American Gemological Laboratories President C.R. “Cap” Beesley trekked to the mountainous region of Kashmir, where the sapphire mines for this coveted gem are guarded by rough terrain and political tension.
It was a gemologist’s dream come true for C.R. “Cap” Beesley, president of the American Gem Laboratories (AGL), when he got the opportunity to go to the Kashmir sapphire mines — located in the northernmost frontier of India — to visit, research and conduct exploration for 12 days. Even though the National Mineral and Development Corporation of India (NMDC) and the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) provincial government, who jointly administer the mining area, granted permission for the visit, entry into the area was still difficult.
“Ed Cleveland of Kashmir Blue works in the area and is actively involved in humanitarian work in Kashmir. We combined our mutual interests and pulled off the trip by going as a humanitarian mission. We delivered medical supplies to all the isolated villages along the trail,” explains Beesley, who has traveled the world as a former gem sciences consultant to the United Nations minerals branch. This trip, however, was somewhat covert as there is danger in the area from militant terrorists, a substantial military presence and marauders looking for hostages. For safety purposes, Beesley and his team always referred to each other by colors, rather than names, to avoid a hostage situation and they never spent more than one night in the same place.
Between the treacherous terrain and the hostile environment, few have ventured into this area. Beesley notes that he is one of three gemologists from a gemological laboratory to ever travel to the Kashmir sapphire mines and the only one to do so in the past 20 years. This inaccessibility of the mines contributes to the rarity of Kashmir sapphires — and has enhanced their desirability. In the auction market, the very name can cause a flurry of bidding. To dealers, the word Kashmir represents the ultimate measure of sapphire quality and for retailers, it is the prize that is always just out of reach.
“Personally, since I had previously worked the 14,000-foot ruby site at Nangimali on the Azad Kashmir, Pakistan side of the line of control and I had climbed to Kaltaro, the emerald deposit, at 16,000 feet, I wanted to complete the triumvirate of precious stones and visit the highest sapphire mine at 14,500 feet,” says Beesley.
“Professionally, I also wanted to resolve several issues relative to the past, present and future of the Kashmir gem deposit,” says Beesley. “First, my intent was to resolve the critical issue of what we have called ‘New Kashmir.’ Was the current material we are seeing in the marketplace from a secondary deposit in Kashmir, or was it actually a different geochemical strain coming from the original historic site? Typically, the new material visually resembles Sri Lankan or Ceylonese material, but internally deviates dramatically from its classic Kashmir counterpart.” He says he also was in Kashmir to photograph and video-document the region, as well as explore for new gem deposits. His company, AGL, has clients interested in investing in the area who wanted a first-hand assessment of the current situation.
In 1947, India regained independence from British colonial rule and Pakistan broke off from India and became an independent nation. Currently, Pakistan controls about one-third of Kashmir and India the other two-thirds. There is a massive military presence that patrols the borders between the countries and there is often active fighting as both sides try to gain sole ownership of the entire territory.
The route Beasley’s expedition took to the Kashmir sapphire mines passed through three key villages — Kishtawar, Atoli and Sumjam — all historically important markers on the sapphire-trading route. The end of the road is the village of Gulabgarh, a predominantly Hindu area.
“The entire trek required walking over 100 kilometers [60 miles]. Along the way, I lost 15 pounds and developed a renewed appreciation for every drop of fresh water and scrap of toilet paper,” Beesley says in recalling the trip. “At times, the mountainous paths were so difficult to negotiate that your life was literally in the hands of your mountain guide. The ultimate ascent to the mines required an overnight stay in an isolated cattle outpost at 12,500 feet. The next morning, we continued the climb to the rim of the amphitheater-like valley that rises to over 17,000 feet and overlooks the Hagshu glacier vallery and the 600-year-old Sumjam village. We hired local smugglers to help us navigate the last part of the journey to the mine.”
From the final vantage point at the rim of the valley, there was a clear view of the rock formations that account for the uniqueness of sapphire from Kashmir. The mine is protected by armed guards who have no qualms about shooting first and asking questions later. Samples of “New Kashmir Sapphire” were collected on this trip, so that its characteristics could be studied and documented. The new gems coming from the mines have different features than Classic Kashmir Sapphire. At this point, Beesley has determined that the material AGL has been calling “New Kashmir Sapphire” is from the same historic site, but is a lower-quality material. He explains that it is important to be able to verify the origins of sapphire because it can make a 300 percent, 400 percent or even greater difference in the price of the gem if it is determined to be from Kashmir rather than Burma, Sri Lanka or Madagascar.
There is not much Kashmir sapphire coming onto the market these days. The treacherous trip to the mines and 30 feet of winter snow are part of the reason. The NMDC and J&K have developed plans to expand the mine and sell sapphires on a commercial level, but the plans so far have not been implemented. Most recovery efforts are based on extracting sapphire from decomposing feldspar, a mineral that hosts sapphires, pursuing shallow tunnels and working the surrounding debris fields. Many of the sapphires currently coming out of Kashmir are smuggled out by a network of smugglers who sell the stones in Delhi and Jaipur. Locals would like to see the mines increase production legitimately in a way that would support the area’s economy.
