If someone were to ask you to name a gemstone family famous for its wide range of colors, you might answer garnet or even tourmaline. But would sapphire spring to your mind? Probably not, since the word sapphire is synonymous with blue and has been so ever since the Romans coined it to describe its haunting violet-blue.
Over time, the Latin word “sapphirus” was attached to a multitude of other blue gems including the magnificent deep-blue corundum found on the island of Sri Lanka.
Only scientists from the Arab world, like al-Biruni (973-1050) and Teifaschi (1184-1253), had the insight that ruby and sapphire are the same species. Writing of his world travels, trader Marco Polo (1254-1324) mentions being shown both rubies and sapphires when he visited “Seilan.” Since ruby was then—and for more than six centuries afterward—the world’s most valuable gem, it’s understandable that this Italian merchant would focus almost exclusively on red corundum.
Sapphire is becoming the color-category leader for pink and yellow, too. As sapphire becomes the yardstick for perfection of colors beyond blue, connoisseurs are seeking out some of its rarer hues such as orange and purple.
Kashmir’s mountainside deposits were pretty much exhausted by 1930, leaving Sri Lanka as the world’s primary supplier of blue sapphire.
In the late 1990s, the gem trade was flooded with inky-blue, often over-dark stones from Australia and Thailand.
As far back as Pliny’s time (29-73 AD), it was known that subjecting rubies to heat via blowpipe or crucible in fire would permanently improve their color and appearance. Marco Polo observed heat sapphire excels in durability. It is second only to diamond in hardness, which means it will preserve its looks when stones of similar colors from other species start to look the worse for wear.
Cos Altobelli is a third generation jeweler and president of Altobelli Jewelers in Burbank, previously located in North Hollywood for 60 years. His specialty is appraising for all functions and acting as an expert witness. He holds a graduate degree from the Gemological Institute of America and the title of Certified Gemologist Appraiser from the American Gem Society. He is the author of three appraisal books and has appeared on ABC-TV’s “Prime Time Live.” Altobelli can be reached at (818) 763-5151.