September’s birthstone is sapphire.
It’s associated with romantic love and devotion. And is said to represent fidelity, honesty, purity and trust. Small surprise then, that sapphires are not just worn as September’s birthstone but are also a perennially popular engagement gemstone.
Like rubies, fine quality sapphires are also one of the most sought-after precious gemstones on the planet, can fetch astonishing prices, and are far rarer than diamonds.
What exactly are sapphires though?
Sapphires are, of course, one of the better-known, precious gemstones that nearly everyone knows a bit about. Most of us recognise of them as beautiful, very hard, sparkling, velvet-blue stones – and very expensive too. But few of us know what substance they are created from. You might be surprised to discover it’s the same one that makes rubies.
Blue is – normally – the colour.
Sapphires come in many other colours, but we tend to think of them as blue. After all, the name “sapphire” is derived from the Greek word “sappheiros” or the Latin word “saphirus” used to describe blue gemstones. “Sapphire blue” even refers to a saturated shade of blue. And in the Persian empire rulers believed the sky was painted blue with the reflection of sapphires.
Blue sapphires are associated with the planet Venus. Which is why they represent Friday, the day dedicated to Venus. In zodiacal systems the gemstone covers both Taurus and Gemini.
Made from the same mineral as rubies
You’ll know sapphires as one of the world’s most famous gemstones, with a long and rich history. What you might not know however, is that it’s made from the same mineral as rubies – a crystalline form of aluminium oxide that’s called corundum, an incredibly hard substance that makes it an efficient cutting tool for industrial purposes.
It’s the impurities in corundum that change its colour to create valuable gemstones like rubies and sapphires.
Corundum is a fairly common mineral – and one of the hardest too. Only diamonds are harder.
Sapphires are not always as blue as you think.
Chromium makes corundum go red – that’s what makes a ruby.
But corundum has been coloured by any other impurity then it’s a sapphire. The intense blue most people associate with sapphires is caused by titanium and iron impurities in corundum. It’s also responsible for pink sapphires too.
As the saturation of chromium increases, pink sapphires deepen in colour from light to dark red. And once it goes beyond a certain point, it’s no longer considered a pink sapphire but becomes a red ruby.
Fancy sapphires can come at fancy prices
Sapphires come in other colours as well as pink and blue too.
Non-blue sapphires, known as “fancy” sapphires, can also be yellow, green, brown, purple or violet. But don’t be misled into thinking that because these gems aren’t blue, they are always a lesser gem.
Padparadscha – a very special sapphire
One very valued sapphire is the very scarce, orange-pink Padparadscha. Its name is derived a Sinhalese word for “aquatic lotus blossom” and gemstone collectors treasure these extraordinary stones. They tend to unevenly coloured, with pink and yellow variations around a salmon colour. Anything over 2 carats is astonishingly rare and valuable.
A legendary beautiful gem for a legendary beautiful woman
Sapphires have been valued by humans since the dawn of history. Legend says that in the 12th century BC, Helen of Troy kept a star sapphire believed to be the cause of her allure to males. A thousand years later in the 1st century BC, King Solomon wore a sapphire ring believing it gave him magical powers. The ancient Greeks also thought sapphires had a strong connection to the spiritual world which is why they wore them when consulting the Oracle at Apollo’s Shrine. Ivan IV the Terrible of Russia, who lived from 1530 to 1584, wasn’t just famous for his ruthlessness, he was also well known as a lover of sapphires.
The British Crown features many sapphires too.
St Edward’s Sapphire is older than any other in the royal collection. It’s thought to have been in the coronation ring of Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England who ascended the throne in 1042, twenty four years before the Norman conquest.
No spare change to give? Then a priceless gem will do.
Legend says that when Edward was asked for alms by a beggar he had no money with him so gave him the ring with the gem. The beggar was St John the Evangelist who assisted two English pilgrims in Syria in gratitude for the King’s help, and asked them to return the ring to St Edward. The king was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1066 with the ring, but it was taken out when he was re-interred in 1163. Queen Victoria added the jewel to her Imperial State Crown.
The Sapphire that escaped the French revolution
Visit the collection where the Crown Jewels are housed in the Tower of London and you’ll also find the Stuart Sapphire. James II of England and Wales (also known as James VII of Scotland), and the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland and Wales, took the gem with him when he fled the glorious revolution in 1688 to be replaced by his own Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.
James II passed the sapphire to his son, James Stuart (the ‘old pretender’ with thwarted ambitions of his own on the English crown). His son, Henry Benedict, the Cardinal York, grandson and last descendant of James II, wore it in his mitre. When he put it up for sale, it was purchased by George III in 1807, and like St Edward’s Sapphire, it eventually ended up in a pride of place on Queen Victoria’s Imperial State Crown.
A very special engagement ring from Prince William
In more recent times, Princess Diana wore a blue sapphire engagement ring. Her son Prince William gave it to Kate Middleton for her to wear as The Duchess of Cambridge.
Prince William said that giving the ring away made it feel like his mother hadn’t missed out on his wedding day.
So many cultures value this precious stone
As you’d expect of a gemstone with such a long and illustrious history, many civilisations and religions have attributed it with extraordinary values.
