Q: What Are Sapphires?

An in-depth look at the history of the magical stone

When one thinks of a sapphire, they tend to think of the dictionary definition: “a transparent precious stone, typically blue”. And if they know a little bit more about the science side of its provenance, then also this: “…which is a form of corundum”. It can be a type of hummingbird with shining blue plumage as well. But in stones, it has been an object of great desire, and takes millions of years to form, sometimes billions.

Supposedly, Ancient Persians believed it to be the reason why the sky was blue and, through history, the precious gem has been associated with myths and legends, coveted by royalty and explorers alike – being such prized precious gems as they are.

Traditionally, its deep colour bore connotations of nobility, truth and romance. In the Middle Ages the gem was believed to offer protection from harm and represented loyalty and trust. It was thought, in the past, that Christians would use sapphires as talismans, supposedly to ward off the Evil Eye. Star sapphires were meant to be especially good at doing this – and could be recognised by the inclusions within the gem that portrayed a star, something which is known as asterism.

So the story goes, the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton travelled with a large sapphire – known as asteria – which brought him good luck. The star sapphire has also been referred to as the “Stone of Destiny”, the star element is associated with faith, hope and destiny.

The birthstone of September, sapphire is typically most desirable in its richest and bluest hue which can also be found in its pink, yellow and green variations.

The first known use of sapphire is thought to be the 13th century. In Middle English, it is “safir” or Latin for “blue stone”, sapphirus. It is a stone noted for its hardness, registering a 9 on the Mohs scale of hardness – for context, a diamond is a 10. They are strong and sturdy stones, making them a useful industrial material. It is the corundum that takes on the blue colouring from traces of titanium and iron to create the look we so commonly think of with a sapphire.

Corundum, an aluminium oxide, is a highly prized gemstone, and has been since around 800 BC according to Britannica. Its colour ranges from a very pale blue to a deep indigo – a medium-deep cornflower blue is thought to be the most valued. There are also colourless, grey, yellow, pale pink, orange, green, violet and brown varieties of gem corundum, which are known as sapphires – the red variety is a ruby.

Interestingly, a sapphire is dichroic, which means that the colour changes depending upon the direction of viewing. For example, Alexandrite sapphire looks blue in daylight but reddish or violet in artificial light. Heating can also change the colour, while other colour changes can be the result of exposure to intense radiation. And most will feature inclusions.

Sapphires are also the primary constituent of many igneous rocks – and have as dazzling a scientific history as they do a fashionable and glamorous one (more on which is to come). It also occurs in metamorphosed carbonate rocks.

Sapphires can be found in Kashmir, India (which is known for producing some of the best sapphires in the world – and certainly some of the most action-worthy), as well as Australia and Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Russia, South Africa and the United States, more specifically in North Carolina and Montana.

Since 1902, synthetic sapphires have also been in production commercially, typically manufactured in a carrot-shaped boule.

Sapphires have made for personal gifts and keepsakes among royals – a sapphire and diamond brooch given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria to wear as her “something blue” on their wedding day in 1840 was made by Garrard. It is also a favourite of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And today every Garrard engagement ring carries a small sapphire within its band – and so continues a tradition begun by Queen Victoria and her husband. The 118.8 carat Garrad Jubilee sapphire was recently fashioned into a brooch.

Of course, famously, Princess Diana’s engagement ring was a sapphire which was passed on to Kate Middleton for her engagement to Prince William. The Windsors, however, are not the only names of note to see its allure. Throughout history it has been a stone of royal note – thought to have strong medicinal and protective powers, a sapphire also symbolises good luck, wisdom, fidelity and romance. They are also the traditional gift for the 45th wedding anniversary.

There are many famous sapphires: belonging to the rich and famous.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Sapphire Jubilee was marked with a portrait of her majesty wearing a matching sapphire set given to her by her father King George VI on her wedding. It is thought, therefore, to be one of the most famous jewellery pieces in the world.

In terms of size, however, the Star of India, which weighs 563.35 carats, is one of the largest sapphires in the world and has a unique star shape which features on both sides. The Logan Blue Sapphire, which was owned by Mrs John Logan, a prominent US Congressman’s wife, is the second largest – weighing 422.99 carats.

When it comes to facets, the Blue Giant of the Orient, is the largest faceted in the world. At 466 carats it also comes with a mystery story attached – in 1907 it disappeared, resurfacing in this century.

Back to its royal history and there are yet more instances: Princess Diana’s sapphire and pearl choker, given to her by the late Queen Mother; the Stuart Sapphire, a cabochon-cut number weighing 104 carats is part of the Royal Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II and was acquired by her ancestors in the 14th century; Princess Diana’s Saudi sapphire and diamond suite was one of the princess’ most photographed pieces. Worn on various occasions, it was given to her by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for her wedding to Prince Charles.

