Mont Blanc Plane Crash Gems Split between Climber and Commune

© Natalie Berry

A climber who discovered a long-buried box of gemstones on Mont Blanc's Bossons Glacier in 2013 has been rewarded with half of the treasure, while the other half has been presented to Chamonix's local commune. The gemstones are believed to have been on board an Air India Boeing 707 flight which crashed on Mont Blanc in 1966 while en-route from Mumbai to New York, via Geneva and London. The bags of emeralds, rubies and sapphires weighing approximately 140g in total were split into two lots worth £128,000 each.

Looking towards Mont Blanc with the Tacul and Mont Maudit in the foreground.  © Natalie Berry
Looking towards Mont Blanc with the Tacul and Mont Maudit in the foreground.
© Natalie Berry

On discovering the gems in September 2013, the unnamed climber immediately handed them over to the Chamonix gendarmerie, as required by French law. "You can say the climber who made this find is someone very honest," local gendarme chief Sylvain Merly told Agence France-Presse (AFP) at the time of the discovery. 

According an article published in Le Parisien in 2013, six people had claimed ownership of or connections to the jewels, but their appeals were overturned due to a lack of evidence. 

Among the six were the children and ex-wife of London precious gems dealer and importer Edmond Issacharoff, whose insurers Lloyds of London had sent a letter to French authorities following the crash stating that a box of emeralds had been on board, destined for Issacharoff. In light of insufficient evidence and a failure to locate the descendants of the gemstones' owner in India, authorities were required under French law to distribute them between the discoverer and the local council.

"The stones have been shared this week," Chamonix mayor Eric Fournier told AFP, in two equal lots valued at around 150,000 euros (£128,000) each.

The Chamonix commune will display the gems in the Musée des Cristaux, or crystal museum, from 18 December. 

The 1966 Kangchenjunga plane crash, in which 117 died, was the second Air India accident on Mont Blanc following a similar accident in 1950 involving a Constellation named Malabar Princess, which killed 48. 

As the glacier shifts and melts, aircraft debris, personal belongings and perfectly preserved human remains from one or both of the crashes have been recovered by walkers and alpinists over the years, including a hand and the upper part of a leg found by glacier-comber Daniel Roche in 2017. In 2012, a mountain rescue worker discovered a mailbag containing diplomatic letters, a calendar and newspapers dated 1966. In 2020, further newspapers from 1966 were found, with headlines announcing Indira Ghandi's election as India's first woman prime minister. 

The physicist Homi J Bhabha, credited as "the father" of India's nuclear program, was among the passengers killed in the 1966 crash.

While the 1950 crash was recorded as being due to pilot error, some speculation has circulated relating to the cause of the 1966 disaster. Although officially reported as a second case of pilot error in the absence of flight data, a group of sceptics fronted by French mountain guide René Desmaison believed that the plane was downed by a collision with an Italian NATO fighter jet.

The group's "Opération Chabert" mission to the wreckage recovered debris which indicated a NATO collision, but they were reportedly stripped of any evidence by Italian authorities during their descent on the south side of the mountain.

French newspaper Le Dauphiné Libéré investigated the rumours in 2013. "We all knew there had been a collision. Even a controller had told us that they had spotted it," the newspaper quoted René Desmaison telling Chut FM radio in 1990. "We brought down parts that did not belong to a Boeing, and even a piece of a fighter's dashboard," Jean Pontanier, a member of the Operation, had said.

In 2012, glacier-comber Daniel Roche discovered.a dashboard with the demarcation 'USAF' (United States Air Force). Le Dauphiné consulted experts in aeronautical history, who confirmed that the radio console was the same model as those mounted on Lockheed F 104-G Starfighters — the NATO aircraft used by Italian military at the time of the crash.

In a further coincidence, Le Dauphiné reported, two Italian military groups equipped with F 104-G Starfighters were carrying out air exercises at the same time as the Air India crash and logged two F 104-G accidents. Roche also discovered a roll of KS-67A reconnaissance camera film and a metal rim, both of which could potentially have belonged to an F 105-G, and a sachet of saltwater treatment powder, which was possibly part of a fighter pilot's survival kit.

Le Dauphiné suggested that the "radio silence" surrounding these findings from NATO and other authorities is due to the "major diplomatic incident" that a collision resulting in the death of India's nuclear pioneer could prompt. 

The stories of both crashes and the mystery surrounding the precious gems were explored in two books by French author Françoise Rey, Crash au Mont-Blanc, les Fantômes du Malabar Princess (1993) and Crashs au Mont-Blanc : La fin des secrets? (2016)

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7 Dec, 2021

Great write up, Natalie. I remember (though not first hand...) that Desmaison was intent on blowing the whole affair open when he came down. Then as if by magic he just clammed up and for the rest of his life refused to answer any questions and so took the secrets to his grave. Imagine how heavily he must have been leaned on to silence someone like him!

7 Dec, 2021

I'm really interested in this. I was surprised that Le Dauphiné's article was the only real mention of this theory. I came across some comments by Françoise Rey in the last few days that suggest something might come to a head shortly.

7 Dec, 2021

OK there's a bit more on now I look into it further.

8 Dec, 2021

I've a feeling that Paris Match was involved at some stage, presumably - and I'm dredging my meory here - Desmaison was going to feature. I have a vague recollection that photos mysteriously disappeared. I think the evidence that points to a collision with an Italian military plane is more than convincing!

8 Dec, 2021

Have you had a chance to talk to Françoise? She will have been following events very closely no doubt.

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