Sapphires belong to the gem species corundum and although most sapphires are blue, they can occur in virtually any color except red. Essentially, if the corundum in question is considered to be more than 50% red, it is called a ruby! With a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale (second only to a diamond) and excellent toughness, sapphire is the most durable of all colored gemstones and holds up well to everyday wear. This fact was not lost on England’s royal family as sapphire was the gemstone of choice for Princess Diana’s famous (and fabulous!) engagement ring. Diana’s son William subsequently presented this same ring to his future wife Kate when he proposed.
In ancient times, sapphire was believed to protect the wearer against capture by an enemy and also against poison. According to legend, if a poisonous snake was put into a container with a sapphire, the gemstone’s rays would kill the snake! In modern times, sapphire has come to symbolize truth, sincerity, and constancy and is recognized as the birthstone for September.
What is the “best” color for a sapphire?
This is truly a matter of personal preference, but sapphires are generally grouped into “trade grades” (most often related to their source) and traditionally the finest sapphires are considered to be the Kashmir stones from India. These gems exhibit a medium to medium-dark, velvety, slightly violetish blue (also described as “cornflower blue”) with a milky or “sleepy” transparency giving them a beautifully subtle look. Today, Kashmir sapphires are very hard to come by. Next on the most desirable list are Burma sapphires, which are characteristically a more “royal blue” and don’t have the haziness of Kashmir (considered desirable by connoisseurs). For those who prefer a lighter tone, Ceylon sapphires (from Sri Lanka) are slightly grayish and notable for being fairly brilliant.
Colors of sapphires other than blue are referred to as “fancy” sapphires. These colors range from vibrant pinks to spectacular oranges (called “padparadshca” sapphires) and also include purple, yellow, and even green! These gemstones provide the best of both worlds for color and durability.
Although unheated sapphires are available (always get certification if you are considering a purchase), heat treatment of sapphires, to bring out their color and clarity, is quite prevalent and the results are stable.
Prices vary widely among the great range of sapphire colors and qualities, so no matter what your budget, there is a sapphire somewhere waiting just for you!
Sharon S. Axelson
Graduate Gemologist, Gemological Institute of America
Certified Gemologist Appraiser, American Gem Society