In ancient Greek and Roman societies, royal families wore sapphires to protect themselves from envy and harmful enemies.
The Persians used to ground them up as an all-purpose medicine. Amongst Buddhists it is believed to produce a desire for prayer, and is regarded as the Stone of Stones to give Spiritual Light, and to bring Peace and Happiness as long as the wearer of a sapphire leads a moral life.
Loved by Jews and Catholics, hated by witches
The Jews venerated sapphires, and the seal-stone in King Solomon’s ring is said to have been a sapphire.
Catholics held them in high worth too, and believed sapphires possessed virtues and qualities that made them worthy as the badge of the Pope.
In the middle ages they were used to ward off illness and also as a protection when travelling. They were believed to be a protection against sorcery and black magic and to banish evil spirits and send negative thoughts back to whoever sent them.
Have you a spare 17 million dollars for a rather special gem?
Today sapphires are held in as high esteem as ever, with a value to match.
Their price per carat depends on the quality of the gem, ranging from about $25 to over $11,000 per carat – with the most expensive at the time of writing this, an extra-ordinary $135,000 per carat.
Currently the most expensive sapphire ever sold at auction is the Blue Belle of Asia, a 392.52 carat Ceylon sapphire which went for over $17 million at Christie’s Geneva in November 2014 to a private collector who remains unidentified to this day.
How to value a sapphire
We doubt you’ll be looking in this price range if you’re considering buying a sapphire for yourself or a gift. However you’ll probably be interested what attributes makes one sapphire more valuable than another.
Because they form under very specific conditions within the earth’s crust, with different inclusions and trace minerals, each and every sapphire is unique and no two have the exact same internal structure. Yet, like other gemstones, all are valued the same way, using the 4 Cs: colour, clarity, carat and cut.
Colour comes first
Colour is arguably the most important attribute of a sapphire.
Normally the closer a sapphire is to pure blue the better. This is often called a “Cornflower” blue.
Hue is the gemstone’s basic colour, although typically a sapphire colour is a combination of hues. For example, a blue sapphire can have violet or green secondary colours components that affect their beauty and value.
Saturation describes how pure or intense a colour appears, and is also a key component in determining a sapphire’s value.
Regardless of the sapphire’s hue, higher levels of saturation are preferred. The finest sapphires have “vivid” saturation, but sapphires with “strong” saturation are also prized
Tone, describes how light or dark a stone’s colour is, with the preferred tones for sapphires varying from hue to hue.
Most fine sapphires have a medium to medium-dark tone.
Other factors influence a sapphire’s colour too.
For example inclusions, which normally you might think undesirable, can actually improve the colour. That’s because these minute imperfections are highly reflective and scatter light within the stone.
Clarity is not as clear as you think
Clarity refers to the inclusions, or internal flaws within the sapphire.
Although perhaps “flaw” is a misnomer in this instance. Generally speaking it’s true that the more inclusions and the more visible they are, the less valuable the sapphire. And prices can drop substantially if inclusions threaten the stone’s durability.
However many small inclusions can enhance the look – and hence value – of the stone by creating a velvety appearance in blue sapphires. And large inclusions that intersect can form a beautiful and valuable star shape. What’s more, if there are no visible inclusions at all under the microscope, it lowers the value of the stone as it means the stone is almost definitely synthetic.
Does your stone make the cut?
How expertly (or not) a sapphire has been cut profoundly affects its value too. If it’s been done well it can hide inclusions, improve the colour, and maximise visual appeal.
It needs an expert hand to cut them though.
Sapphires are one of the toughest materials. On the Mohs hardness scale they rank 9 out of 10, just below diamonds, the hardest mineral of all.
How many Carats?
This is the weight of the stone, with a carat equivalent to one fifth of a gram. The bigger a sapphire is the more slowly the cooling of the magma it was created in occurs. And because the bigger stones are so much rarer, the price per carat increases exponentially with size.
Blue sapphires can range in size anywhere from fractions of a carat to hundreds of carats, and large blue sapphires are more readily available than large rubies.
However, to make it more complicated, the effect of carat weight upon sapphire also depends what colour the stone is. For example, yellow sapphires are quite common above five carats. In contrast, pinky-orange padparadscha sapphires are much rarer and correspondingly more valuable.
Remember too, that sapphires have a higher specific gravity than diamonds, so a sapphire is smaller than a diamond that weighs the same.
Where was it mined – and has it been treated?
Most prized sapphires are from Myanmar (famous for the Cornflower blue colour – the best), or Kashmir and Sri Lanka (where paler blue and other coloured sapphires are mined). These are less likely to have had treatment such as heating them in various different atmospheres to enhance their colour – and untreated sapphires command significantly more value.
Sapphires can also be made synthetically, although these stones are far more likely to be made for industrial use. Unsurprisingly synthetic sapphire is worth considerably less than natural rock.
As with all precious gem stones, you are best asking an expert if you need any questions answered about a specific piece.
Turn to a traditional jeweller
Whether you’re interested in a ruby, a spinel, or any kind of gem or attractive stone, it’s always safer to seek the advice of a traditional jeweller like John Lloyd Morgan for guidance.