Where to Find the Most Beautiful Sapphires

And What Makes Them So Special?

blue sapphires

A matched pair of Kashmir sapphires, approximately 7 carats total. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA; courtesy of Amba Gem Corporation.

Previously, we talked about what a blue sapphire actually is (aluminum oxide + titanium + iron) along with the different trade names used, such as fancy sapphires, parti-colored and color-change sapphires. 

We talked about where the word “sapphire” comes from and the confusion with lapis lazuli until 1800 (similar to the mix-up of ruby with other red gemstones prior to that time).

And the legends and lore linked to the blue sapphire that gave the stone its reputation as a symbol of power and strength but also of kindness and wise judgement. 

Finally, we ended by discussing how the striking blue of blue sapphires is the standard against which all other blue gems are measured and how you should grade a “blue sapphire” like a gemologist (read more on the 2 tips I gave in the previous article), so you can invest more confidently in a stone yourself!

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This brings me, briefly, to a few blue sapphire misnomers that I have come across: so these concern false and misleading names with the word “sapphire” in it but which are actually something else…

There are not nearly as many as ruby misnomers but still, you’d better be aware of:

  • the “Brazilian Sapphire” which is actually a blue tourmaline; and
  • the “Ural Sapphire” which is also a blue tourmaline. 

(Funny side note: blue tourmaline is actually the most special color within the tourmaline group and difficult to find, but you’d probably like to buy a sapphire when you see something with the word sapphire in it).

But now the far more interesting stuff:

Let’s take a look at the provenance of the world’s best blue sapphires!

1. The old sources of origin

It’s best to divide blue sapphire’s sources of origin into the old or early sources and its modern sources.

The old historic resources of blue sapphire are Kashmir (the area on the border between India and Pakistan), Burma (today’s Myanmar) and Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka).

Kashmir’s velvet blues

Let’s start with the most renowned of them all: 

the Kashmir blue sapphire. 

A legend.

Or stone hero.

Whatever you prefer to call this historic beauty.

This is the equivalent of the Burmese pigeon’s blood ruby which we discussed in Part 3

Now, what is so special about this Kashmir region?

“If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.”  

These apparently were the words by one of the most celebrated poets of medieval India, Amir Khusrau, on the beauty of Kashmir: the most fabled and largest of the valleys that nestle in the Himalayas.

Still today though this is an area that has complex political problems, with a partition line running through it that divides the area between Pakistan and India.

Kashmir region with the red partition line dividing the area between Pakistan and India.

Kashmir region with the red partition line dividing the area between Pakistan and India.


The blue sapphires from this famed region are so rare that they are hardly ever seen… the exception being the appearance of Kashmir blue sapphires in museums or photographs.

The story goes that somewhere, around the year 1881, a landslip high in the Indian Himalayas revealed blue sapphires of extraordinary quality. 

They came from a remote part of the Himalayan mountains, known as the Zanskar Range. 

Various stories are told of the stone’s discovery but one of them states that when the Maharaja of Kashmir heard of the presence of the bright blue sapphires, he posted guards outside of the mines to protect these valuable stones.

Sensible man.

And from the year 1882 until 1887, the mines were worked day and night - which was only possible during the summer months, by the way! - until the mines were depleted.

The Kashmir sapphire mines. Photo credit: The Natural Sapphire Company.

The Kashmir sapphire mines. Photo credit: The Natural Sapphire Company.


Depleted?

You heard that right: by the late 1880s, the source was already exhausted! At least of the most exquisite pieces.

Once in a blue moon…

This is where the first reason comes from as to why these sapphires are among the most expensive and sought-after gems on the market:

Their rarity factor.

The difficult access to the rugged Zanskar Range in Kashmir, which was closed most of the year because of the snow, combined with political problems linked to that area meant that all subsequent attempts to work this deposit failed and made this stone extremely rare.

That’s why today Kashmir blue sapphires are often only encountered at international auctions or in museums…

But who knows, you might bump into one at some point in your life.

The second reason that explains the appreciation for these sapphires in the market is their apparent beauty - when we consider the Kashmir stones of the highest quality that is. 

They consist of a vivid, well-saturated blue color - poetically also described as ‘cornflower blue’. 

What makes them extraordinary is their slightly velvety appearance which adds to the beauty of the color of Kashmir sapphires. 

That “blue velvet” gives the stone its mysterious, soft, sleepy effect and comes as a result of numerous microscopic inclusions which can be seen under the microscope. 

It’s because of these tiny inclusions that light reflects, dispersing it throughout the stone and thereby reducing extinction. 

Extinction is a feature mostly in darker-colored gemstones that makes the stone appear black in certain areas when you look at it. So, instead of color, you see blackness.

Not something we want.

Contrast that with the blue of the Kashmir blue sapphire and its tiny inclusions which eliminate that extinction to a certain extent. 

Its blue is almost like cobalt with a very pure blue hue and only a tiny bit of purplish. 

But very little blackness for sure.

