Fit for a princess.
Blues are still amongst the most popular and sought after type of Sapphire and have been the prized possessions of emperors, kings, queens and collectors for thousands of years. Of all the coloured gemstones it is possibly the most renowned and demanded. Royalty have been known to give Sapphires over Diamonds as engagement rings because they are known to be far rarer than the latter. The most notable producer of fine Blue Sapphires is Sri Lanka and it is often referred to by its previous name, Ceylon Sapphire.
As Sapphire is renowned for being blue, when the word is used without a colour prefix, it is assumed that one is talking about Blue Sapphire. All other colours are regarded as “fancy Sapphires” and should be prefixed with their colour. Just as in the wine world it is improper to say Chardonnay Chablis, it would be equally wrong to say Blue Sapphire when describing the Blue variety: being politically correct you simply say, Sapphire.
The most attractive Sapphires are those that are a pure blue. Whilst pure body colours are desirable in most gemstones, those whose colour is a primary colour such as the red of Rubies and the blue of Sapphire, really can demand a price premium when their hue is pure. That said, some gem collectors prefer their Blue Sapphires to have a 10 to 15% purple mix within the gem’s colour.
In terms of saturation you will sometimes see a greyish mask (see mask heading in Volume II to get a better handle on saturation and masks) and if the gem lacks life this could be the cause. In terms of tone it depends on your preference between lighter cornflower blues and deeper royal blues. Unfortunately today we see far too many Sapphires on the market, especially from some locals in China and Australia, where the tone is almost 100% (i.e. black).
Another important evaluation criterion for both members of the corundum family (Sapphire and Ruby) is whether the gem bleeds or not (see bleeding heading). When some Sapphires are worn indoors under incandescent light, they can often lack sparkle, their tone seems to diminish and the gem almost fades, but take them back outside and they instantly revitalise. Not all Sapphires bleed in the same way and the level of their bleeding depends on their chemical composition.
Probably more than any other gem (with the exception maybe of Pearls), Sapphires have often been valued more for their origin than their beauty. But to paraphrase the most legendary of all gem explorers ever, George Kunz, great gemstones can be found in any location and poor ones can be unearthed at locales that are renowned for the most highly prized. You are just as likely to find a poor quality Sapphire in Kashmir as a stunner in China.
The key evaluation criteria for Sapphire, as with all coloured gems, remain the vividness of its colour, its transparency, its clarity, its cut, etc. Then of course, if you are faced with a choice of two similar gemstones from different locales, you might choose to acquire the one with an origin that is renowned for producing great pieces of that gem variety, or you may even choose the other piece that is the shining star of an under-rated locale.
Let’s discuss the properties that are typically associated with each location, but please do bear in mind the above comments. These are the summary of the huge amount of books I have read, yet my own experience is more in line with the views of George Kunz in that quality and appearance can vary from location to location.
My opinion, that it is not wise to generalise about locales, is based primarily on viewing the gems that flow through my sorting office in Jaipur and those that we sell through our various channels. It is also based on the fact that when I was recently in Zambia I witnessed from one small location in a mine, no bigger than three foot square, a miner unearth the most stunning, clear deep green Emerald, only five minutes later to find two more pieces that were dull and lifeless. The difference can be narrowed even further: it’s not just the country, the region, the particular mine, the area within the mine that makes a difference, but the portion of the rough that your gem has been cut from. Only yesterday I was in my cutting facility where we were cutting some of the finest Amethyst rough we have ever purchased: after making the first slice (a slice is the first cut made to gemstone rough, performed to remove a part of a gem with a big fracture or large feather inclusion), we were left with two totally different grades.
So the information below is more related to the typical types of Sapphires found in each location. It’s more like saying you will find more Brits in Britain, more Thais in Thailand and more Indians in India. But if you look in today’s cosmopolitan cities, you will realise this type of view is no longer completely valid. It is also important to point out that with today’s modern gemstone treatments, such as colour diffusion, these differences are less reliable than they used to be in terms of arriving at a dependable origin, based on appearance alone.
Regarded by many as the finest Sapphires in the world, they were first discovered in 1879 in the Padar region of Kashmir in Northern India after a landslip allegedly uncovered their occurrence. The Kashmir Sapphire has been known for over a century as “the Jewel of India”. Unfortunately, after just a few years of mining, the area became unworkable due to the deposit being in the middle of a politically unstable area and one fraught with conflict. The matter worsened in 1947 after the partition of the subcontinent, and Kashmir, which is located in the Himalayas some 4500 metres above sea level, has been war torn ever since. So whether it is a result of the conflict or the fact that the mine was depleted within just a few years of its discovery is still not completely understood and remains one of the most talked about topics in gem circles.
