Sapphires one of the “Big 3” most Precious Coloured Gemstones
When one thinks of coloured gemstones, three jewels in blue, red and green come to mind first. Sapphires, rubies and emeralds have been favourites for thousands of years, and continue to be admired. Their place of prominence in the gemstone’s world is such that they are often referred to as the “Big Three”. The three coloured gemstones are even more rare and precious than diamonds. All other gemstones called semi-precious gemstones due to their occurrence, hardness and value assessment.
By definition a ruby is only red, an emerald only green and sapphires occur in many colours a real colourful variety from well-known blues over all colours of the rainbow. Until recently, only sapphire, ruby and emerald were officially called precious gems and one of the most scare natural treasures. The precious categorization is a reference to value: a really fine sapphire, emerald or ruby can be priced higher per carat than a diamond.
These three precious gemstones come in many qualities, sizes and designs, enough to fit anyone’s tastes and a range of budgets.
30 Facts about Sapphires
The sapphire is a variety of the mineral corundum the second hardest natural mineral known to mankind. Ruby is the red variety of corundum – all other colours are called sapphire, even pink. This means sapphires and rubies are both are varieties of the mineral corundum just in different colours.
When you think of sapphires, you probably think of a rich blue colour, but sapphires actually come in almost every colour of the rainbow – including pink, peach, purple, yellow, orange, green, teal or colourless. Red sapphires are better known as rubies. Red sapphires are called rubies, depending on culture and continent there are differences between pink sapphire and ruby.
Sapphires get their colours from trace elements in the mineral corundum. Classic blue sapphires contain iron and titanium, and trace elements of chromium can turn corundum pink, while more chromium turns it into a ruby.
Sapphires are among the most durable naturally occurring elements in the world. Gemstones are rated on their ability to withstand scratching. Based on the Mohs Scale of Hardness sapphires score a 9 out of 10 only a diamond has more hardness but not such magnificent colours.
Every sapphires are a scarce natural resource. In particular very transparent stones with good clarity and colour distribution for faceting jewels. In terms of comparing same quality sapphires of up to one carats are more common, larger sapphires of up to three carats are possible to source but even more scare. However over five carats sapphires are very scarce and above ten carats sapphires are a exceptional jewel as an absolutely rarity.
Sapphires melt under very intense heat of around 2050° Celsius (or 3722° Fahrenheit). In comparison, silver burns at 962.8°C and gold at 1064°C. High temperature heating of sapphires take place around 1.700 to 1.900° Celsius.
Sapphire is one of the very first gemstones to ever be flux grown in a laboratory (1902). Therefore the age of the sapphire do not give an indication whether it is natural or not. Same accounts for heat treatment of corundum which was firstly mentioned in 1240 AD.
Some sapphires are known to have a colour change (similar to alexandrite), changing from blues hues in daylight to violetish blue, violetish purple or reddish purples in incandescent light. This effect is caused by the interaction of the sapphire, which absorbs specific wavelengths of light, and the light-source, whose spectral output varies depending upon the illuminate. Traces of metal impurities in the sapphire, such as chromium and vanadium, are responsible for the colour change.
Sapphires can have a starburst effect in them due to rutile or white silk, giving them the name “star sapphires“ based on the optical effect of asterism. The six-ray star pattern on the surface of the stone is only visible in cabochon-cut sapphire. Same applies of more intense pink and red corundum called “star ruby”.
Very rarely found are bi-colour sapphires. The bi-colour sapphire is a stone that contains two colours as a result of colour zoning. Colour zoning occurs when there is an uneven distribution of colour in a stone, and is caused during formation of the crystal when conditions of the trace elements which colour the stone, change.
Sapphires are “pleochroism stones”. Meaning, viewing these stones from two different angles (like the top view and the side view), may produce two different colours. Blue sapphires often have greenish blue and violetish blue pleochroism. It’s most desirable to orient the cut so the stone shows the violetish blue colour when it is set in jewellery.
The name sapphire comes from the Latin expression “sapphirus”, which derives from the Greek “sappheiros”. This means “blue”. The term also exists in Hebrew “Sappir”, in ancient Iranian “Sani-prijam” and in Sanskrit “Shani Priya”. There it means “love of Saturn” and is assigned to Saturn.
Sapphires have been treasured as some of the most precious gemstones for thousands of years. Popular in ancient Roman, ancient Persia, and throughout the “Middle Ages”. The oldest blue sapphire deposit was found is Sri Lanka. The term “sapphire from Sri Lanka” was used as early as 480 BC by Romans.
The fine quality of “Ceylon sapphires” has long been noted worldwide. Explorer Marco Polo wrote that the island Sri Lanka, appropriately nicknamed “Gem Island”, has the best sapphires in the entire world.
Ceylon or Sri Lanka is still fondly called “Rathna Deepa” in the native language meaning “Land of Gems” and Ratnapura one of the main mining areas derived its name from the gem industry “City of Gems”.
