What is a Blue Sapphire?
Where do they come from? And a few buying tips for the interested investor...
Let's dive straight into this breathtaking “celestial jewel”!
The blue sapphire.
- What is a blue sapphire?
Blue sapphire is the blue gem variety of corundum. It consists of the chemical components of aluminum oxide plus the chemical components of iron + titanium.
It is those last two elements that are responsible for the color blue.
In case you didn’t know it yet, sapphire and ruby actually belong to that same family of corundum.
When it’s any color besides red, we call it a sapphire and we add the color prefix to it. What you might not know is that sapphire actually comes in a variety of beautiful colors.
There is more than the blue sapphire (though that one has a special place in stone heaven).
The colorful varieties in the sapphire gang are made of: the blue sapphire, the pink sapphire, green sapphire, white (or colorless) sapphire, yellow, orange, the pink-orange variety (so wonderful it deserves its own Gem Tale), violet and some mixes in between.
But a red sapphire?
Nope, that doesn’t exist, we would call that a ruby.
As I described before, most corundum contains “trace elements” which cause the colors in the stones. In ruby and pink sapphire, that trace element is chromium.
And in blue sapphire, it’s iron and titanium.
Interestingly enough, you only need a few hundredths of a percent of iron and titanium to cause the color. The more iron the corundum contains, the darker the blue will be (and usually it will be less attractive as well...).
There are some other ways to classify sapphires, for instance you may come across the term ‘fancy sapphires’.
By that, what is meant in the trade is all the sapphires except the blue ones.
Then there are what is called ‘parti-colored’ sapphires. These are special stones that have different colors within the same sapphire. Very cool.
And yet another incredibly unique group is the ‘color-change’ sapphire. These are "henomenal" stones. I don’t mean ‘amazing and exceptional’ in the literary sense here (although they obviously are) but these are stones with what's called a gemological phenomenon.
Color change is the phenomenon in some sapphires whereby, for example, a blue sapphire changes from blue in daylight or fluorescent light to purple into incandescent light (under a light bulb).
Quite spectacular when the color change is noticeable and going from one clear color to the other by subjecting the stone to another lighting source. (The premium stones have the best remarkable color change rather than it being a more subtle shift).
This type of stones is hunted on by gem connoisseurs and they are rare.
Color-changing sapphire stunners from Vlad Yavorskyy.
In its purest state, corundum is actually colorless. So those are the stones without any trace elements that normally cause the color.
Colorless sapphires were once popular diamond imitations. And in recent times, have been making a comeback - as they are beautiful and less expensive diamond alternatives.
But I don’t mean to get your hopes up too high as… they’re actually quite rare.
A last note on sapphire terminology: many people talk of “sapphire” and although jewelers or gem dealers will know that you probably mean the blue sapphire, better to just always add the color pre-fix in front (so, blue sapphire, pink, purple sapphire, etc.).
Just so they know what color from the sapphire color box you’re referring to.
2. Sapphire origins
Sapphire comes from the Latin word “saphirus” and the Greek “sapheiros” meaning “sapphire”, “a precious gem or stone.”
It may ultimately come from the Sanskrit “sanipriya” which means “dark-colored stone” and literally meant “dear to Saturn” (the planet).
This shows the stone’s history and more generally, the ancient links gemstones were considered to have with planets (think of the birthstones that some countries still use today).
Now what I found particularly fascinating is that sapphires have been prized as great gemstones since 800 BC!
Talking about high and mighty heritage.
Let me share just some of the lore and legends to which blue sapphire has been connected.
In old Persian lore, the Earth was said to be balanced on top of an enormous sapphire and they believed its reflection gave the sky its blue color.
Also, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that blue sapphires held mystical powers and gave their owners wisdom and health.
In the Middle Ages, blue sapphires were often worn by royalty as amulets to ward off evil. They preserved the wearer from envy and were thought to attract divine favor.
Blue sapphires were also a holy stone to the Catholic church and to several other religions, the blue color represented the heavens.
In fact, in the bible, there are 12 gems mentioned but of those 12, only the emerald and sapphire are still considered precious today.
And small side-note here: I don’t use ‘precious’ here in the sense of precious vs semi-precious. Gemologists don’t divide gemstones according to that distinction at all.
It’s an outdated and oversimplified way of looking at gemstones.