Add to the above two reasons (of rarity and apparent beauty) the often adventurous, historical accounts of the discovery and mining of these stones together with the descriptions of the Maharaja’s fabulous gem collections from Kashmir... that all together creates the perfect recipe for the making of a great “luxury brand” for gem and jewelry collectors. 

As mentioned previously with respect to another famous “luxury brand”, the Burmese ruby, it’s important to remember that the perfect image of Kashmir sapphires is based on a rather small number of stones. 

Also, this famed mining locality has produced a much larger amount of lower quality sapphires. 

And so, the “origin label” Kashmir does not implicitly correspond to high quality!

A breathtaking Kashmir blue sapphire ring. Photo credit: The Natural Sapphire Company.

A breathtaking Kashmir blue sapphire ring. Photo credit: The Natural Sapphire Company.

Again - as any gemologist will tell you - what matters most is the beauty of the individual stone in front of you. 

That beauty assessment should remain the most important criterion for the valuation of a stone, regardless of its origin.

However, as stated in 2013 in an article by Dr. Krzemnicki from the international colored stone lab SSEF on the Kashmir blue sapphire:

“It is a fact that new consumers, especially from emerging markets, are very much attracted to well-established brand names. Kashmir, along with a few other historic gem deposits (such as the Burmese ruby and Colombian emerald) have certainly become some sort of “brands” for consumers in the last few years.”

Blue beauty

In short, a Kashmir blue sapphire’s beauty displays this vivid blue with a slight “milky” (“velvety” or “sleepy”) texture which, on top of that, holds its great blue hue under any light.

You may remember that last time, I mentioned this negative effect of most blue sapphires called “bleeding”, meaning that often there is a lightening of tone and loss of saturation when the stone goes from natural to incandescent light. 

In other words, the blue of blue sapphires can become lighter and washed out or it becomes more murky. 

Obviously, we want to see those features as little as possible but as said before, every gemstone has its good and weaker characteristics (including the diamond!).

Just like you and me.

I’d say that’s exactly what makes fine gemstones, well, fine. 

Of course, connoisseurs get a kick out of finding stones that usually show less of those features. 

But at other times, they may very well be hunting for those precise features in a stone as they are believed to actually increase a stone’s beauty and also because certain ‘flaws’ can even increase the value of a stone. 

There’s a flavor for everyone in gemstone country.

Moving on to that bleeding…

The interesting thing is that the Kashmir blue sapphire has no bleeding!

It has a natural defense mechanism against the very characteristic which other blue sapphires have to grapple with.

How come?

Because the Kashmir sapphire contains little or no chromium - unlike for instance, its rival, the Burmese blue sapphire - which results in the Kashmir stone not picking up a purplish secondary hue (as most other sapphires do), but will maintain its blue hue as the viewing environment is shifted from daylight to incandescent lighting. 

Absolutely remarkable!

Pity you cannot really find them in your local jewelry shop.

But hey, it gives us something to dream about.

blue sapphire earrings

Burma’s royal blues

The second best blue sapphire, if you will, is considered to come from Burma.

Btw the finest stones of these 2 origins all belong to the ultimate Sapphire Premier League, so please take the previous phrase with a grain of salt.

These Burmese blue sapphires come from the famous Mogok stone-tract (like the ruby - see my previous articles on the ruby).

They are famous for their “royal blue” color which is a bit darker than the ideal blue from Kashmir and has a secondary purplish hue - unlike Kashmir’s purer blue, the highest standard of “blue” with lesser to no purplish secondary hue. 

blue sapphire lotus gemology

The royal blues… Beautiful blue sapphire from Burma. Photo credit: Lotus Gemology by Wimon Manorotkul.


According to Richard Hughes, author & renowned expert on corundum and founder of the above Lotus Gemology gem lab in Bangkok, in his article “World Sapphire Market Update 2020”:

Many Burmese sapphires are not only hard to distinguish from the last group of sapphires I’ll dive into, the Sri Lankan sapphires, but he also states that although the Mogok blue sapphire production is diminishing as of 2020, it is still significant. 

Sri Lankan peacock blues

That brings me to the last - and oldest - source of sapphire: Sri Lanka.

It has had a continuous production of over 2000 years!

It is called the “Sapphire Island”.

In fact, Sri Lanka has produced most of the largest fine sapphires ever. 

Ceylon blues are usually a bit lighter and brighter than Burmese sapphires but, as per Richard Hughes article (and he has been in the gem grading business for over 40 years), there are so many similarities between the sources that labs - even with the most advanced equipment - cannot separate sapphires from Burma and Sri Lanka!

In addition, it is extremely difficult to separate some Sri Lankan stones from Kashmir and Madagascar ones…

Top color from Sri Lanka is often called “peacock blue”: it is compared to the color of the neck or tail feather of a peacock. 

They have a slightly electric and utterly mesmerizing appearance, wouldn’t you agree?

Neon blues from Ceylon… Photo credit: Lotus Gemology.

Neon blues from Ceylon… Photo credit: Lotus Gemology.


This brings me to the young blue sapphire sources which you really need to know as these regions can produce stones that are of equal beauty to the old historic sources...

