Sapphires are One of the “Big 3” Most Precious Colored Gemstones
When one thinks of coloured gemstones, three jewels in blue, red and green come to mind first. Sapphires, rubies, and emeralds have been favorites 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 sapphire, peach sapphire, purple sapphire, yellow sapphire, orange sapphire, green sapphire, teal sapphire and colourless sapphire or leuko sapphire. Red sapphires are better known as rubies. Red sapphires are called rubies, but depending on culture and continent, there are differences between what is considered a pink sapphire or a 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.
Sapphires are a scarce natural resource. Sapphires are very transparent stones with good clarity and colour distribution for faceting jewels. In terms of comparison, quality sapphires of up to one carats are more common, but larger sapphires of up to three carats are possible to source but even more scarce. However, sapphires weighing over 5 carats are very scarce and those above ten carats in weight are undoubtedly exceptional jewels and considered absolute rarities.
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 takes place around 1700 to 1900° Celsius.
Sapphire is one of the very first gemstones to ever be flux grown in a laboratory (1902). Therefore the age of the sapphire does not give an indication whether it is natural or not. The 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 blue hues in daylight to violetish blue, violetish purple or reddish purples in incandescent light. This effect is caused by the sapphire, which absorbs specific wavelengths of light; and the light-source, whose spectral output varies depending upon the illumination. 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 sapphires. The same applies to more intense pink and red corundum called “star ruby.”
Very rarely, there are bi-coloured sapphires that could be found. 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. It is caused during the formation of the crystal when conditions of the trace elements which colour the stone undergoes 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 is 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. Historic records indicate that sapphires were popular in ancient Rome, Persia, and throughout the middle ages. The oldest blue sapphire deposit was discovered in 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.” The city of Ratnapura is one of the main gem mining areas in the country and derived its name, meaning “city of gems,” from the gem industry.
For centuries, sapphires have 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 sapphire 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 a blue star sapphire named “The Star of Adam,” weighing in at 1,404 carats, equivalent to about 280g and was 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 reddish 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. The real value of untreated sapphires is higher and prices will only continue to increase.
The demand and value of sapphires continue to increase each passing day. They are currently, the second most popular gemstone for engagement rings. Of course, diamonds are still “a girl’s best friend” due to a marketing slogan, but they are 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 to be colourful and individual.
Sapphires are not harmed by cleaning them in an ultrasonic jewellery 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, it is 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. Many Swiss watchmakers also use sapphire crystal on their protective glasses.
Sapphires are found in many places throughout the world, including Tanzania, Thailand, Cambodia, Madagascar, Australia, the United States, and more. Sri Lanka is known worldwide for the finest quality sapphires among all sapphire producing countries that have a stable mining industry and active deposits.
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, 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. Most minerals are found in secondary deposits. These areas are therefore the primary mining sites in the present. Sri Lanka is unique due to the fact that many different kinds of gemstones can be found in a single deposit. What is special is that a large variety of gemstone types with fine qualities can be found in these deposits. 4C’s of sapphires
The gem fields of Sri Lanka contain about 75 varieties and sub-varieties of gemstones. The world’s finest quality sapphires originate from Sri Lanka as do other gemstones like ruby, alexandrite, cat’s-eye, chrysoberyl, spinel, tourmaline, garnet, beryl, peridot, critrine, moonstones, topaz, quartz and a variety of other stones. This makes Sri Lanka one of the most important countries of gemstone occurrences worldwide and creates important jobs in the country. The regulations for mining and gem trading are very strictly enforced to protect the interests of the local gem industry and mining communities. 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 of the highland complex. Around 95% of current mining activities operate in areas with secondary deposits. The 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 island’s total 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 through sustainable and responsible mining practices. Sri Lanka has a very sustainable vision for the local gemstone industry and implements this by legal regulations; e.g. limited mining licenses and fixed annual export quota, prohibition of exporting rough stones for assuring local and long-term business expertise and practice, job creation, retaining the value creation within the country, and securing employment for 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 6500 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 rarity 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, but 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 demands astronomical prices for old finds. These too are only traded through auction houses or exhibited in museums. Myanmar (Burma) is home to the world’s finest rubies and the sapphires found there are also of very good quality. There is active mining in Myanmar, but it is a region with long-standing conflicts. Also, the volume of yields are negligible compared to Sri Lanka where similar quality blue sapphires can be found.
There are several countries where sapphire mining is an active industry, such as Thailand, Madagascar, Cambodia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Australia and USA. However, each place of origin exhibits very different sapphire qualities as well as colours and colour combinations. Sapphires are now found in many countries, but though the volume is steadily declining for many reasons, the demand for this rare natural treasure is steadily growing.
Besides its long gem making tradition, Sri Lanka is considered worldwide as the number 1 sustainable source of fine sapphires due to its particularly high quality in terms of transparency, colour and clarity. Despite this, the naked truth is that supply of sapphires has been declining dramatically in the last century. Therefore, with a fixed number of mining licenses is it not easy to find this rare natural resource. The strong price increases are likely due to the declining supply within the last 10 years, but this has only increased the demand for sapphires exponentially. 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|