Instead, gemstones are to be assessed on an individual basis according to several different criteria, such as the famous 4Cs (which actually come from the diamond grading world but is used for colored gemstones as well - with some different emphases placed here and there). But also matters like durability and the stone’s inherent sparkle or brilliance are looked at.
Anyway, back to the other meaning of precious which I refer to above, namely simply that we still consider emerald and sapphire as high-end treasures today.
And although emerald was known to the ancient world as such, we know that what was meant with sapphire was actually the ancient word for… lapis lazuli!
Another special, cobalt blue, opaque gemstone with golden specks.
So, it was actually lapis lazuli that was meant in the bible.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder described what he called ‘sapphire’ this way:
“Saphirus contains spots like gold. It is also sometimes rarely blue tinged with purple. It is never transparent.”
This is not a correct description of sapphire at all! Sapphire doesn’t have ‘spots of gold’, most certainly can be tinged with purple and is transparent.
Yet it is the right description of lapis lazuli.
You might remember from the previous ruby Gem Tales that it was only around approx. 1800 that sapphire and ruby were recognized as gem varieties belonging to the species corundum.
Before that date, often anything that was red was simply called ‘ruby’ and also for blue stones there were mix-ups between this lapis lazuli and blue sapphire.
Now, according to Hebrew lore, King Solomon of Israel wore a sapphire ring as a talisman and the law given to Moses on the mountain was said to be engraved on tablets of sapphire.
Those sapphires must have been humongous.
And finally, an old celebrated poet described sapphire as “the blue of a clear sky just minutes after sundown” (although I don’t think that’s actually the best of blue colors as it contains grey tints but it for sure is one of the hues that blue sapphire can appear in).
Overall, sapphire has been seen as a stone of wisdom, royalty, prophecy and divine favor; a symbol of power and strength, but also of kindness and wise judgement.
Perhaps some of the reasons why also in modern history, we can spot the stone on the hand of the likes of Kate Middleton and before, Lady Di of course.
Or we can enjoy some exquisite Sri Lankan sapphires during events like the coronation of our King (well, on his wife Queen Maxima that is).
Whatever you may or may not believe about those stories, blue sapphire’s strong blue is the standard against which all other blue gems (like blue topaz and tanzanite) are measured.
Its blue is rare and revered around the globe as it captures - in its finest quality - the purest blue out there.
So also when another blue gemstone, like the blue-violet tanzanite for instance, has less violet and comes closer to the blue of a blue sapphire, its price will go up.
Btw, the same goes for ruby and its rare red hue. Whenever other red gemstones, such as red spinel or red tourmaline come close to the color of a fine quality ruby, their prices go up significantly.
You gotta pay a premium for that color.
As Tom Cruise wisely said in the 1983 movie Risky Business:
‘Porsche, there is no substitute’.
The same applies to ruby and blue sapphire in their finest attire.
3. Color grading a sapphire
Now, let’s dive more into how the blue sapphire is color graded, so you’ll have some guide-lines in case you’d like to invest in a blue sapphire for yourself, a loved one or as investment!
We use the same criteria as I mentioned in the ruby Gem Tale before.
To color grade a blue sapphire, we also look at these 3 things:
To start with the hue.
Blue sapphire - like ruby - is a primary color gemstone. And the purer the primary hue, the better.
So, the best blue sapphire is blue!
That sounds obvious, but isn’t always the case in practice.
As it’s almost impossible to find pure hues in nature.
Most colored stones have some mix of colors. And that's why experts always try to determine a stone's primary and secondary color.
So in practice the best quality blue sapphire has:
- Blue as its primary color (about 85-90%)
- And has a secondary purplish hue of no more than 10-15%
Then, the saturation.
This refers to the intensity of the hue.
The brighter, the better.
Basically, it means that we’re looking for the absence of grey and brown which might mask over the color and thereby decreases the color’s intensity.
Grey is what is called the normal “saturation modifier” in a blue sapphire.
A slight grey mask will give a cold or slightly “steely” quality to the normally warm hue of a blue sapphire.
You may be surprised to hear that I use the word “warm” when it comes to the color blue!
We tend to call that a cold color, right?
However, in fact all pure chromatic hues are vivid and bright and not “cold” at all, not even blue.
The best and purest blue is not cold but rather velvety and warm.
