As a young kid, I always had a keen fascination with jewellery. Why? Well I’m not really all that sure but what I do remember is my magpie-like ways. I’d walk up early on a Saturday morning when my mother was still in bed and go rooting though her jars and boxes of jewellery and collect it all in a bag. Initially thinking that she had been robbed throughout the night but it became routine after a while and she would pretend as though she didn’t know what happened each time.
I would collect rocks, crystals and fossils. I’d read books on them learning about where they came from, how they were formed and the best ways to identify them from one another. I’d spend holidays combing the beaches looking for unique gems or sea fossils. Even now when trekking I can’t help but smash rocks with the hope of finding something unique inside. I’ve split my hands open on sharpened quartz too many times to remember.
So, it is no surprise that while in Pakistan that I found myself in Hunza. A town well known for the Hunza Ruby. You see, there are three mountain ranges that converge in the northern areas of Pakistan. The two of most reputable note would be the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges. When the continents came together millions of years ago, the unique pressure and elements present at the time made for a high concentration of semi-precious stones in the region.
This is why, when you land into places like Hunza and Skardu that you will be met with an endless supply of shops owned by nearby miners. I immediately went shopping for some medium to low grade sapphires, emeralds and sapphires. Even picking up some Aqua Marine while I was at it too.
Staying with a good friend of ours Rehman Ali Khan, a well known guide in the area, he knew a big gem dealer who would be able to sell me some pretty decent stuff but at a non-tourist price that I seemed to be getting in the shops (still a bargain mind you).
Not thinking too much into it at the time, we hopped out in a town not far from Hunza and proceeded to skulk behind Rehman, keeping close. Making our way through a series of small paths barely wide enough for the passage of one man, but tall enough to feel that if they fell over, I’d be crushed, we pushed on. Trundling through the sandy grey soil beneath us and the resulting clouds of dust kicked up in our wake, we soon found ourselves approaching a rather nice home when compared to the dwellings surrounding it. We were welcomed openly and the usual formalities of a sheet being rolled out in the sitting room and tea, baskets and snacks being brought in to us. A few moments after we had all settled in and exchanged a few polite formalities in extremely broken English and our even worse Urdu, a large shopping bag was pulled out and a small lamp set up on the floor.
An assistant began scrambling around, pulling all the cups, plates and other eatery away to make room for something I most definitely wasn’t inspecting.
You see the room was filled with glass cases surrounding our peripheral. Inside was an endless amount of small samples. Each containing green tourmaline and a variety of other semi precious stones. I had assumed that we were to peruse what was in the cases but I was surely wrong.
One by one, our host pulls large lumps of wrinkled newspaper out of his shopping bag and placing it on the floor. Unwrapping the paper each time, he would present into my hands a sample of Ruby that was breathtaking. Large, lustrous lumps of Ruby the size of limes peeking out of the embedded rock it was found in began glistening in dark molten reds over the lamp. After 20 minutes of inspecting his wares, I squeaked, ’How much are these?’ to which my host replied, ‘only 19000 for the lot’. Now, converting from he Pakistani Rupee this would work out about 190 dollars which was the most ridiculously cheap thing I could imagine. I soon realised that this was in fact the dollar price. Not interested in selling a single piece but rather the entire shopping bag, I had to politely decline.
As it transpired, I realised that I had intact been sold as a gem dealer looking to do international trade. They clearly thought I was some hot shot gem dealer when realistically I know about their chemistry and I’m fascinated by shiny things. I proposed, ‘You see, it’s very hard to detect the quality of this stone until I get it cut. I would really need to get a sample, which of course I can purchase from you. I’ll get this cut up with my team in Dublin, have it tested and if it’s all good, I’ll come back and buy the lot. I need to test their hardness and get it graded on the Mohr’s scale amongst a few other tests. If it’s good, we could do a lot of business together.’ Initially seeming a little uneasy and sceptical, it didn’t take long before we were leaving, I was given a complimentary sample of raw Hunza Ruby in my hand and everyone was smiling.
Looking at my raw Ruby now, I do wonder, truly, how much it is worth and maybe I’ve found a new profession. If not, I’ve definitely honed my ability to make shit up on the spot. That, at the very least will come in handy later in life.