If someone were to ask you to name a gem family famous for its wide range of colors, you might answer garnet or even tourmaline. But would sapphire spring to mind?
Probably not, since the word sapphire is synonymous with blue and has been so ever since the Romans coined it, ironically, to describe the haunting violet-blue of the lapis lazuli they found in Afghanistan. Over time, the Latin word “sapphirus” was attached to a multitude of other blue gems-including the magnificent deep-blue corundum found for millennia on the island of Sri Lanka (formerly British-ruled Ceylon) off the southern coast of India. Today, when the word sapphire refers to gems of a certain chemistry rather than color, dealers use the word interchangeably with every kind of corundum except ruby.
Nevertheless, don’t blame yourself if the word sapphire is still a color-word meaning blue. It has taken the world centuries to recognize, and centuries more to celebrate, the corundum color wheel. The fault lies partly with the confusing language used to describe this gem.
For more than 1,000 years, writers on gems such as the Greek naturalist Theophrastus (Third Century BC) and his Roman counterpart Pliny (23-79 AD) sang the praises of a multicolored gem species known as hyacinth . In a poem called “Lapidarium,” written between 1067 and 1081 AD, an abbot named Marbodus, who later became the Bishop of Rennes, described some of the hyacinth’s paintbox array of colors:
One, like pomegranate flowers a fiery blaze;
And one, the yellow citron’s hue displays.
One charms with paley blue the gazer’s eye
Like the mild tint that decks the northern sky:
A strengthening power the several kinds convey
And grief and vain suspicions drive away.
Today, scholars are sure hyacinth was what we now call sapphire, a species then found mostly in Ceylon. Curiously, the same writers discuss another Ceylonese gem with similar qualities to hyacinth named carbuncle (meaning: to glow like an ember) now known as ruby.
Only scientists from the Arab world like al-Biruni (973-1050) and Teifaschi (1184-1253) had the insight that ruby and sapphire are the same species.
Meanwhile, Western commentators continued to separate ruby from sapphire. Writing of his world travels, trader Marco Polo (1254-1324) mentions being shown both rubies and sapphires when he visited “Seilan.” Since ruby was then-and for more than six centuries afterward-the world’s most valuable gem, it’s understandable that this Italian merchant would focus almost exclusively on red corundum. Although later voyagers to this island south of India noted resemblances between its rubies and sapphires, they stopped short of lumping them together.
It would take until the late 18th century for the gem world to discover that ruby and sapphire were members of the same gem family: corundum (aluminum oxide colored by various trace elements such as chromium and titanium). But even when the two were finally united, most people thought of them as brothers, not as members of an extended family of color varieties.
The world still seems to be playing catch up with the full reality of the word sapphire-as well as the rainbow range of hues it represents. And no wonder. Red and blue corundum (ruby and sapphire respectively) have long been the standards of excellence for these colors in gemstones. The same could not be said for most other corundum colors. Not until recently.
Now, however, sapphire is becoming the color-category leader for pink and yellow, too. As sapphire becomes the yardstick for perfection of colors beyond blue, connoisseurs are seeking out some of its rarer hues such as orange and purple.
SAPPHIRE: TRUE BLUES
Until the discovery of extraordinary stones 4,500 meters up in the Padar region of Kashmir around 1880, Ceylon was the standard bearer for sapphire. For practical purposes, it still is. Kashmir’s remote mountainside deposits were pretty much exhausted by 1930, leaving Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to resume playing the leading role as the world’s primary supplier, both for quality and quantity, of blue sapphire.
In recent decades, however, various countries in Asia and Africa have begun to play supporting and, some would say, increasingly major roles in satisfying world demand for sapphire. Of these new sources, one in particular has caught the gem world’s eye: Madagascar, an island ten times larger than Ceylon off the east coast of Africa. Indeed, many in the trade find the best of Madagascar’s sapphires virtually indistinguishable from Sri Lanka’s finest.
From the late 1970s until Madagascar emerged as a major producer of sapphire in the late 1990s, the gem trade was flooded with inky-blue, often overdark stones from sapphire-rich Australia and Thailand.
What is meant by “fine” sapphire? The subject has always sparked a lot of debate in the gem world. True, experts unanimously agree that nothing tops the rich velvety blue of Kashmir stones for color. But with mining long halted in Kashmir, what is the best color coming from active localities? Some connoisseurs prefer the deep, dense royal blue of stones from Burma’s famous Mogok stone tract. Others lean toward the vibrant, very transparent colors of Sri Lankan and Madagascar stones.