The fact that you (or me too before I went to Bangkok’s gem hub) think that blue tends to be cold, just means you have probably never seen a fine quality blue sapphire in your life…
This makes total sense as most blue sapphires you come across in the West tend to be either very dark (going towards black) or are greyish, and yeah, those stones are cold and not very attractive.
I also notice that when I mention the stone 'blue sapphire' some people tell me they feel these stones are a bit dusty, conservative and old-fashioned (the same thing for rubies).
However, the fine quality stones I refer to here are of an intense vivid blue. And besides being velvety warm, they are also incredibly fashion-forward and by no means conservative, wouldn't you agree?!
Simply because the best colors are outspoken. And there's nothing conservative about that.
So to sum up, if the key color of a blue sapphire actually does appear as cold and dull, it’s an indication that the stone has a grey mask.
And you may keep on walking.
Lastly, the tone.
This refers to the appearance of blackness in a stone.
A quality sapphire should be quite dark-toned: for about 70-80%.
Now in addition to the above three features that you should always look at, some connoisseurs have other preferences.
For example, some prefer a distinct purplish secondary hue because they feel it adds a “velvety richness” to the blue.
And when you have a look at the color wheel image above, you can see how purple indeed adds even more soft richness to the color.
Others prefer a purer, more “open” blue with a slightly lighter tone (75%).
Whatever the case may be, any green hue should be avoided in the blue!
If it does contain a bit of green, the price and the stone’s value comes crashing down into the commercial range.
Two blue sapphire buying tips
1. Compare thy stones
It can actually be quite hard to see the green component.
So, best to see this green element is by comparing stones that lie next to each other.
This does not only apply to blue sapphire but to all colored stones.
Humans have a bad color memory and need to see more versions of the same color close by. Only then can our eye pick out the best one.
Also expert-gem dealers do this despite having seen thousands of stones each year.
They often carry around a small comparison set of the stones they deal in (either natural or synthetic) in different color grades, going from not so good to optimal color.
That way, they can better assess where the new stone fits in on the quality scale.
Do try to always compare apples with apples. Or rather, sapphires with sapphires, rubies with rubies, etc.
For instance, when buying a 2 carat oval blue sapphire, simply ask ‘can I see some more oval 2 ct blue sapphires please?’ or in a jeweler, ‘can I see some other rings you may have set with a similar stone’ (i.e. of similar size and shape).
2. Thou shall not buy after 2pm
Bear with me for a sec.
Despite all technological advancements, time still passes by.
Our days pass and thereby the light changes continuously.
Early in the morning, daylight is more red and orange, then later it turns to yellow. Around noon, it becomes whiter and then the more the afternoon progresses, the bluer the light gets with, ultimately, a clear blue skylight at night.
This means that your blue sapphire will look more highly saturated - and its most beautiful - later in the afternoon than it will around mid-morning when the light is more yellow.
So, you can have a look at the stone in your jeweler’s office in the afternoon but don’t forget to come back at another time as well to see how the stone holds up in other types of light.
Dealers do this as well, especially when it concerns valuable pieces.
They check the stone out near a window to see it in good daylight (or sometimes even bring the stone outside with the seller’s permission which is quite a normal thing to do in Bangkok), they look at the stone from below a table to see it in shielded light. They come back at another point in the day and look again.
All the time asking themselves, does this stone justify the price asked for it.
And how does its beauty hold up in different lighting situations (hmm, a bit like how we can come to love and appreciate certain people as well).
Now, I basically told you that since blue sapphire is a primary color gem, the more uniform blue its color is, the better.
However, I also told you it’s quite rare to find that color in nature.
In fact, each facet of the stone (a facet is the small surface on a faceted gemstone) may show some variations on the gem’s key color. Some facets may appear bright, some dull, some dark-toned, others lighter-toned.
This multi-color effect in blue sapphire has several causes:
- Sapphire is “di-chroic” which means that light entering the gem is divided into 2 rays:
- a violetish blue and
- a greenish blue ray.
- Also, sapphire is often “color-zoned” which means that colorless or white bands are lying next to zones of blue color. This is totally natural and normal to find.
Now, a negative effect of these features comes in the form of what is called “bleeding” which shows up in a lightening of the tone and a loss of saturation when the stone goes from natural to incandescent light!
So the blue can become lighter and washed out or it can become a bit more murky.
