Sapphire Connoisseurship • Judging Sapphire • Passion Fruit

by Richard W. Hughes
Passion Fruit  |  A Lover's Guide to Sapphire

Sapphire is one of the classic gems. In this article, Lotus Gemology's resident connoisseur casts a discerning eye at the factors that contribute to quality in this legendary precious stone.

My love, she comes in colors. Arthur Lee, Love

The appraisal of precious stones is an eclectic skill, not for the timid or shameless, for such decisions involve both conscious and unconscious action. Try as we may to slice, dice and pigeon-hole elements of quality, in the end an analysis requires more than just a formula, just as fine cooking involves not simply ingredients and a recipe. It is about reaching for factors beyond the immediate senses, and in that respect is quite like enjoyment of fine art, food and music.

While one man's Miles Davis might be another's Kenny G, there are certain things the discerning among us look for. Thus, what I will try to convey to you in the following passages is educated emotion, something to help separate the long, languid lines of artistic truth from aimless noodling. Here you will find the ingredients, the recipe, the score. But without the passion that only the viewer himself can bring, both these gems and our time on this precious planet are a waste.

With that introduction, let us now examine blue sapphires. Here I have a confession to make. Blue is my favorite color. I love blue. Thus the following essay is one of love.

Kashmir – Blue Velvet

This fair dame is placed upon a higher pedestal than all others, only to have it ripped out by every Tom, Dick and Malagasy. First, let me let you in on a base little secret. The Kashmir mine has produced jack-doodle since the 1930's. And the lion's share of production came out during a half-breath period of just seven short years, from 1881–1887.

But these were the halcyon days! If one factors in the brief three-month summer mining periods, within less than thirty months, this tiny land slip high in the Indian Himalaya attained a reputation that has left the world mumbling ever since about having seen the light.

What is it about the Kashmir stone that I find most attractive? I suppose it is staying power. Plenty of sapphires look magnificent under one light, but when brought into another, shed their beauty faster than a K-Mart daisy. Not so for these gems from the mighty Himalaya. The finest Kashmir stones shine the blue fantastic in all lights, be it candles in that romantic little downtown French bistro, or beneath the gharish fluorescents in a suburban supermarket's meat department.

This 4-ct. plus Kashmir sapphire recently sold by Pala International exhibits the velvety blue color that has made stones from this source without peer in the world. Photo: John McLean; Gem: Pala International

What else do I like? I like their texture, that softness that envelopes all like a sticky blue blanket, banishing darkness with that bluest of blues. To get hypertechnical, we can call it a removal of extinction, a scattering of light off the extremely fine silk, which is just enough to exile the night, but not enough to materially affect transparency. Note that here we have a direct contradiction of the laws of diamond grading – here we have inclusions contributing in a major way to the beauty of a gem.

And what don't I like? Do you take me for a fool? A good lover accepts the defects as the price of admission. They are nothing but the flaws in a fine leather, a blown note betwixt the sweet sheets of a Coltrane sonic masterpiece.

Mogok – Round about midnight

Blue midnight. The blue of the finest Mogok stone is something beyond vivid, beyond intense, into a realm where blue, black and lust intermingle. But black is perhaps too strong a word, for there is nothing black about a Mogok blue. To visualize this, think of the color of a desert sky about 15 minutes after the sun has set, with stars rising in the distance. This is the color – an intense azure hue matched in the world of gems only by the finest tanzanites (ten carats plus here).

Does all of the Mogok stone display this color? Of course not. There are Mogok blues that entirely resemble the lightest of Ceylon sapphires. So understand that we are talking about ideals here.

What don't I like? Cracks, fractures, fissures, faults, label them as you may. Many Mogok stones are cursed by these destablizing distractions. Pox on cracks, and the curse they rode in on.

What else? Some Mogok blues are so very intense that they suffocate. But even these are still interesting in the proper light. Oh, Mogok, how I love you…let me count the ways… sorry, I can't, there are just too many.

