Saturday, 3 September 2016

September Birthstone: Where Do Sapphires Come From?

Sapphire is a popular gemstone – and comes in a rainbow of colors. It’s also been long prized, from Ancient Greek rulers to the clergy of the Middle Ages. But where does the September birthstone come from?

A Little Bit about Sapphire

A spellbinding sight: the many colors of sapphire. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA, Dr. Eduard J. Gübelin Collection

Before we embark on our journey to find the September birthstone, let’s start with a little gemological background.

The September birthstone, sapphire, comes in a range of colors: blue, violet, green, yellow, orange, pink, purple and intermediate hues. The gem belongs to the mineral species corundum: corundum is colorless, but trace elements or color centers (small defects in the atomic structure of a mineral that can absorb light and impart color to the stone) can turn colorless corundum into colorful sapphire. Red corundum is the only color not called sapphire; corundum with this color is ruby.

Where Sapphires Come From: Kashmir

A spellbinding 3.08 carat (ct) unheated Kashmir sapphire shows why they are so coveted. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy of Edward Boehm, RareSource

Blue Kashmir sapphire is legendary among gem collectors and jewelry connoisseurs. However, its reputation for gems of unsurpassed beauty rests on stones mined from 1881 to 1887; very little has been produced since then. Sapphire from the mines after this brief window in time varied greatly in quality.

Finding the September birthstone in Kashmir reads like a chapter from an adventure book: we go to northern India, past the picturesque Dal Lake and its famous houseboats, beyond fields of wildflowers and head up into the Himalayas. Our journey takes us on treacherous roads to, as 18th-century explorers described, a “region beyond the snows.” In these remote hillsides, some of the world’s most beautiful sapphires were unearthed.

Want to see scenic Lake Dal? Head for Srinagar, the “Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir,” a popular tourist destination. Photo: Robert C. Kammerling/GIA.
Fine blue Kashmir sapphire is said to resemble the color of the feathers of a peacock’s neck. Tiny inclusions give gems a velvety appearance. This can look like an extremely fine haze.

A few last facts about Kashmir sapphire: perpetual snow cover makes mining extraordinarily difficult; the mines are exceedingly remote; the weather is severe; and the area is politically contested. Few stones sporadically emerge, and fewer gemologists have researched the mines. That means you’re highly unlikely to find Kashmir sapphire for sale, and if you do, you’ll want a GIA Colored Stone Identification & Origin Report to verify its country of origin. Fine pieces are occasionally sold by leading auction houses.

The blue of this Kashmir sapphire evokes the sky…the ocean…the infinite. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA

Where Sapphires Come From: Myanmar

A rough sapphire crystal from Myanmar is waiting to be fashioned into an exquisite gem. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy: Bill Larson,

The land north of Mogok, a city in Upper Myanmar, is famed for producing rubies and sapphires. Blue sapphires mined in Mogok tend to have a rich, intense hue; the best of these September birthstones maintain their appearance under all lighting conditions: incandescent, daylight and fluorescent. 

Miners toil in a stream in search of sapphire outside of Mogok. Photo: Robert E. Kane/GIA

The sapphire mines of Mogok share some similarities with the ones from Kashmir: they are remote, hard to reach and are in a politically-charged land. Sapphires from this locale are also rare; they are found near many of the ruby deposits. Mogok is also famed for producing some of the finest pink sapphires in the world.

Falling in love with sapphire from Myanmar is easy when admiring this oval shape 6.39 ct pink sapphire from Mogok. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Dr. Eduard J. Gübelin Collection

Where Sapphires Come From: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka can poetically be called “Treasure Island.” All colors of sapphire, ruby, cat’s-eye chrysoberyl, spinel, garnet, tourmaline, topaz, quartz and many other gems can be found in the Highland Complex, a wide band that runs roughly down the middle of the island. Some of the finest sapphire is also found here, and in riverbeds scattered across the country.

Unlike Kashmir and Myanmar, Sri Lanka is a prolific source of sapphire. Miners search river gravel, which often contains rough. Much of the rough is shipped to Thailand, where it is cut, heat-treated and marketed. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

A piece of tranquility: this 33.16 ct blue sapphire from Sri Lanka is sure to soothe the spirit. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy of B & B Fine Gems

A 6.66 ct padparadscha sapphire from Sri Lanka. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA, Dr. Eduard J. Gübelin Collection

Sri Lanka is perhaps the most famous source for padparadscha sapphires; they are found in river gravel throughout the country. Padparadscha means “lotus flower,” in Sinhalese and this name has been given to the pinkish orange to orange-pink variety of corundum. This sapphire’s color has been likened to the color of salmon, sunset and ripe guava. The cause of color for padparadscha sapphire is due to either trace amounts of iron and chromium or color centers. Fine specimens can sell for as much as a ruby.

