Slip behind the scenes with a stone dealer in the city of Jaipur.
Emerald is an awe-inspiring new book from writers Joanna Hardy, Hettie Judah, Jonathan Self and Franca Sozzani, exploring the green gemstone’s history, from the opulent jewels of the Maharajas and Hollywood, to mining processes and today’s stone dealers. In this extract, Jonathan Self describes a visit to Jaipur, the emerald city.
The plane banked, and to my delight I saw that Jaipur was indeed pink. We flew over a pink fort and then a pink palace and then a pink lake. The city lay basking beneath me in the late afternoon sun, as colourful as a jewel, nestled in among the mountains, with the desert beyond spreading away to the horizon.
It had been my original plan simply to arrive and see what happened, but in London a friend had introduced me to Shivika Singh. "She is related to half the royal family of India, not least the Maharajah of Jaipur, and if she doesn’t know someone, they’re not worth knowing," they told me. "More to the point, she will be happy, I am sure, to advise you on the best approach to take."
The best approach to take was not, apparently, just to turn up. "If all you want to do is wander around the Johari Bazar, visit a workshop or two and interview a few jewellers, you’ll be fine," said Shivika. "But if you want to understand why Jaipur is the emerald capital of the world, you’ll need to meet the insiders, and the key players keep a low profile. Theirs is a highly confidential business, conducted behind closed doors. It is privacy they want, not publicity. Leave it with me, and I’ll see what I can manage."
What she managed was to arrange a series of interviews that helped me to put the entire emerald trade into perspective. Every year Indian dealers, merchants and jewellers buy as much as 90% of the world’s emerald rough, and almost all of it ends up in Jaipur. Although it is difficult to arrive at an accurate figure, once it has been processed it is probably worth in the region of $500 million. This makes it a tiny industry when compared with diamonds, which are worth as much as $12 billion a year. Still, it explains why the words ‘Jaipur’ and ‘emerald’ are so inextricably linked.
THE LAST OF THE MERCHANT ADVENTURERS
"Do you know what the three greatest challenges are to Jaipur’s status as the most important centre for emeralds in the world?" Shiv Shankar Gupta, an intrepid, octogenarian dealer famous within the industry for having nearly been eaten alive by a lion during an African gem hunting expedition in the 1950s, fixed me with a gimlet eye, and when I made no response answered for me: "Supply, supply, supply".
Gupta, an Indiana-Jones-type figure, might best be described as the last of the merchant adventurers of Jaipur. There were, perhaps, about a dozen of them between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. At a time when travel was both slow and hazardous, they set off on expeditions to far-flung places in search of emeralds. "We were willing to go anywhere, to face any hardship, any danger, if it meant securing a new supply of rough emerald." Sitting straight as a ramrod and speaking so quietly that I had to lean forward to hear him, he talked of trips to Brazil (venomous snakes and spiders), Colombia (thieves and murderers) and Africa (cannibals and lions).
"It has all changed," he said with evident disgust. "Now it’s jet planes and luxury hotels. A buying trip might last a week or two. I used to be away for months. No comfort. No communication. I was on my own. I couldn’t send samples off to a lab, talk to a geologist. I had to back my own judgement."
Gupta recounted a story about Yogendra Durlabhji’s grandfather and great-uncle, who in 1946 purchased the entire wartime production of Colombian emeralds for $2 million. "$2 million. It made the front pages of the newspapers. That would be the equivalent of $20 million now. Can you imagine?" He was silent for a moment, deep in thought. "There are smaller importers in the city, of course, but the majority of the rough is brought in by the big dealers, who keep some of it and sell the rest on. It is the big dealers who have ensured that Jaipur receives the supply of emeralds it needs to sustain the trade."
Reader Offer: This extract was taken from Emerald by Joanna Hardy, Hettie Judah, Jonathan Self and Franca Sozzani, published by Thames & Hudson on December 16 priced at £75. Professional Jeweller readers can order a copy at a special price of £55 including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request) please call Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting TH235. Offer is subject to availability and runs until June 30 2014.