21.09 carats of Burmese midnight-blue mystery. This stone, an example of Mogok's finest product, was offered in the late 1980s in Bangkok for $10,000/ct. wholesale. Photo: Adisorn Studio, Bangkok

Ceylon – Snap to it

Dame Ceylon, what you have been through, how your fair name has been besmirched. So many look down upon you. But fear not. The nay-sayers are nothing but novices, those still waiting to have their minds blown by your unique take on the blues. For when you are in your prime, you are the equal of any. Let me say it again – the finest stones from Serendib can blow with any blues on the bandstand.

Top-shelf Ceylon (today, Sri Lanka) sapphires have something I will hereafter refer to as “snap.” Like the pointed slap of a stick against a taut snare’s skin, the color of certain Ceylon blues has an ocular attack unlike any other in the sapphire world. It slashes the eye like a razor, similar to a cobaltian blue of the finest Lanka spinels. Such stones, which in Ceylon are often compared to the blue portion of a peacock’s feather, have that which makes “electric blue” electric. Incidentally, this is also true for gems from Kashmir, which bear a far greater resemblance to those from Ceylon than to Mogok blues.

Both Sri Lankan and Kashmir stones suffer from a tendancy towards depth down below. Due to the shape of the rough, fashioning the biggest stones is often an exercise in butt padding. Zoning is also a problem. When you are examining these gems, don't forget to rotate them through a full 360 degrees. This is, of course, apropos in the evaluation of any gem, but of utmost importance where zoning is a problem. Pay particular attention to areas where the color might wash out.

This 7-ct. plus untreated Ceylon sapphire is a perfect example of why origin should be a non-issue with fine gems.
Photo: John McLean; Gem: Pala International

The perfect sapphire

A fine gem has an unmistakable sexual quality to it. This should come as no surprise. Both subjects involve a good measure of passion. But the finest gems are like the finest people. Their beauty grows with time.

Some sapphires drive you crazy the moment their azure legs slither from a stone paper, leaping onto the cocktail table and saying: "Baby, let me walk on your back with my high-healed pumps!" These have a fast rise time. But there is a difference between love and lust, the subtle versus animal desire. Each has its moments. But in lovers, as with gems, I look for staying power, those which combine the cerebral with the physical. For the physical alone is not enough.

The beauty of love is its sublime, understated nature. It offers you a glass of wine and conversation, before suggesting at the end of the evening that the two of you retire to the boudoir (just for friendship, of course). In my experience, such attraction is an emotion that develops with time. Exceptional gems grow on you. They are experts at hiding, more interesting with every listen, more exciting with each glimpse. When you gaze at their beauty for hours, days, weeks, years on end without tiring you know you have a fine gem. That, my friends, is what I call love. This takes distance, the kind that only time provides.

So the next time you are taken aback by a gem, stop yourself. You may be looking at infatuation. Stand back and judge. Take your time. What you want is balance – Buddha's middle path – pure animal sexuality and love – a fashion model/pornstar lover who left the business to pursue a dual doctorate in physics and fine arts.

And just what, pray tell, would the perfect sapphire look like? My dear friends, that would be akin to finding the perfect woman or man. Leave D Flawless to the gem of the common man, for it doesn't exist in sapphire. Don't seek perfection, just look for something you can spend the rest of your life with.

This 5-ct. plus untreated Burma sapphire currently available from Pala International shows the intense violetish blue color that has made Mogok sapphires among the most sought after in the world. It's round shape makes it particularly desirable.
Photo: John McLean; Gem: Pala International

Original sin

First, let me say that there is a definite market ranking for sapphire according to origin. It unfolds as follows:

  1. Kashmir
  2. Mogok, Burma
  3. Ceylon
  4. Madagascar
  5. Everything else

That said, I would like to be allowed to burst all your bubbles. Origin is not what's important – quality is.

Permit me to relate the following story. A number of years ago, a pit was discovered near Elahera on the Island of Gems – Sri Lanka. The stones from this mine bore such a resemblance to those of Kashmir that many labs actually issued papers certifying Kashmir as the source.

In light of the above, if the major domo of a lab is not able to promise you his/her first-born child in trade when, at some later date, he or she is proved wrong, then do not accept the paper offered. For what good is it?

Back in the good old days, origin was based not on where a stone came out of the ground, for there was no sure way of proving the geography of a stone, but on the appearance of a stone relative to the typical appearance of stones from certain classic sources. Thus a Ceylon sapphire that looked like a Kashmir stone, became, de facto, a "Kashmir" sapphire in the market. Similarly, the Mogok stone that resembled a Ceylon, became a Ceylon.