For centuries, sapphire has been associated with royalty and romance. Deep blue sapphires likely contributed to the naming of the colour “royal blue”. Royal blue sapphires were often worn by medieval kings, some of whom believed that the gemstones would protect them from their enemies.
One of the most famous royal blue sapphires is the engagement ring given by England’s Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, a 12-carat oval royal blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds.
Sapphire engagement rings certainly aren’t only for royals. Before the twentieth century, blue sapphires were the favored gemstones for engagement rings. Sapphires were quite popular in Victorian engagement rings, when they were often surrounded by smaller diamonds to create floral designs.
Sapphires have also been used to symbolize nobility and faithfulness and further associated with loyalty and dignity. Throughout history various cultures have attributed mystical powers to sapphires, including heavenly powers, truth, innocence, peace, and good health.
Sapphire is the birthstone for the month September. It is also a traditional gift for those celebrating 5th or 45th wedding anniversary.
The world’s biggest and most expensive sapphire is blue star sapphire named “The Star of Adam” weighing in at 1,404 carats, equivalent to about 280g and has been found in a mine in Sri Lanka in 2016. The gem is worth at least $100 million and the current anonymous owner says this sapphire is destined to be a priceless museum piece and far too big to set in any kind of jewellery.
The most preferred sapphire colour is still in the eye of the beholder. Based on supply the more intense colours are more scarce and higher priced. In Europe people most likely desire a “cornflower” blue hue and in other cultures the deep royal blue is preferred.
Sapphire’s colour is its most important feature and the clarity is a close second which directly affects its colour. The center of a sapphire must be cut in a way that it reflects light and colour. If the center is dead and does not reflect light or colour, it is known as a window. Sapphires with large windows demand lower prices for this very reason.
Crucial for fine quality of a sapphire is still a lively stone with best fire and luster. For many experts the most valuable sapphires are a mid-colour blue with a concentrated hue which remains constant under all lighting conditions.
The rarest type of sapphire is a pinkish-orange variety called “padparadscha” sapphire, a name that comes from the Sinhalese word for lotus flower. Traditionally these sapphires in a salmon colour have their origin in Sri Lanka and are extremely scarce and precious. In an even more redish pink-orange hue they are called “old padparadscha” which are hardly found these days.
A century ago diamonds were very rare till large and abundant diamond deposits were discovered in Africa. On a global scale diamonds are not that uncommon, and in order to keep their prices artificially high, a cartel was formed that to this day still controls the flow of the majority of diamonds. In contrast untreated sapphires remain extremely uncommon, and are growing rarer with the passage of time and the real value of untreated sapphires is higher, prices will only increase.
Nowadays sapphires demand is strongly increasing as the second most popular gemstone for engagement rings of course diamonds are still girls best friends due to a marketing slogan, but not for everyone. The durability and uniqueness of sapphires makes them an excellent choice for engagement rings and other jewellery you plan to wear every day in your colour of choice to be colourful and individual.
Sapphires are not harmed by cleaning them in an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner (unlike other stones like emerald, opal, pearl, tanzanite, tourmaline, peridot, turquoise, jade, lapis, and coloured diamonds).
Sapphire also has industrial uses because of its hardness used in both high pressure and vacuum chambers for spectroscopy, lenses for watches, barcode scanners in grocery stores, optics, lasers and more. For example the Apple Watch Series 3 features lab-created sapphire crystal in its screen to make it more scratch resistant, as do several Swiss watch companies.
Sapphires are found in many places throughout the world, including Tanzania, Thailand, Cambodia, Madagascar, Australia, the United States, and more. Sri Lanka is worldwide known for the finest qualities from all countries which have a stable mining activity and active deposits nowadays.
The Highland Complex in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the world’s oldest known source for the best quality sapphires and gemstones. The geology of the country’s valleys has created the conditions to create a bounty of precious stones in the country’s gem bearing district. Ceylon or Sri Lanka is called “Rathna Deepa” in the native language and it means “Land of Gems”. The name is a reflection of its natural wealth. Sri Lanka’s gem industry has a very long and colourful history. It has been estimated that nearly 25% of the total area of Sri Lanka is potentially gem-bearing, making Sri Lanka one of the country’s richest in gems having the highest density of gem deposits compared to its landmass. This also highlights the importance of Ceylon for the international gemstone trade and local gemstone industry.
Sri Lanka’s gem bearing deposits and gemstone varieties
The Highland Complex of Sri Lanka, Complex, extending northeast to southwest and containing high-grade metamorphic rocks, is the most likely area for formation of gemstone deposits. The metamorphic types of gems constitute around 90% of the gem deposits in Sri Lanka. The island was blessed with geological conditions that provide an ideal blend of chemistry, heat, pressure, time for gem crystals to grow, and weathering for the gem crystals to be deposited and concentrated in gravels.
