Wednesday 22nd November 2017

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Posts tagged ‘rubies’

Pomp and plunder

September 23rd, 2017

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone remains elusive

by Greg Klein

Maybe it’s fitting that Indians, said to be the first to truly appreciate the gems, have returned to such prominence in the global diamond trade. The country’s alluvial finds constituted the world’s main source until supplanted by Brazil in the early 18th century. Although Indians originally held rubies and emeralds in even higher esteem, their admiration for diamonds spread to neighbouring cultures and beyond. The story of the Koh-i-Noor shows how one stone came to be associated not only with beauty, majesty and mystery but, more recently, with controversy too.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

By no means the largest diamond ever found, it’s nevertheless been credited with good luck and blamed for misfortune. Some viewers found it dazzling for its brilliance, others were disappointed by its dimness. But it passed through a number of empires, often amid horrific bloodshed, before ending up in Britain’s Crown Jewels. Authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recount the rock’s odyssey in their recently published Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.

While revelling in the myths, legends, propaganda and guesswork associated with the stone, the writers try to set the historical record straight with previously untranslated documents and new gemmological research that reconstructs the Koh-i-Noor as a rough stone.

Ancient accounts refer to a number of large Indian diamonds which could include the Koh-i-Noor. Some were bigger and believed to transmit supernatural power, but the Koh-i-Noor eventually prevailed as the most renowned. Even so, the first definite written reference doesn’t come until the mid-18th century, referring back to northern India’s 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

Such was his captivation for precious stones that they all but monopolized his attention at a banquet featuring a dozen dancing girls of “lascivious and suggestive dress, immodest behaviour and posturing.” In 1635 he made the Koh-i-Noor the centrepiece of his Peacock Throne. An especially lavish piece of furniture meant to evoke the Koranic Solomon’s throne, it cost twice as much to build as the Taj Mahal.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

The Queen Mother’s crown features the Koh-i-Noor
within a Maltese cross between two fleurs-de-lys.

Eventually the Mughals dismantled their seat of ostentation and the Koh-i-Noor became in turn a symbol of power for Persians, the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan and the Sikh empire, as each looting victor became a looted victim. Finally an 1849 treaty ending the Second Anglo-Sikh War ordered a terrified 10-year-old Maharajah Duleep Singh to surrender the celebrated stone to Queen Victoria.

Surviving a perilous voyage, the rock went on display to widespread public anticipation at the 1851 Crystal Palace Great Exhibition. It bombed.

Prince Albert tried to enhance the stone’s effect with gas lamps and angled mirrors. That fizzled too, as the props “turned the display into a sauna, causing visitors to swoon after only a few minutes. The press began to blame the Koh-i-Noor for being difficult, as if it were some kind of contrary and disappointing child.”

Albert then summoned experts who agreed that the diamond “was flawed at its very heart. Yellow flecks ran through a plane at its centre, one of which was large and marred its ability to refract light.” The authorities disagreed, however, on whether the gem could be re-cut without wrecking it. Eventually two of the world’s top pros arrived from Amsterdam and set to work with a state-of-the-art steam-powered grinder in a specially designed shop.

Their bill, for a few months of work, amounted to over a million pounds in today’s terms. Despite assurances to the contrary, moreover, they savaged the stone’s size from 190.3 carats to 93 carats. But dazzle it did. With an unusual symmetry of 33 facets each above and below the gem’s “table,” the cutters redeemed both the stone’s beauty and its public image.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

It helped Victoria dazzle too, in those years before she went into morbid mourning. Waltzing with Napoleon III before 1,200 guests at Versailles, she wore a white satin gown and a diadem adorned with almost 3,000 small diamonds. Among them, the great K “gleamed like a third eye.” Other royal figures ordered it mounted and re-mounted on various regalia until the Queen Mother had it placed in its current crown. She sported the headgear at her daughter’s coronation. But for some reason (maybe trepidation about its supposed curse, the authors suggest), Elizabeth II has never worn it.

Since then, calls for its return have come from competitors, among them India, Pakistan and even the Taliban.

“Others have suggested that it be cut up once again and a piece each given to all those countries that make a credible argument for its return—including modern-day Iran and Afghanistan. But it is most unlikely that such Solomonic wisdom would ever be entertained by the British, nor indeed would it satisfy any of the various parties involved.”

The most persistent calls come from Indians. Equally tenacious has been Britain in its refusals. On a 2010 visit to Punjab, the authors relate, then-PM David Cameron said, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”

Yet the country where the great diamond first came to prominence returned to diamond prominence itself late last century. Ironically that happened not due to gems of magnificence but through smaller, lower-quality stones originating in other countries and disdained by the rest of the trade. Through such humble beginnings, the west coast city of Surat now handles more than 80%, or even 90%, of the world’s cutting and polishing work. Mumbai, 290 kilometres south, hosts the world’s biggest diamond bourse. In the world diamond-sorting capital of Antwerp, Indians conduct about three-quarters of the business.

As for rough supply, Rio Tinto NYSE:RIO walked out on the country’s best hope for a major diamond mine in February, when the company handed ownership of the Bunder deposit, once anticipated for 2019 production, to the state government of Madhya Pradesh.