Of course, we don’t want that.
But any gemstone has its pros and cons. Including the diamond.
They all have their instructions of care and characteristics to be aware of.
This is precisely why I like them so much and also what will (hopefully) make you appreciate their intrinsic beauty and value even more.
Because when you do see a blue sapphire that doesn’t suffer from that bleeding feature (or not so much), you understand how special it is.
And a premium will be attached to that.
Now there is one blue sapphire that has a natural defense mechanism against this bleeding feature...
That’s the Kashmir blue sapphire.
Like the Burmese ruby.
With an equally nice price tag attached. (Though lower than ruby).
But I’ll tell you more about that hero in the next Gem Tale.
Just another note on all these color issues related to dichroism, color-zoning and the greenish components a lot of blue sapphires have to deal with:
it is the cutter’s job to cut the stone in such a way that this greenish component, the color-zoning and dichroism are avoided as much as possible in the final face-up-appearance of the stone.
So that when you look at the stone as it's supposed to be looked at, in its face-up position, you'll see the blue sapphire at its best. Without any hints of green nor any of that dichroism or color-zoning going on.
As you can imagine, you need an experienced cutter for that.
Interestingly, because of all these features a sapphire cutter needs to be aware of, sapphires can appear with cutting faults, like an off-center culet (the point at the bottom of a gemstone) or they can be lopsided ('bellied') below the girdle.
These cutting faults are more tolerated in a sapphire than most other gems because it's simply very hard to find a blue sapphire in nature without any of those mentioned features.
It's all a matter of rarity. (Btw, in a diamond, those cutting faults would be considered really big flaws)!
Lastly, I won’t go into heat treatments here but know that most blue sapphires in the market - like ruby - are heated, to improve their color and clarity. An acceptable treatment in the market.
This means though that natural, unheated, blue sapphires can sell at a premium of approximately 30-50% (or more) above the price of a similar heated stone.
All this brings me to the point of rarity:
I hope you see now that when you do encounter a blue sapphire that is of good color, has a good cut, is not treated and on top of that, is quite big, prices go up.
For example, I had a client who asked for a blue sapphire, 5ct+, unheated, good blue and nice modern cut: it took me more than 6 months to find one (set in the bespoke ring here to the left)…
But luckily, and unlike a ruby of a similar quality, it is still possible to find blue sapphire in the world up to 8 or 10 carat (though rare!).
And finally, to give you some idea of price:
The most expensive sapphire to date is the 27.68 carat Kashmir blue sapphire you can see in the picture above which sold in Hong Kong's Sotheby's Magnificent Jewels & Jadeite Auction in 2015 for $6.7 million… approximately $242,000 per carat!
Definitely less than the most expensive ruby auctioned to date (see Part 1) but, you know, not cheap.
I hope the above helps you on your gemstone piece journey and if you need any help in sourcing a special colored gemstone (like a fine blue sapphire) or with creating your own bespoke gemstone jewelry piece, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more gem stories and insider tips on how to buy your own investment-worthy gemstones, follow me on Instagram @evagemsandjewels.
In the next Gem Tale on blue sapphire, we’ll talk about where the world’s best blue sapphires come from, what makes them so beautiful and misnomers you need to be aware of!
I hope till next time!
Now a small Quiz for those who’d love to test their knowledge and thereby enter the Insider Gemstone Club 😉
- Blue sapphire and ruby are related - True | False?
- Blue sapphire and lapis lazuli are related - True | False?
- What are the chemical components of blue sapphire?
- When buying a gemstone piece, only look at the stone in the store’s light - True | False?
- Cutting faults in blue sapphires are not tolerated - True | False?
- Gemstones - Terra Connoisseur by Vladyslav Yavorskyy for a gorgeous book on some of the best colored stones
- Insider gem trade secrets revealed in the book Secrets of the Gem Trade by Richard W. Wise
- My own gem experience and lecture notes of my gemology education at AIGS in Bangkok (the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences)
- The inspiring webinars by renowned gemologist senhor Rui Galopim de Carvalho (follow him on Instagram @portugalgemas), field gemologist monsieur Vincent Pardieu (follow him @vincent_pardieu) and the authority on fine colored gemstones, mister Richard Hughes, author, speaker and owner of the gem lab in Bangkok Lotus Gemology (follow him @lotusgemology)
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