The biggest mining areas of Sri Lanka are located in the floodplains of the valleys where rivers and waterfalls have flushed rich minerals to the lowlands. There can be found most minerals in secondary deposits and in these areas the main mining activities take place nowadays. Worldwide unique is the fact that in Sri Lanka different kinds of gemstones can be found in a single deposit and special is the huge variety of gemstone types and as well as the fine gemstone qualities. 4C’s of sapphires
The gem fields of Sri Lanka contain about 75 varieties and sub-varieties of gemstones. The world’s finest quality sapphire stones originated from Sri Lanka and other gemstones like ruby, alexandrite, cat’s-eye, chrysoberyl, spinel, tourmaline, garnet, beryl, peridot, critrine, moonstones, topaz, quartz and variety of other stones. This makes Sri Lanka to one of the most important countries of gemstone occurrences worldwide and creates important jobs in the country, as the regulations in Sri Lanka are very strict, which benefits the local people.
The gem fields of Sri Lanka contain about 75 varieties and sub-varieties of gemstones. The world’s finest quality sapphire stones originated from Sri Lanka and other gemstones like ruby, alexandrite, cat’s-eye, chrysoberyl, spinel, tourmaline, garnet, beryl, peridot, critrine, moonstones, topaz, quartz and variety of other stones. This makes Sri Lanka to one of the most important countries of gemstone occurrences worldwide and creates important jobs in the country, as the regulations in Sri Lanka are very strict, which benefits the local people. Journey of a sapphire
Primary and secondary deposits
Most of Sri Lanka’s coloured gemstone deposits come from weathered alluvial soils or called soap beds. The reason for this is the erosion by rivers that went through the valleys and eroded the rock layers. The flow of water along a river course causes the removal, transport and deposition of crushed, mainly mineral solids in the form of gravel, sand and mud.
Therefore today’s most mines are located in rice fields on in the lowlands in the highland complex. Around 95% of current mining activities operate in areas with secondary deposits. Most famous and largest mining areas in terms of volume are Ratnapura, Balangoda, and Elahera, although these make up only a small percentage of the total island’s gem deposits. The main mining areas show secondary gravel deposits where sapphire crystals have a distinct mostly rounded shape.
Sapphires from primary deposits are less common due to geological conditions but they do exist. The sapphire crystals found here show a trigonal form in which the mineral is originally grown. A full geological study of all primary deposits has not been performed yet, so the true potential remains unknown. One major primary sapphire deposit was discovered by accident near Kataragama in 2012. However there exist several scattered and smaller deposits which bear a very fine quality and sometimes in very large carat sizes. Journey of a sapphire
Mining Practises & Licences
Mining in Sri Lanka is strictly regulated and controlled by the government to protect mining communities and the environment by sustainable and responsible mining practices. Sri Lanka has a very sustainable vision for the local gemstone industry and implement this by legal regulation e.g. limited mining licenses and fixed annual export quota, prohibition of exporting rough stones for assuring local and long-term business expertise and practise, job creation and retaining the value creation within the country and securing employment along local businesses and communities.
Trade and regulatory bodies in Sri Lanka are against large-scale gemstone mining. In Sri Lanka mining licenses are regulated by the Gem Corporation and the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA). Of the more than 6.500 licenses issued, more than 92% of the licenses were for small-scale pit-mining operations using only traditional methods. River mining had a share of 7.5%, which was recently banned altogether to protect the vegetation and animal species in the river beds.
In the past, permission to use machinery was granted only under very strict conditions, where small-scale manual mining was not possible, the proportion was below 0.5% of all issued licences. The aim is still to ban mechanical mining as far as possible in order to ensure maximum protection of the environment. Small-scale pit mining is the method by choice in line with traditional practisesfor a most environment friendly mining activity beneficial for the environment and local people. Small scale mining
Seen from the rareness and value of sapphires ever found in exceptional quality, by far Kashmir (India) is to be mentioned first. Then come Mogok (Burma) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) on the same level far ahead of all other countries with sapphire occurrences. In Kashmir, however, there have been no active deposits for over a hundred years and the market asking for astronomical prices for old finds that are only traded through auction houses or exhibited in museums. From Burma come the world’s finest rubies and the sapphires found there are also of very good quality. There is active mining but it is always difficult in this conflict region and the volume is negligible compared to Sri Lanka with similar quality in blue sapphires.
Sapphires are now found in many countries even though the volume is steadily declining for many reasons and the demand for this rare natural treasure is steadily growing. Among the countries in which sapphire mining is carried out today are among others Thailand, Madagascar, Cambodia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Australia and USA, but each origin shows very different sapphire qualities as well as colours und colour combinations.
Besides the long tradition, Sri Lanka is considered as worldwide No. 1 sustainable source of finest sapphires due to its high quality in terms of transparency, colour and clarity. A sustainable mining output is difficult to predict. The truth is, that supply is going down dramatically in the last century hence with a fixed number of mining licenses is it not easy to find this rare natural resources. The strong price increases are likely due to changes on lower supply side within the last 10 years however even stronger from the extremely increasing demand side. It is important to know that the country of origin of a sapphire also determines its value due to its quality characteristics and the rarity of its occurrence. 4C’s of sapphires
|South-east Asia||Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam|
|South Asia||Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan|
|East Africa||Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique|
|Australia||Queensland, New South Wales|