Sadly, origin is today determined largely by invisible scientific criteria, as opposed to obvious physical attributes. Rather than biting the bullet and devising the means of judging aesthetic beauty (or admitting that it is beyond reach), laboratories are today handing us the ultimate silliness, a forehead-angle measurement of intelligence. If asked to judge a Miss Universe pagent, many gemologists would probably make the determination based on a DNA signature.

But what can I say? We are often confronted with ridiculous laws. In West Virginia, it is legal to beat your wife so long as it is done in public on Sunday on the courthouse steps, while in Denver, it is against the law to lend your neighbor a vacuum cleaner. And lest we neglect our neighbors to the north, in Canada it is against the law to board a plane while it's in flight. Yes, these are the laws of the land – but there are clearly cases that call for a little civil disobedience. Thus one may make use of origin reports, but use them only as a guide, not for a final determination of the merits of a fine gem. Dare to disagree when common sense dictates it. Don't blindly trust the machine. Personally examine the ballots when necessary.

Starry, starry night

A short time ago I had the opportunity to view a particularly fine sapphire. Its actual origin, I will not say – for that prejudice would simply detract from its magnificent beauty, manifest to all which view gems with heart, rather than magnifier, in hand.

Ilke Bahn, our goldsmith at Pala International, had just finished placing this jewel in a handmade mounting. And this mounting only served to enhance the beauty of an already stunning gem. Like the Vietnamese ao di, a diaphanous garment one observer described as "covering everything but hiding nothing," this sapphire's beauty shone to greatest distraction. Ilke handed the azure beauty to me to with a gleam in her eye – the secret of the night sky palmed to an innocent. It was impossible to take my eyes off it.

I will never forget a night several years ago when a close friend and I were camped out in the desert at California's Joshua Tree National Monument. Sometime after midnight, as we wandered the boulder-strewn stillness, our gaze was drawn to the heavens. Stars carpeted the night from horizon to shining horizon, the Milky Way cutting a swath through all of everything – and nothing. As the night wore on and the sky rotated, my conciousness shifted as well. I realized for the first time my place on this spinning ball. The words of my friend still echo – obvious, yes – but a truth that had eluded me for so much of my life: "This is out here every night," he said. "All we need is to raise our eyes up above the horizon."

Up above. So simple, so elegant. And down below. As I looked down upon the ring Ilke had created, I had a similar experience. Squinting, peering, I was drawn into a silken world spun by powers beyond my imagination – a secret whispered just for me. Here was such a special stone, beautiful at all angles, from above and below, at all and any magnification.

Call it a signal from the gods, a voice from the heavens, an eruption from hell – epiphany – describe it as you like. I put it thus: at that instant, the sun broke through the clouds, the planets aligned. As I held that sapphire ring in my hand, I witnessed the birth of earth and all creation. I gazed upon Pangaea, saw the continents form, then separate. Like that star-lit sky in Joshua Tree, the true majesty of mother nature struck me. This sapphire was from Madagascar.

This 7-ct. plus cushion sold by Pala International is a beauty. It's origin? Madagascar.
Photo: John McLean; Gem: Pala International

Coming home

If my readers take away anything from these few lines of prose, I hope that it is that we should make use of our own eyes in judging gems. Read the law, listen to the pros, but always rely on your own eyes. Let this be the lesson – buy what looks good to you – dip a spoon into the broth and taste for yourself. Yes, let experts guide you, yes, buy quality, but in the end, your own senses are the final arbitrator, not those of the seller or of the labs. After all, it is you who will reap the benefits of ownership of this wonderful sample of nature's beauty, not they. One of my first teachers explained it thus: An exceptional gem is like an exceptional woman – they come from all places, in all colors. Yes, indeed, my love, she comes in colors.

Lotus logo

About the author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard and his wife and daughter's Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology. in 2018, Richard was named Photographer of the Year by the Gem-A, recognizing his photo of a jade-trading market in China.

Author's afterword

Published in The Guide (2001, Vol. 20, No. 2, Part 1, March–April., pp. 3–5, 15).


Back to top