Sapphire: Gem of the Heavens
Sapphire, the celestial gemstone, has been treasured for thousands of years. The ancient Persians believed that the earth rested on a giant sapphire and its reflection colored the sky. Sapphire is found in all the colors of the heavens: from midnight blue to the bright blue of noon sky in the Mediterranean, golden sunrise to firey reddish-orange sunsets, and the delicate violet of twilight. The most famous and valuable sapphires are a rich intense blue, a truly royal hue.
The Truest Blue
Sapphire has long symbolized truth, sincerity, and faithfulness. Tradition holds that Moses was given the ten commandments on tablets of sapphire, making it the most sacred gemstone. Because sapphires represent divine favor, they were the gemstone of choice for kings and high priests. The British Crown Jewels are full of large blue sapphires, the symbol of pure and wise rulers.
Since sapphire symbolizes sincerity and faithfulness, it is an excellent choice for an engagement ring. When Prince Charles chose a sapphire engagement ring for Princess Diana, couples all over the world were inspired to revive this venerable tradition.
Sapphire is also the birthstone for September, the month when the most babies are born. Ancient lists also name sapphire as a birthstone for April and the gemstone for the sign of Taurus.
"Fine blue sapphires are tremendously undervalued," says David Federman, United States author of Consumer Guide to Colored Gemstones and other gem books. "Fine Kashmir and Burma sapphires are much rarer than Burma rubies and yet they are available for much less. Even fine Sri Lankan sapphires are rare to see these days. There is nothing more restful to the soul than a fine sapphire."
Choosing a Sapphire
Sapphires come from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, and Cambodia. Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, China, Vietnam, Madagascar, and the United States also produce some sapphire. The deposits in Montana in the United States produce a range of fancy colors, mostly from alluvial deposits in the rivers, and deep blue sapphires from one of the world's largest deposits at Yogo Gulch. The sapphires from Yogo Gulch are small in size but they have a beautiful blue. Unfortunately they are found in a hard rock that makes mining difficult, limiting production.
The most famous sources for sapphire are Kashmir and Burma, which is now known as Myanmar. Kashmir sapphire, which was discovered in 1881 when a landslide in the Himalayas uncovered beautiful blue pebbles, has a rich velvety color prized by connoisseurs. Burma sapphires, from the same region that produces fabulous rubies, are also very fine. However, today, these two sources account only for a very small quantity of the sapphire on the market.
Most fine sapphire on the market today comes from Sri Lanka, which produces a wide range of beautiful blues from delicate sky blue colors to rich saturated hues. Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Pailin in Cambodia are renowned for deep blue, even colors. Two relatively new mining localities are showing promise: Madagascar, which has produced some exceptionally fine stones in small sizes but has no organized mining yet, and Tanzania, which has long produced sapphire in other colors but is starting to produce blue colors as well from a new deposit in the south.
The most valuable sapphires have a medium intense, vivid blue color. The best sapphires hold the brightness of their color under all different types of lighting. Any black, gray, or green overtones mixed in with the blue will reduce a stone's value. In general, a more pastel blue would be less preferred than a vivid blue but would be priced higher than an overdark blackish blue color. As with all gemstones, sapphires which are "clean" and have few visible inclusions or tiny flaws are the most valuable. However some very fine sapphires, in particular those from Kashmir, have a velvety mist-like texture which enhances the richness of the blue.
Sapphires are most often cut in a cushion shape - a rounded rectangle - or an oval shape. You can also find smaller sapphires in round brilliant cuts and a wide variety of fancy shapes, including triangles, squares, emerald cuts, marquises, pear shapes, baguette shapes, and cabochon cuts, or smooth domes.
Beyond the Blues
Some sapphires with an unusual kind of tiny needle-like inclusions can be cut in a cabochon shape to display a dancing six-rayed white star. Star sapphires, which are becoming more rare, are very popular for men's rings. Star sapphires are judged by the sharpness of the star, the eveness of the rays or "legs" of the star, and the body color of the sapphire. It is extremely rare to find a star-sapphire with a sharp star and a bright blue body color. The ancients regarded star sapphires as a very powerful talisman, a guiding star for travelers and seekers of all kinds. They were so powerful, they were said to continue to protect the wearer even after being passed on to someone else.
In addition to blue, sapphires are available in every color but red simply because a red sapphire would be called a ruby! Both of these gemstones are a gem variety of the mineral corundum: the only difference is the trace elements which give them their rich colors. Pink shades of corundum are known either as pink ruby or pink sapphire. Sapphire in colors other than blue is often referred to as fancy sapphire.
Sapphires have become more available in the past twenty years because some light, cloudy, or overdark sapphire can now be heated at very high temperatures to improve the color or clarity. This process, which dissolves trace elements already present in the sapphire, is completely stable. There is no price difference between heated and non-heated material except for at the very top of the market, where the country of origin will also make a difference in the price. About 90 percent of the sapphire on the market today has been heated to make sure it has reached the best possible color and clarity.
Sapphire is perhaps the toughest and most durable gemstone available on the market. With a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, sapphire is harder than any other gem but diamond and it has no cleavage plane so it cannot be cut with a single blow like a diamond. In fact, synthetic sapphire is used for scratch-resistant watch crystals, optical scanners, and other instruments because its durability can be trusted. That durability ensures that sapphire jewelry will be treasured for generations.
Sapphire is often considered to be synonynous with the color blue: you can easily picture sapphire seas. However, sapphire is beautiful beyond blue, in every color but red, because red is called ruby.
The other colors of sapphire can be just as beautiful and rare - or even rarer - than the blue but they are usually priced less. Yellow, orange, lavender, and other pastel shades are especially affordable.
Since our ancestors did not realize that ruby and sapphire are actually the same mineral, they left us with a dilemma: where should pink shades be classified? Long ago, people decided to call all gemstones of the mineral corundum as sapphire, except the red color, which was called ruby. But pink is really just light red. The International Colored Gemstone Association has passed a resolution that the light shades of the red hue should be included in the category ruby since it was too difficult to legislate where red ended and pink began. In practice, pink shades are now known either as pink ruby or pink sapphire. Either way, these gems are among the most beautiful of the corundum family.
The most valuable other fancy sapphire is a orange-pink or pinkish-orange called "padparadscha" after the lotus blossom. Padparadscha sapphires are very rare and the exact definition has always been a matter of debate: different dealers and different laboratories around the world disagree on the exact color described by this term. Some dealers even argue that the term should not be limited to the pastel shades of Sri Lankan sapphires but should also include the more firey shades of reddish-orange from the Umba Valley in Tanzania. Padparadscha sapphires sell at a premium, nearing the price for a fine blue sapphire. Although the exact description is debated, the beauty of these rare gemstones is not, with their delicate blended shades the color of fresh salmon and sunsets.
Other very popular shades of fancy sapphires are yellows, bright oranges, lavender and purples, and a bluish green color.
Generally, the more clear and vivid the color, the more valuable the fancy sapphire. If the color is in the pastel range, the clarity should be good: because in lighter tones inclusions are more noticeable, the trade usually prefers the gemstones to be cleaner with fewer visible inclusions. In a lighter colored gemstone, the cut is also more important: it should reflect light back evenly across the face of the stone, making it lively and brilliant. With darker more intense colors, the cut is not as critical because the color creates its own impact.
No matter what the color, sapphires combine durability and beauty for generations of pleasure.