Kashmir sapphires are so coveted that in April, a 22-carat gem sold at Christie’s New York for a record-breaking $134,000 per carat. “Kashmir represents the epitome of amazing sapphires,” concludes Beesley. “Their intense blue color that holds up in changing lighting environments and their characteristic velvety, light-scattering internal texture contribute to their uniqueness and desirability in the world of the connoisseur.” Comparison of the typical features of the four dominant sapphire sources
Blue sapphires have been heralded for their luxuriant color for many centuries. Traditionally, three sources are considered as ClassicTM by AGL and have dominated the marketplace for providing fine blue sapphires. These consisted of Kashmir (India), Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). However, a number of additional locations are also known for producing gem-quality blue sapphires, such as Australia, Cambodia, Nigeria, Madagascar, Montana (U.S.), Thailand and southern Vietnam, as well as others. Today, four sources dominate the global marketplace in terms of supply and value drivers: Kashmir, Burma, Ceylon and Madagascar. Presented in this chart are some of the classical characteristics for these various sources, in terms of their macroscopic appearance and certain microscopic features. This is not, however, intended to be a catalog of the criteria necessary to make geographic origin determinations.
—By Christopher P. Smith and C.R. “Cap” Beesley Kashmir
The sapphires of Kashmir are heralded for their intense blue color (AGL color grade 2.5-3.5) and soft “velvety” texture. The subtle texture of Kashmir sapphires gives them almost an internal glow.
Some key internal features
Very fine grained clouds
Well-defined, textural zones are a primary feature of Kashmir sapphires and are responsible for their unique velvety texture. They create a general “milky” appearance with individual particles not being visible even with a standard microscope.
Brush-stroke and Wispy patterns
Sapphires from Kashmir often display a broad range of whimsical internal patterns. The exact nature of these inclusions is not known, but in blue sapphires, they are generally a welcome proof of their Indian origin.
Pargasite is a mineral that is indicative of the metamorphic growth environment occurring at this sapphire deposit. This inclusion is seemingly unique to the blue sapphires of Kashmir.
Although inclusions of zircon may be encountered in sapphires from a number of sources, those found in the sapphires from Kashmir have a distinctive appearance. They typically exhibit elongated habits and heavily pitted surfaces. Burma
The finest sapphires of Burmese origin typically possess richly saturated hues (AGL color grade 3-3.5) and exhibit a high degree of transparency. Traditionally, such stones exhibit darker tones and an absence of UV fluorescence. Rutile structures
Rutile structures commonly populate the sapphires from the Mogok valley in Burma. They can occur in distinctive patterns involving intersecting needles, arrowhead shaped and irregular platelets, exhibiting subtle reflections. Healed fracture patterns
Sapphires from the Mogok region of Burma commonly possess tightly folded fingerprint patterns in combination with planes of mineral or 2-phase (liquid and gas) inclusions. Mineral inclusions
Mica is another mineral that may be encountered in sapphires from several locales. However, those from Burma more typically exhibit a richly colored orange-brown hue. Ribbon structures
A notable characteristic of Burmese sapphires is irregular, linear inclusions that are commonly referred to as “ribbon structures.” These frequently occur between parting/twin planes, which are an equally important feature. Ceylon
The island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was the world’s first source of fine-quality blue sapphires. The color of top-quality Ceylon sapphires may range from lighter or more pastel shades to richly saturated hues (in the AGL color range of 3.5-4.5). Rutile “silk”
Fine needle-like inclusions and twinned arrowhead platelets of rutile are typically long and highly iridescent in the sapphires from Ceylon. Such inclusions are also responsible for the six-rayed asterism in star sapphires. Fine-grained clouds
Fine-grained, textural zoning, in tightly spaced patterns of a similar nature to those found in the sapphires from Kashmir, may also be encountered in some sapphires from Ceylon. Mineral inclusions
Various mineral inclusions, such as this example, can offer a very characteristic inclusion scene for a Ceylon sapphire, particularly when seen with the fine needles of rutile as in the background of this image.
Oblong, liquid-filled negative crystals are a characteristic feature of sapphires from Ceylon. Often these exhibit a CO2 bubble at lower temperatures and may contain small scales of graphite. Madagascar
Madagascar has more recently become a major source of fine blue sapphires. In addition to its own distinctive characteristics, it has also produced stones that can be very similar in appearance and internal features to stones from Ceylon, Burma and even Kashmir. Mineral inclusions
High concentrations of zircon crystals are common in sapphires of Madagascar origin. They may occur as isolated crystals or tight clusters. Not as typical of blue sapphires, they are mostly seen in pink to purple sapphires. Mineral inclusions
Apatite crystals are another common foreign mineral inclusion that is found in the sapphires from Madagascar. They may occur more rounded in form or showing their hexagonal symmetry as in this example. Zonal clouds
Inclusion patterns in several of the deposits from Madagascar may overlap with that of the more classical sources, such as these fine-grained textured clouds that formed along specific areas of growth. Similar features may be encountered in heated Sri Lankan sapphires. Multi-phase fluid inclusions
3-phase inclusions (solid, liquid, gas) in sapphire are rather unusual. In this example, a CO2 bubble separates from the fluid trapped within the negative crystal and fine needles of diaspore also traverse the interior of the same inclusion.
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - December 2007. To subscribe click here.