Out Of The Blue: Sapphires


By Duncan Parker

Sapphires are among the oldest ornamental gems in the world. Some of the earliest sources of sapphire are alluvial gravels that are found at ground level. Today, we continue to be fascinated by these stunning droplets of nature. Around the world, we search high and low for places where these gems have weathered out of the vaults of rock, in which they remained locked for millennia. Sapphires are harder than almost everything else on the earth, so as the rocks erode from around them, the sapphires are released. They are then transported by water, a force more powerful than machinery, to reach their resting place in gravel riverbeds.

Sapphires are found in gravel deposits in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Australia, The United States, and other places. One of the few areas where gem sapphires are found in their host rock is the most famous and desired source—Kashmir in the India/Pakistan frontier. The Kashmir source is famous, but has been depleted for over half a century. There is currently exploration going on to discover a new mother lode in Kashmir.

Sapphires are gems of the mineral called corundum. This stone is most commonly thought of as a blue gem, but it can be any colour except red (ruby is the same mineral, but can only be red).

Fine sapphires may be of various colours—blue, pink, yellow, and even black or colourless. When I refer to sapphire here, we will assume blue as the topic of discussion. Blue sapphires are the most desired colour, and in a fine specimen, blue is by far the most costly of sapphires.

In deciding on the value of a gem, history is captivating, rarity creates desire, folklore plays on the imagination, terminology is a descriptive benchmark, clarity is of note, colour is paramount, but origin is hugely important. It is a suitcase into which we can pack the majority of the other factors that we consider when looking into the value of the gem.

Australian sapphires are from a relatively new source (20th century), are fairly abundant, are generally very dark, have greenish overtones, and are not highly desirable (I’m from Australia, so I feel that I can say this).

Sri Lankan sapphires have a history that goes back thousands of years, possibly to the stone ages. The island country does have a broad distribution of sapphires. It is Sri Lankan blue sapphires that are the origin of the romantic descriptive term “cornflower blue”, a lovely violet-blue colour that makes them very desirable. Sri Lanka is considered one of the most important sources of sapphires.

Myanmar (Burma) produces a triumvirate of very important gems: ruby, jadeite, and sapphire. Sapphires from Myanmar usually have a deeper colour than those from Sri Lanka, but don’t get into the inky blackish colours of the Australian gems. These gems have been mined for centuries, generally have a rich uniform colour, and a specimen with good colour and clarity is considered more valuable than an equivalent Sri Lankan gem. Burma blue sapphires are sometimes called “royal blue.”

Kashmir blue sapphires are at the peak of desirability, and in the finest specimens, will fetch substantially more than a fine blue sapphire from anywhere else. The source is exhausted; the colours can be a vivid, rich and of a slightly sleepy-looking blue colour.

How do we know where a gem originates? If I buy a sapphire from a sapphire dealer from Sri Lanka, who comes from a family that’s been mining and polishing sapphires in Sri Lanka for centuries, it’s pretty likely that they’ll be selling me a Sri Lankan sapphire. However, there are some sapphires from Madagascar that are really similar to sapphires from Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan dealers are among the many gem traders buying sapphires in Madagascar. Is there a possibility that the Sri Lankan sapphire I buy is from the more recent and, therefore, less desirable source of Madagascar? Absolutely.

It’s not necessarily deceit that brings a false origin description. There’s a long history of colour-based origin description in gems, such as, “This sapphire is a classic ‘Ceylon’ colour” or, “That is a typical ‘Kashmir’ colour.” Traditionally, gem cutters knew where a gem came from. These days, because of the increasing number of sources, the gem cutter is less likely to be connected to a mining operation.

Science has come to the rescue. Two sapphires that have similar appearance may have a different set of inclusions, growth features, or chemical properties.

Some laboratories will examine the inclusions in a gem. The nature of the crystals, growth structure, or other features will point towards certain origins. The most advanced laboratories will delve deeper, and can do analytical work that can reveal chemical features that point to geological origins, which, when aligned with colour, inclusions and other factors, will allow a well-educated opinion to be expressed.

At auction, in retail, and in the general world of gem trading, origin plays an increasingly important part in the buying and selling of sapphires. We can’t take that focus away. It is now rare for an important gem to be sold without a laboratory origin report.

I have often debated about the value of origin. If we have an extraordinary sapphire from Madagascar, that is otherwise identical to a “royal blue Burmese” sapphire from Myanmar, should there be a price difference? Like it or not, there is, and we have the means to identify that origin.

With their beautiful colour, it isn’t any wonder why we are attracted to sapphires., but history and tradition plays an important role in value and demand. Today’s new sources will become the classics and other sources will be discovered. Sapphires will continue to fascinate us for thousands of years into the future, wherever they originate.