Sri Lanka is also a source of the September birthstone in many of its colors: green, yellow, pink, purple, and virtually any color in between. Many in the trade consider Sri Lanka to produce the best range of fancy color sapphires in the world.

Where Sapphires Come From: Thailand

Thailand is an important source of sapphire. Gem fields in Chantaburi, in southeastern Thailand, were mined from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Sapphire now mostly comes from Kanchanaburi (western Thailand), where it is found in rivers and streams. Most sapphire mined in Thailand is heat-treated to improve its color.

In the foreground lie sapphire mines in Kanchanaburi. In the distance, mountains rise under a leaden sky. Photo: Robert C. Kammerling/GIA

Thailand is one of the world’s major cutting and treatment centers: sapphire from Myanmar, Cambodia, Australia, Madagascar and Sri Lanka are sent here, and end up in jewelry stores in the United States, Japan and Europe.

Blue sapphire from Thailand stars in this Art Deco bracelet (circa 1925). Courtesy:

Where Sapphires Come From: Cambodia

On the western side of Cambodia—in the Pailin Province, near the border with Thailand—sapphire rough lies in riverbeds. Miners sift through the gravel, looking for “Pailin sapphire,” which is understood to be fine-quality blue sapphire that is typically water-worn, rounded and hexagonal in shape. Stones are regularly heat-treated to lighten color and remove or reduce inclusions.

Miners search the waters for sapphire rough in Pailin, Cambodia. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

Mining for sapphire in Pailin is extremely demanding. Deadly malaria and a hot climate are working conditions that require muscle and grit. The Khmer Rouge, an oppressive regime that ruled Cambodia from the 1970s to the 1990s, left a legacy of poverty and landmines that still take lives and limbs. Still, in the midst of these most difficult circumstances, miners search for a piece of rough that can change their fortunes.

Two blue sapphires weighing 11.48 carats are encircled by old mine cut diamonds (circa 1915). Courtesy:

Where Sapphires Come From: Madagascar

Three blue sapphires from Madagascar. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy: Allerton Cushman

Madagascar, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa, is a rich source of gems: garnet, aquamarine, tsavorite, rubies, and of course, the September birthstone. Rough sapphire was found in 1993 in the Andranondambo region of southern Madagascar; and in 1998 in IIakaka – a remote, arid land of plains broken by lonely mountains. A new source was found in January 2016 near Andranondambo in an extremely remote and dangerous location. The mine is accessible only by foot, and the area is rife with bandits.

Sapphire mining in Madagascar is not for the faint of heart: it’s physically demanding work done under a scorching tropical sun. Courtesy: Jazmin Amira Crespo Weissgarber

Many people rank the color of Madagascar’s blue sapphires between Kashmir and Sri Lanka in quality. Rough is often heat-treated to improve color. Slight inclusions are common, as well as color zoning (bands of color).

Two heat-treated Madagascar sapphires exude elegance. Photo: John Koivula/GIA

Madagascar is another source for fancy color sapphire: it produces pinks, blue-violets, yellows, oranges and greens.

On display: some of the different colors of sapphire found in Madagascar. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy: Allerton Cushman

Where Sapphires Come From: Other Sources

The September birthstone can also be found in other areas of the world. Australia produces blue, yellow and green sapphires. It is primarily a source of commercial-grade sapphire, and occasionally produces high-quality rough suitable for use in fine jewelry. Commercial-grade sapphire is also found in Montana. Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya – countries in East Africa – are other sources of pink, blue-violet, yellow, orange and green sapphires.

The deep yellow color of the Sri Lankan sapphire on the left is the result of heat-treatment. The lighter yellow sapphire on the right is untreated. It was mined in the Inverell area of Australia. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA

Paula Crevoshay’s 18K yellow and rose gold flower pin highlights sapphire’s many colors. It features 79 pink sapphires totaling 6.03 carats,116 yellow sapphires totaling 7.46 carats, and 202 additional fancy color sapphires totaling 16.26 carats. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA. Courtesy: Paula Crevoshay

It’s hard not to fall in love with the September birthstone. Sapphire is beautiful, symbolizes noble qualities and is the gemstone for the fifth wedding anniversary