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Interesting Investments: Sapphires

A look at the history of the sapphire trade, some rare examples, and whether they are worth taking the time to invest in.
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.

We’ve already looked at pearls, so let’s continue on with one of my personal favorite gemstones, the sapphire. Often ranked in the top most popular gemstones, sapphires are mostly known for their more common blue hues, but can in fact come in a range of rare — and valuable, investment-worthy — colors. Let’s dive into the history of the sapphire trade, some rare examples, and whether they are worth taking the time to invest in.

Sapphire History

The sapphire has traditionally symbolized nobility, truth, sincerity and faithfulness, and is the September gemstone. While other gems can be blue, including topaz and tanzanite, the sapphire is the standard blue gem. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed jewelry with sapphires protected the wearer from envy and harm, while clergy in the Middle Ages wore the gemstone to symbolize heaven.

The blue gemstone has long been associated with royalty. Princess Diana Spencer’s engagement ring, given by Britain’s Prince Charles, was famously a sapphire ring.

Sapphires, according to the Gemstone Institute of America, were first discovered in Kashmir in 1881 after a landslide in the Himalayas. The gemstones can also be found in Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Madagascar, and the United States — specifically Montana.

Colors

While blue is the most commonly known sapphire color, “fancy sapphires” come in a range of other hues, including “violet, green, yellow, orange, pink, purple, black, brown and intermediate hues,” the GIA notes. They can also be colorless. Sapphires are part of the mineral species corundum, composed of aluminum and oxygen. Rubies are also corundum. Imperfections and additional elements like iron or titanium create different colors.

A six-pointed star effect, or asterism, can appear in cabochon-cut — dome-shaped — sapphires.

Padparadscha sapphires, found originally in Sri Lanka and later in Madagascar, Vietnam, and Tanzania, are a unique salmon color. These sapphires, also described as “sunset” colors of pinkish-orange, are rare and — important for investing purposes — have a very high per-carat value.

Qualities

Other than identifying if a gem is a padparadscha sapphire, how can you tell if it is worth investing in? Rely on the Four Cs.

  • Color: As mentioned above. This is the most important of the Four Cs. For the traditional blue sapphire, you want between a velvety blue and violet blue, in medium or medium dark tones, with strong saturation without compromising brightness. Green sapphires are the least valuable.
  • Clarity: While blue sapphires will typically have inclusions, the fewer, the better. These often take the form of “needles” in the stone, and scatter light. However, Kashmir stones with needle inclusions can give the gem a velvety appearance, and are coveted. Instead of being less valuable, if there a multiple inclusions that cause a star effect, the value increases. The most common are six-rayed stars, but there are also up to 12-rayed stars, which are very rare and valuable.
  • Cut: Sapphires can often be cut to create color zoning, with areas of different colors in a single stone. In stones that have a pleochroism, or different colors depending on the orientation of the stone, cutting the stone so that the violetish blue side, instead of a greenish blue, shows when set in jewelry is most desireable.
  • Carat weight: A 5.00 carat sapphire of fine quality sells for nearly five times that of a fine-quality 1.00 carat stone. Meanwhile, a 5.00 carat commercial-quality stone sells for only about double what a 1.00 commercial-quality sapphire is worth.

Investing

Finally, we come to the investing part. It’s worth noting that the largest blue star sapphire, nicknamed the Star of Adam, was found in Sri Lanka in 2015, weighed in at 1,404 carats and sold for more than $300 million.

If you want to deal in blue sapphires, the most desirable tend to come from Kashmir. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar also produce valuable sapphires.

Heat treatment can negatively affect a sapphire’s value. Confirmation from an independent laboratory can confirm whether a stone has been heat treated.

To reiterate, sapphires are all about color. A straight orange sapphire in 2008, for example, went for about $2,000 per carat, while a padparadscha sapphire was valued at about $12,000 per carat.

A word of warning: Anyone selling “investment-grade” sapphires is probably trying to drive up prices. At worst, it could be a scam, selling a great gemstone at a lower-than-expected price, a too-good-to-be-true opportunity. The stone could, in fact, be a synthetic sapphire that is being passed off as the real thing in order to fetch a higher price. At best, it is the real thing, but of lower quality than is worth investing in. Again, refer back to the Four Cs when determining whether you should buy or not. This is unlikely to happen at large chains of jewelry sellers, as they are under the most scrutiny. At private sellers, ask for a certificate from a laboratory (such as the GIA, mentioned above) to verify the authenticity of the stone.

You can find the current prices of sapphires with a membership to the International Gem Society. Using this, you can track the market, and determine when to sell. As one of the top three non-diamond gemstones (along with rubies and emeralds), you should not find a lack of buyers.