And the Rockefeller Sapphire, named for John D. Rockefeller Jr, is known for its rich cornflower blue colour, and is rumoured to be linked to the Indian Maharaja Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad. In 2001, it sold at auction for $3,031,000. In the 1940s, Rockefeller asked Pierre Cartier, of the French jewellery house, to recut the stone into the unique shape and mount for his wife.

In 2020, exceptional blue sapphires accounted for the top sox lots at Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction, held in New York. It was a mega ten hours of selling with $44.5 million achieved. The top lot was a Kashmir sapphire and diamond bracelet of 43.10 carats surrounded by 67.90 carats of D colour internally flawless diamonds, bought for more than $6 million by Harry Winston.

Other notable blue sapphires in the sale were a 21.73 carat cabochon Kashmir sapphire ring by Van Cleef & Arpels from 1917, which achieved more than $1.7 million; a 12.64 carat Art Decor Kashmir sapphire mounted on a diamond brooch by Cartier, selling for more than $1.5 million; and a Burma sapphire necklace of 80.86 carats which sold for $1.1 million.

A 24.58 carat du Pont Padparadscha sapphire on a diamond ring sold above its estimate at $930,000.

Notably, sapphires have become popular as engagement rings ever since the 18 carat blue Ceylon sapphire engagement ring originally given to Princess Diana by Prince Charles was passed down to the Duchess of Cambridge, their symbolism ideal for such a significant occasion. The luxury jewellery house Boodles has noted its vintage styles to be especially beloved.

Over the years, there have been a number of other impressive sapphires up for sale. Elizabeth Taylor’s sapphire and diamond sautoir, by Bulgari, at 52.72 carats, sold for $5,906,500 in 2011. Richard Burton had given the sugarloaf cabochon sapphire to Taylor on her 40th birthday in February 1972.

In 2003, the Queen of Romania Sapphire, at 478.68 carats, sold for CHF 1,916,000. The pendant necklace was worn by Queen Marie – the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Czar Alexander II of Russia – to the coronation of her husband King Ferdinand of Romania in 1922. It was bought by the “king of diamonds” Harry Winston in 1947 before entering the collection of the Greek royal family.

And in 2018 a sapphire and diamond necklace, known as the peacock necklace, sold for HK$116,537,500. Set with 21 Kashmir sapphires, it carried a total of 109.08 carats and took more than 15 years to complete!

The story of Kashmir sapphires begins in 1881: a landslide in the Zanskar range of the northwestern Himalayas revealed sapphire-bearing rocks. Mining began and by 1887, Kashmir’s first sapphire mine had been exhausted. Production ended. Now, Kashmir sapphires are extremely rare as a result. Hence the big-selling lots.

An Art Deco Cartier bracelet set with eight sapphires, weighing between 3.38 and 10.53 carats, is another example, selling for HKD 56,120,000 in 2016. Cushion-shaped Kashmir sapphires feature on the bracelet which was made in France in 1923. While a record was set in 2015 for the highest price paid per carat for a sapphire at Christie’s – a Kashmir sapphire and diamond ring, which was noted for its brilliant clarity and natural sparkle (as opposed to being the result of heat treatment), sold for HKD 19,160,000.

Meanwhile, 2021 is also shaping up to be a big year for the sapphire. Sotheby’s Geneva Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels auction is featuring the largest Kashmir sapphire ever offered at auction with an estimate of $2 million to $3 million.A 1930s brooch, it features a 55.19 carat oval-shaped Kashmir sapphire alongside a cushion-shaped Kashmir sapphire weighing 25.97 carats. It is from the collection of Maureen Constance Guiness, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (1907-1998). Designed as stylised ribbon and set with two sapphires, it is further embellished with circular-cut and baguette diamonds.

Yet it’s not just in jewellery that sapphires can play a role. Its hardy nature means that it was used in creating scientific and technological instruments, such as the Apple watch which features a lab-created sapphire screen.

Though perhaps not quite the kind of spiritual enlightenment the Buddhists believed it could bring (not sure emails count!), it has been nicknamed the Heaven’s Stone and the Ancient Persians believed the earth rested on a giant sapphire – hence the sky having its blue colour. It’s in the Bible that sapphire is a reference to the throne of God, and it is thought the 10 commandments were engraved on sapphire tablets.

It is also one of the significant precious gemstones, diamonds, emeralds and rubies being the other three.

Chopard, Dior, Tiffany & Co., Suzanne Kalan, Chaumet, Cartier, Graff, Garrard, Pomellato and Patcharavipa are among the jewellery houses who have put their unique stamp on the stone which has a rich history – and one with no signs of abating soon.

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