Even though the driving force behind its true rarity is not known, at an auction at Christie’s in 2007 a 22.66 carat Kashmir Sapphire set in a gold pendant fetched a price of $3,064,000. This equates to around £85,000 per carat!
Kashmir Sapphires are renowned world wide for their almost sleepy appearance. The reason for this is that they have thousands of microscopic inclusions: these cannot be seen by the naked eye, but under a microscope can normally be identified. Also known as flour, these inclusions diffuse the light, providing the Sapphire with its legendary sleepy appearance. The Kashmir Sapphire typically is a very pure blue, with few secondary colours and has a medium tone of 70 to 80%.
Made famous in the UK after Princess Diana was given a large Ceylon Sapphire in the centre of her engagement ring and subsequently the ring re-emerged when given to Catherine Middleton on her engagement to Prince William, Ceylon Sapphire is today regarded as the finest Sapphire still being mined in any commercial quantity.
Its hue varies from a medium royal blue to a lighter blue (known as cornflower).The gem often will have some inclusions and slight colour zoning, therefore it is often heat treated to produce a gem that is more appealing to the masses. Its hue varies from almost pure blue to a purplish blue and its tone ranges from approximately 30 to 75% for desirable gems.
There are various grades of Sapphire coming out of Madagascar presently. Those from Ilakaka tend to have a nice open colour which has a bluish purplish hue, whilst those from other areas I have seen on the island, such as Andranondambo, tend to have a darker tone. Some pieces coming from the Swiss Bank Mine in Ilakaka, a mine run by John Noel whom I have met several times whilst in Madagascar, often produces pieces that are on par with Sapphires heralding from Burma, Kashmir and Ceylon. Occasionally you will find unusual shaped inclusions in Sapphires from this region and experts have discovered that these are normally either Calcite or Apatite crystals.
Famous for its vividly coloured blue Sapphires, the mines at Kanchanaburi and Bo Ploi (also spelt Bo Ploy) also produced the occasional grass green and sunflower yellow Sapphires, as well as their world famous black Spinel. The mines are situated in a jungle valley to the north west of Bangkok, the area is a very popular tourist spot and its bridge was featured in the war film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. The main Sapphire mines are some twenty miles north of the main town. When the first discovery was made in 1918, within months thousands of artisanal miners started digging in an attempt to make their fortunes. Within a very short period, not surprisingly, the mines were all depleted.
In the late 1970s, the gem was once again rediscovered, but this time with JCBs and modern equipment mine owners were able to dig deeper. By the late 1980s they had created possibly the largest alluvial deposit Sapphire mine on the planet and reportedly they had to excavate an average of 19 tonnes of soil to uncover just one carat of gem quality Sapphire! Today, the mines are once again almost completely exhausted and very little mining is taking place, I met with one local who told me that current miners are having to sift through approximately 50 tonnes of soil to find a single piece of Sapphire.
The quality of Sapphire from the mine can vary from heavily zoned pieces, to pieces that are as open in colour and share a similar clarity to Ceylon Sapphires. In terms of tone, I have seen Bo Ploi Sapphires vary from 60% to 90%. In terms of saturation, Sapphires from the region can be amongst the best on the planet. Whilst Kashmir Sapphires are famed for their silky sleepy appearance, those from Kanchanaburi can sometimes look slightly milky.
As you will see later in this book under “clarity grading”, the GIA class Sapphires as a “type II” gemstone, meaning that they normally will feature inclusions. It is for this reason that Kanchanaburi Sapphires are nearly always heat treated. This method perfected in Thailand centuries ago benefits Sapphires from this region in two ways; it reduces the impact of the colour zoning and lessens the visual impact of the inclusions.
As with most gemstones that originate from China, the amount of data and information we are aware of is very limited. What we do know is that most of the gem quality Sapphires mined in the country come from the Shandong Province, which is situated on the East coast of the country. As the gem is mined in basaltic or magmatic deposits, they tend to have a tone that is very dark, often in excess of 95%. Under a microscope if you ever find small dark orange inclusions in your Sapphire, there is every chance that these are due to the presence of uranpyrochlore crystals which are often found in Sapphires from the Shandong Province.
Unearthed in New South Wales and Queensland, Australian Sapphires have a tendency to be more of a greenish blue than a pure blue when extracted from the ground. With modern heat treatment techniques, Australian Sapphires are easily transformed into a more pure blue and then sometimes they are miss-sold by ill-informed or unscrupulous dealers as Ceylon Sapphires.