2. The new sources of origin:

Madagascar blues

Since the 1990s, fine sapphire from Madagascar started to appear on the market. 

I mean the Bangkok trading market as that’s still today the trading hub where most of the world’s gem rough is being exported to for further treatments (if any), cutting/polishing and on-selling.

Some stones from Madagascar can barely be distinguished from Kashmir ones with their velvet blue hue, while others can be like the peacock blues or cornflower blues from Sri Lanka and Burma. 



Incredibly fine blue sapphire from Madagascar. Photo credit: Lotus Gemology by Wimon Manorotkul.

Incredibly fine blue sapphire from Madagascar. Photo credit: Lotus Gemology by Wimon Manorotkul.


According to Hughes: “As of 2020, Madagascar production is probably more than Sri Lanka and Burma combined!”

Most buying there is done by Sri Lankans who then cut and treat the stones.

The tricky thing is that often these stones are on-sold as Sri Lankan stones as that will fetch a higher price in the market…

And when it’s even difficult for the experts to distinguish between these origins, you can see it’s Tricky (with a capital T) 🧐

But remember to look at beauty where you can - not origin - especially when that is so hard to determine…

A good thing, however, is that Madagascar stones become more and more recognized, and that their market prices come closer to those from Ceylon which is fairer. 

Tanzanian blues

Fine, high quality blue sapphires from Tanzania have been discovered since 1996. 

Also, these are almost impossible to distinguish from Madagascar, Sri Lanka or Burma.

Miraculous metamorphic & low iron regions...

Another secret that all the above blue sapphires share which makes them so extra-special is that they all come from low-iron, metamorphic regions.

And lower iron makes for a better blue hue. 

Iron makes the blue darker which you want to avoid for your blue sapphire as much as you can.

Basalt-related blue sapphires...

The blue sapphires from basalt-related origins, on the other hand, are higher in iron content and so, tend to be darker.

Countries where these stones are found are:

Australian, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Madagascar, China, Ethiopia, Nigeria

The majority of basalt-related sapphires are actually blue, green and yellow. 

They tend to be darker than fine blue sapphires from Kashmir, Burma, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, or Tanzania but also here, an overlap is possible. 

In fact, Mr Hughes has stated: 

“Most labs will refuse to issue “origin reports” on basalt-related sapphires because they show so much overlap among them.”

Instead, they will merely state “origin to be basalt-related”.

Among these darker, iron-containing blue sapphires, the ones from Australia once dominated the market in the 1970s/1980s but much less so today.

Also, the Thai production has decreased. 

The biggest output today of basalt-related blue sapphires comes from Africa: Nigeria, Ethiopia and northern Madagascar.

The mystery stone...

Lastly, there are also blue sapphires coming from an origin that you might never have considered.

Did you know that there are also blue sapphires originating from Montana in the USA?

While there’s a strong demand for these stones in the USA, the demand for them is not so high on the world market.

These stones can be a bit grey and steely but also some come in beautiful blues - clear, without color zoning - but unfortunately, they tend to be small!

That’s why we don’t hear from them as much on the world market.

Blue sapphire trends for you to keep in mind:

  1. Origin determination is very hard with beautiful stones also coming from new sources today: even for the experts. It is no longer just possible to get some check or certificate by a gemologist but rather it requires a major lab. 
  2. There is a trend these days for totally natural blue sapphires - without heat treatment.

And when you realize that 90-95% of all blue sapphires in the market are heated, you see that to find a fine-quality unheated stone in a nice size, ain’t that easy. 

This also means that the highest prices are paid for completely untreated stones. 

For example, the price difference between a treated and untreated sapphire of 1 carat can be about 100% more expensive. 

And can be a 500% or bigger price difference on a 10 carat stone. 

All in all, always look for the stone on offer irrespective of origin and go for as blue as you can afford! 

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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 info@evagemsandjewels.com!

For more gem stories and insider tips on how to buy your own investment-worthy gemstones, become an insider and sign up for my email list below. You can also follow me on Instagram (@evagemsandjewels)

In the next Gem Tale on tsavorite garnet, we’ll talk about what this luscious green stone is, where it comes from and how to color grade one. 

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 😉

  1. Brazilian sapphire is a stunning quality blue sapphire from Brazil - True | False?
  2. Blue sapphires from Kashmir are still available on the market today - True | False?
  3. What color are the blue sapphires from Kashmir?
  4. Australia tends to produce high quality blue sapphires - True | False?
  5. Madagascar and Tanzania blue sapphires can compete with those from the old historic sources - True | False?

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Sources:

  • World Sapphire Market Update • 2020 • Lotus Gemology by Mr Richard Hughes and Ms E. Billie Hughes
  • Ruby & Sapphire Color Types • From Peacock to Pigeon's Blood by Lotus Gemology by Mr Richard Hughes
  • Gemstones - Terra Connoisseur by Vladyslav Yavorskyy for a gorgeous book on some of the best colored stones 
  • History of Kasmir Sapphires by The Natural Sapphire Company
  • 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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