The Sapphire in History
Napoleon josephine ring

The Queen of gems, seen in many famous antique pieces such as Napoleon’s Engagement Ring for Josephine or Kate Middleton's Sapphire and Diamond cluster engagement ring, the Sapphire is a highly sought after gemstone that is a variety of Corundum (a crystalline form of aluminium oxide), and also contains traces of the elements iron, titanium, chromium, vanadium or magnesium. Revered since antiquity, the word Sapphire comes from the Greek Sapheiros and the Roman Saphirus –  both of which mean blue and the name for this gemstone is very similar in all languages. 

rough multicoloured sapphires

The classic Sapphire colour known and used in jewellery is dark blue, but Sapphires also occur naturally in an exciting range of other colours; white, yellow, orange, green and purple. The pink variety of corundum is classified as either Sapphire or Ruby, depending on which country or area it comes from, and red Corundum is known as the precious gemstone Ruby. The rough sapphires shown in this image from (© Dan Stair Custom Gemstones) range purple and pink from Madagascar, blue from Kashmir, chartreuse and white from Montana, USA. 

A great choice for an engagement ring; Sapphires are remarkably hard and durable; the second hardest mineral after Diamond and measure at 9 on the Mohs scale. They can also be created synthetically in the laboratory for decorative purposes and we see these wonderful 'gems' in many jewels during the 1920's/30's in Art Deco styled jewellery. 

roman sapphire cameo

Historically, the story of the Sapphire goes back many centuries and is inextricably linked with the island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Known as the “Jewel Box of the Indian Ocean,” Marco Polo wrote in 1292; “I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet”.

In ancient times, Greek and Chinese historians referred to the beautiful gems of Ceylon, and King Solomon reportedly wooed the Queen of Sheba with Ceylonese precious gems. (Left: Roman sapphire cameo, almost certainly from Sri Lanka, depicting Aphrodite feeding an eagle, first century. Image courtesy of the Fitzwillian Museum, Cambridge).  

Geologically the Sapphires found in Ceylon originated from a broad belt of land called the Highland Series which runs through the centre of Sri Lanka. Rock erosion of this belt resulted in extensive deposits along the stream beds in the lower valleys. The story goes that locals bathing in the clear streams noticed coloured pebbles scattered along the sandy bottoms and over the centuries started to set these gemstones into jewellery, bartering these stones with traders from Asia and Europe. 

ratnapurna mine sri lanka

When this obvious source of gems was played out, the miners found more in underground streams, but unfortunately they flowed beneath farm land. An accommodation was reached with the farmers whereby the area was mined, and when fully depleted it was filled in and planted again while the miners moved to another spot. Ratnapura (“gem town”, in Sri Lankan) lies about 100km southeast of the capital Columbo. This mining region has and still does produce an amazing variety of Sapphires in all hues of blue, as well as yellow, violet, pink, green and the astonishingly beautiful pinkish orange padparadsha. Read more about mining in Ratnapura here.

The finest blue coloured Sapphires in the world are considered to come from Kashmir, and these attract the best prices. The stones are mined at 16,500ft in the Zaskar region: “beyond the snows” is the terrain that is home to the historic mines of Kashmir. They were first seen when a small earthquake in 1881 caused a landslide which revealed a pocket of blue Corundum crystals. The locals were aware of several other Corundum deposits, using the low grade opaque corundum crystals fashioned into crude tools. It wasn’t until 1882 when one of these spectacular Sapphires, having travelled along an old trading route, was discovered by accident.

kashmir sapphire mines

Because of the harsh weather, there was only a three month mining season in this dangerous and remote location. By 1883, the Maharaja of Kashmir claimed ownership of the “Old Mine,” which was worked extensively for the next 4 years, and yielded a extraordinary collection of large high grade stones, some measuring 3 x 5 inches. Production quickly dwindled, even though a new, second location yielded additional Sapphires, these were not quite the same quality or size as the original find, or as plentiful. Read further about these discoveries here. 

Kashmir Sapphire pin brooch

They have a velvety quality that is very desirable, and experts consider these stones to be the benchmark against which all other sapphires are judged. The blue of the finest Kashmir Sapphires is known as “peacock’s neck”.  
Myanmar also produces very fine blue Sapphires, which many collectors consider nearly as good as those from Kashmir. Read again here to learn the timeline of the Kashmir Sapphire. 

Good quality sapphires are also mined in Montana in the USA, Madagascar, Thailand and Australia. The stones from the last two are generally darker and inky in colour, hence less valuable but can be seen in many jewels from the latter 20th century

Sapphire is the birthstone for September, and is also the gemstone for a 45th wedding anniversary with a Sapphire Jubilee occurring after 65 years.  

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