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Sapphire is an unassuming gem. It has been overshadowed by diamond, emerald and ruby for decades, but the sleeping giant is finally being recognised. Its hardness, coupled with its wide range of colours, means that there is no other gemstone to rival its lustre and beauty.

Across cultures, the sapphire has been inextricably linked to the heavens and celestial powers. It’s also the gem for September; its colours can be seen across the northern hemisphere’s autumnal skies, from shades of blue and grey to the pinks and oranges of sunsets and sunrises. They are all found in sapphire.

This glorious gemstone has been mined in Sri Lanka for more than 2,500 years and in Burma (Myanmar) for more than 1,000 years. For centuries, sapphires have travelled along the maritime and silk trade routes connecting East and West. Stones seen in early jewels often have a hole through their middle; sapphires were drilled to become beads so that they could be strung together for ease whilst being transported.

Their monetary value was not significant against other gemstones such as emeralds, rubies and diamonds, however, their talismanic value was high.

Blue sapphire was the most-used gemstone in the Middle Ages, when the colour blue was associated with the heavens and divine powers. Owning a blue sapphire was thought to give the wearer the opportunity to be connected, guided and saved by God. Life was precarious at the best of times in the medieval period and hopes of making old bones were slim, an amulet was, therefore, often considered a vital accessory to protect against early mortality and later aid a clear passage into the next life.

The unusually-cut, centuries-old Buddha Blue Sapphire (15.73 carats). Image courtesy Thames & Hudson

Bishops wore rings (as a sign of being wedded to the church) set with a sapphire in the belief that light from the skies would penetrate the sapphire and transmit to their body, enabling them to live a true life. However, in the Indian subcontinent, blue sapphires were treated with caution by Hindus as the gem is linked in Hindu astrology to Saturn, a planet believed to bring great turmoil when it appears in an individual’s astrological chart. The sapphire-Saturn connection did not always spell bad news, however. Saturn’s great power could bring fortune for some, and in certain Hindu temples, statues of deities would be bedecked in sapphires offered by appreciative devotees.

In the language of gemstones, sapphire represents constancy and devotion in matrimony. Royal love has frequently been marked with a blue sapphire. Prince Albert chose the gemstone to demonstrate his faithfulness to his wife, Queen Victoria. On the eve of their wedding, he gifted her a sapphire and diamond brooch that he had designed and commissioned. The Royal couple loved designing jewels, repurposing gemstones from other items in their collection to create a jewel that would speak louder than words. In the jewellery gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum sits Queen Victoria’s sapphire and diamond coronet, made in 1840, the year she was married. The coronet uses blue sapphires from other jewels and further sapphire jewels were purchased to be worn alongside. Today, the sapphire continues to play an important role in the representation of royal union, as seen in Diana, Princess of Wales’s sapphire engagement ring, which is now worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Eugenie’s engagement ring set with a padparadscha sapphire – a yellowish pink sapphire unique to Sri Lanka and named after the Sinhalese name for the lotus flower.

A 14th-century English royal crown with sapphires and pearls. Image courtesy Thames & Hudson, from “Sapphire”, by Joanna Hardy

Sapphires can be found in large crystals, which, when skilfully cut, can be made into extraordinarily large stones. Many are faceted to make the most of their surface lustre, but some are cut en cabochon to display their colour, and occasionally a star effect. This asterism is formed by the combination of small, needle-like “silk” inclusions – which the lapidary (a person who cuts or polishes or engraves gems) has identified – and the careful cutting of the crystal in a specific orientation so that when a single light source is shone on the stone it is reflected in a visible six-ray star effect.

Wearing large star sapphire jewellery was particularly popular with the Hollywood actresses of the 1940s and ’50s, such as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy. They dazzled both on- and off-screen.

A 52-carat sapphire at the centre of this magnificent Bulgari sautoir, once part of the Elizabeth Taylor collection © Bulgari

During the war years, gemstones such as sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds were difficult to obtain, and precious metals were needed for the war effort. Nevertheless, jewellery continued to be made with recycled gold and stones such as citrines and amethysts, as well as with pale blue and yellow sapphires, which were more easily available as they had previously not enjoyed the same level of demand as the richer colours. As a result, jewellery houses including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boivin, and Suzanne Belperron created statement pale-sapphire jewels that have become iconic examples of this period.

There is real geographical diversity in where sapphires have been found: Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar, the United States (Montana), France, and even Scotland. The most recent deposit, discovered in the late 1990s and with a significant volume of gem-quality sapphires, is Madagascar. The variety of sapphire colours found here is stunning and has created quite a stir in the gem industry: there is now strong demand from jewellery houses for these gems. There is a recent saying that Madagascar is the “biggest Sri Lankan deposit” – the two countries were connected hundreds of millions of years ago, and sapphires from these locations can be difficult for gem labs to tell apart. Some traders take advantage of the stones’ similarities by selling Madagascan as Sri Lankan to achieve a higher price, as the Sri Lankan deposits are more well-known.

In recent years, for gemmological reports, there has been more focus on a stone’s origin, which has resulted in gemstones being priced according to their deposit rather than beauty. Though, from a gemmological perspective, it is fascinating to try to differentiate sapphires from different countries, their origin should not determine the price tag: price should reflect rarity and not a particular country.

After 35 years in the jewellery and gemstone industry, I never thought I would have a favourite stone, but, it has to be said, having been immersed in the world of sapphires for the past two years, I realise that the glorious sapphire, with its multifarious hues, is a hard gemstone to beat.

Joanna Hardy’s Sapphire: A Celebration of Colour is published October 7, by Thames & Hudson (£85, Violette Editions). 

MAIN IMAGE: Courtesy of Joanna Hardy, Thames & Hudson (Violette Edition)

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