Sapphires have long been one of the most coveted gems in the world, perhaps rivalled only by rubies and emeralds. The name comes from the ancient Sanskrit word shanipriya, ‘shani’ meaning Saturn, and ‘priya’, meaning precious or dear, Saturn long identified by its bluish glow. Blue, said to be the most common ‘favourite colour’ in the world, is associated by various cultures with calm and tranquillity, and thus it is no surprise that sapphires are the gemstone of harmony, friendship and loyalty.
The most prized sapphires come from three historic locales in the world, all located in Asia—Kashmir, Burma and Sri Lanka. The most famous of these sources is Kashmir, a north western region of the Indian sub-content located in the Himalaya Mountains, known historically for its high quality sapphires, renowned for their silk-like, intense cobalt and cornflower blue shades. Kashmir sapphires are rare for both these unique visual attributes as well as the scarcity of the stones themselves. Sapphires were only discovered in that area relatively recently, in 1881, due to a landslide which exposed the stones, and even then this original source was exhausted by 1887. The gems have only been mined there intermittently, due to both harsh conditions--which allow for mining to take place only two to three months out of the year--and political upheaval. It is quite unusual to see these on the market today, and we are extraordinarily lucky to have a number of Kashmir sapphires in our collection.
The second ranking source for sapphires is Burma, also known as the source of the world’s finest rubies. Stones from this country are characterized by their intense royal blue colour. Finally, Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon (a name still associated with the stones), is the third major source of top quality sapphires. It is known for medium toned cornflower blue stones, as well as fancy colours, particularly for the padparadscha sapphires, a beautiful orangey pink shade, the name also derived from the Sanskrit, meaning lotus flower, and is said to be reminiscent of a sunset.
As just mentioned, blue is not the only colour in which sapphires form. The gemmological species is known as corumdum, and it comes in virtually every colour of the rainbow. In fact, ruby is the name for the red variety of corundum, while all over colours aside from blue are termed ‘fancy’ coloured sapphires.
Sapphires present an ideal alternative to diamonds when set into jewellery, not only for their variety of colours, but for their physical attributes. They are the hardest gemstone after diamond and thus are extremely durable, and ideal to be set into jewels that are subject to daily wear, such as engagement rings. In addition various shades and superior hardness, they also can also exhibit ‘phenomenon’. Once such phenomenon is asterism, a special optical effect resulting from many tube shaped inclusions which create a star of light to form on top of the gemstone when it is cut in a dome shape, or en cabochon.
There have been many famous and historic sapphires throughout the history of jewellery. One such is the Stuart sapphire. Its name originates from the Scottish House of Stuart, and has been in and out of the royal family of Scotland since 1214. It once belonged to Robert II of Scotland, first monarch of the house of Stuart (then spelled “Stewart”). In 1838 Queen Victoria it set into the new Imperial State Crown, where, though it has been since remade, remains to this day.
Another impressive sapphire in terms of both quality and provenance is the so-called Star of Bombay. The 182-carat blue star sapphire was mined in Sri Lanka, and was originally owned by silent film star Mary Pickford.
In more recent years, a different sapphire has come into the lime light, also a gift between husband and wife--that featured in the engagement ring of Princess Diana, given to her buy Prince Charles in 1981, and then given by their son Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2010. The oval blue sapphire and diamond cluster ring has been a traditional choice for engagement rings since Victorian times, due to its durability in combination with its association with harmonious love, and will most certainly continue to be a classic alternative to the diamond engagement ring in the future.