Meanwhile the Dalrymple/Anand book has reportedly spawned renewed activity in the search for India’s alluvial diamonds, maybe even another Koh-i-Noor, with all its blessings and curses.

Under the hammer

April 21st, 2016

From the mantle, Myanmar and Mars, rare rocks go on the auction block

by Greg Klein

These have been the days of the $22-million no-sale, the ruby-red beauty of Burma and the scream from outer space. Over two days, two rival auction houses offered up some of the most exceptional stones known to this planet and others.

From the mantle, Myanmar and Mars, rare rocks go on the auction block

Sotheby’s rejected $2.2 million
a carat for the Shirley Temple Blue.
(Photo: Sotheby’s)

The much-anticipated main event at Sotheby’s April 19 Magnificent Jewels sale lasted less than a minute before the hammer came down on an anti-climactic $22 million. The auctioneer rejected the bid and withdrew the lot, having wanted something in the range of $25 million to $35 million. Such was the optimism inspired by the Shirley Temple Blue diamond, a 9.54-carat, potentially internally flawless, cushion-cut fancy stone once owned by the child phenom.

Still, $22 million was a tad more than the $7,210 paid by Temple’s dad in 1940. But extraordinary expectations have been provoked by some extraordinary prices.

Earlier this month Sotheby’s unloaded the De Beers Millennium Jewel 4 in Hong Kong for $31.8 million, a record price for Asia. In November Christie’s auctioned the 16.08-carat Sweet Josephine for $28.5 million. The following day the same buyer—a father rather more extravagant than Temple’s—paid Sotheby’s “a new record price for any gemstone and per carat” for the $48.4-million Blue Moon of Josephine.

This time around Sotheby’s performed relatively modestly, selling five items for over $1 million each, with the top-selling lot getting $4.56 million. That was for a “magnificent platinum and fancy purplish pink diamond ring” that came in close to the $5-million maximum estimate. In all, the auction pulled in nearly $29.89 million. But the Shirley Temple disappointment held the total far back from that of a Sotheby’s event 12 months earlier, which raked in a record $65.08 million.

From the mantle, Myanmar and Mars, rare rocks go on the auction block

Christie’s called the Jubilee “the very best Burmese
ruby offered for sale” in the U.S. for over 25 years.
(Photo: Christie’s)

Christie’s came much closer to that figure just one day after the Shirley Temple got shelved. That rival Magnificent Jewels auction offered 255 items and totalled nearly $57.03 million. Starring the show was the 15.99-carat Jubilee ruby. “To find an almost circular cut, unheated gem weighing more than 15 carats, with near-perfect crystallization is the dream of every gemstone connoisseur,” oozed the auctioneer. Set in a gold and diamond ring, the Jubilee sold for $14.16 million, well inside the hoped-for $12-million to $15-million range.

Another bidder put up $8.84 million for a 10.07-carat “fancy intense purple-pink diamond” mounted in a platinum and gold ring. With a pre-sale estimate of $8 million to $12 million, that gem also sold within expectations.

As did a $7.22-million, 40.43-carat round brilliant-cut diamond that was estimated between $7 million and $10 million.

While Christie’s New York was peddling opulence, Christie’s London was marketing meteorites. Prices hovered much closer to earth, however—between $267 for “a corner cut of the Toulon meteorite” and $62,213 for the Tirhert, “a meteorite which never hit Earth.” A Moroccan kid found it wedged between tree branches.

But no matter how exotic, the more expensive extra-terrestrial stuff got consigned to inventory.

Bidders passed up souvenirs of Mars, one of which Christie’s hoped would bring up to $355,500 and another up to $639,900. Similarly spurned was the “world’s largest oriented meteorite with extra-terrestrial gemstones.” That was further described as “encompassing an enormous aggregate of extra-terrestrial olivine and peridot in a steel-blue patina dappled with mango accents.”

From the mantle, Myanmar and Mars, rare rocks go on the auction block

Even this extra-terrestrial expression of
Munch-ish anguish failed to find a buyer.
(Photo: Christie’s)

Christie’s wanted somewhere between $711,000 and $1.13 million for the 650-kilogram chunk of rock, arguably a bargain compared to those earthly objects measured in mere carats. And they’re not even dappled with mango accents.

Another non-mover was “an otherworldly evocation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.” Naturally formed, Christie’s insists, the 179-kilogram space oddity came with an aspired but unrealized price between $213,300 and $355,500.

The auction totalled just $817,601 for 44 meteorites, leaving nearly three dozen unsold. Evidently aficionados prefer the products of domestic geology. Maybe there’s still something to be said for this planet after all.

Next month Christie’s and Sotheby’s plan to separate big spenders from their loot in Geneva. Sotheby’s set a hopeful $28-million to $38-million target for the 15.38-carat Unique Pink diamond, while Christie’s talks of up to $45 million for the 14.62-carat Oppenheimer Blue.

Assuming there are takers, how does one explain such extravagance?

“Even though there may be a general economic malaise, a lot of people are making a lot of money and are very cash-rich,” David Bennett told Rapaport Magazine. As chairperson of Sotheby’s jewelry division, he conducted the Blue Moon auction and several other high-profile sales.

“Fine gemstones have always been something that people consider having in their portfolio of investments,” he added. “If they are going to buy something, they want to buy the rarest, the best.”