reports that vouch for the stone’s Kashmir origin, he is not impressed. “The finest labs have been dead wrong,” he says. Far more important to him, as far as papers go, is documentation of previous ownership that can help him trace back the stone enough years to make him feel secure about its origin. The trade calls such documentation “provenance” and is becoming increasingly dependent on it, much the same way the fine arts world has long been. Many of the dealer’s finest stones have extensive background papers.
Still, proving origin or, at least, becoming secure enough about it to begin negotiating for a stone on the basis of it, is only the first step in acquiring a Kashmir sapphire, says one gem importer. “There always comes a time for a one-on-one confrontation with the gem,” he says. “This is the moment when you give the stone a ruthless examination. That means forgetting everything you have ever heard about it and deciding for yourself what the stone is and if you like it. Just being a Kashmir sapphire is no guarantee of beauty or value.”
Such a confrontation takes know-how and is not recommended for anyone who only buys fine sapphires occasionally. Indeed, such a buyer may be better off ignoring origin, unless the person from whom he buys a Kashmir stone has impeccable credentials with such material and will attest to origin in writing. One sapphire specialist does just that and, by so doing, accepts full liability should the stone turn out otherwise than claimed.
Given the extreme difficulty of verifying Kashmir origin these days, many in the trade think origin selling is a dangerous anachronism that should be done away with. Instead, they favor judging a gem’s beauty and merit in terms of universal color grading systems. Advocates of this approach say that laboratory grades will reflect the inherent superiority of Kashmir color, thus protecting these stones’ values and, at the same time, eliminating the need to sell them on the basis of locality.
One New York appraiser says sacrificing origin and background and reducing a gem to a lab grade takes the all-important elements of “heritage and history” out of gem ownership. According to him, that’s a no-no for Kashmir sapphire, a gem that has a stature with connoisseurs that can be likened to that of a Rubens painting in the art world. Validation has become as difficult, and as necessary, for the gem masterpiece as for the art masterpiece. “Just because authentication work is hard is no reason to take the easy way out and abandon it,” this appraiser warns. “You let grading take precedence over everything else and pretty soon the colored stone world is going to be as sterile as the diamond world.”