Today I am coming to you with a sapphire buying guide. Just in case, this is a really long post and you might not be in the mood 🙂
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Now, enter the sapphire guide.
Sapphire’s acute hardness means it’s incredibly resistant to scratching which makes it an excellent jewelry stone for any occasion.
However, since gem-quality natural sapphires are rare and always in demand, you’ll frequently find synthetics and imitations on the market. They also frequently receive treatments and enhancements for the same reasons.
According to the International Gem Society Gem-quality corundum falls into two categories: ruby or sapphire. All red corundum gems (however defined) are considered rubies. All other colors are considered sapphires. Thus, sapphires occur in every color except red.
Commercially, blue sapphires are commonly referred to as simply sapphires. This reflects not only the persistent cultural association of sapphire with the color blue but also the consumer demand for blue sapphires. You may find sapphires of other colors referred to as “fancy sapphires” Nevertheless, all sapphires are non-red corundum gemstones.
Color plays the greatest role in determining the value of a sapphire gem. Blue sapphires usually command the highest prices.
Some quick notes on GIA grading:
In the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) color grading system, color consists of three qualities: hue, tone, and saturation. The basic hues include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and purple. Tone refers to a color’s relative lightness, from colorless (0) to black (10). Saturation refers to a color’s intensity, from grayish or brownish (1) to vivid (6).
In gem reports and price listings like those for sapphires, you’ll find the abbreviations for the dominant hue capitalized. Other hues present aren’t capitalized and may be further described as “sl” for slightly and “st” for strongly.
Top blue sapphire color consists of a hue of violet-blue or blue, a medium to deep tone of 5 to 6, and a vivid saturation, 6. These color grades are noted as vB 5/6, vB 6/6, B 5/6, and B 6/6. Vivid saturation is rare. However, exceptional sapphires may reach this level. Stones with vivid saturation will fetch the highest prices.
Sapphires with dark tones (7 and higher) are relatively more abundant than lighter stones and aren’t valued highly. Sapphires with light tones are referred to as “steely.”
Kashmir sapphires are the most highly prized. A sapphire from Kashmir will be valued higher than an equally graded stone from another source.
What Makes a Blue Sapphire?
Blue sapphires must contain a strong element of blue, although the blue can include violet or even green hues. Violet stones or bluish-violet stones are still considered blue sapphires. Thus, you may see them sold as simply “sapphires.” However, green dominant stones with blue hues normally won’t be sold as sapphires without a color qualification. Most consumers find the violet secondary hues more attractive than green. Therefore, sapphires with either a pure blue hue or a violet secondary hue command higher prices than those with green secondary hues.
Purple and Green Sapphires
Once a stone becomes dominant purple in hue, it becomes a purple sapphire. Likewise, once the color crosses into dominant green, the stone becomes a green sapphire. While purple and green sapphires cost much less than blue sapphires, they’re still fairly expensive. However, they don’t enjoy much consumer demand. People looking for purple gems evidently prefer much more affordable amethysts. Green sapphires tend towards desaturation, Thus, they’re neither popular nor highly valued. Lapidaries often slice them to use as caps on assembled synthetic sapphires.
After blue, pink is the most highly valued sapphire color. Padparadscha sapphires, pink-orange gems from Sri Lanka, are especially prized.
Clarity refers to a gem’s transparency and anything that can impact how it transmits light. All corundum gems, including sapphire, are Type II gems in terms of clarity. That means sapphires usually contain inclusions. These are fractures and materials such as liquids, gases, and even crystals of other minerals inside their structure.
For example, part of the appeal of Kashmir sapphires is their velvety appearance, caused by inclusions of very fine threads of rutile crystals known as silk, which scatter light. Other sapphires with rutile or hematite inclusions may display a star effect.
Top Tier Clarity
Top tier values for sapphires of the same color grade go to stones with clarity grades of VVS (very very small inclusions), or what gemologists refer to as loupe clean. This means that even when examined with a 10X loupe, no inclusions can be detected. These gems are, of course, also eye-clean. Loupe-clean sapphires require microscopic examination in order to identify the nature and character of any inclusions.
Since loupe-clean sapphires are so rare, especially in larger sizes, a buyer should be extremely cautious and seek the counsel of a reputable gemology laboratory to verify natural origin and lack of treatments before purchasing. There are no “deals” to be had in fine sapphire. If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Finding a sapphire of this quality, in any size over one carat, irrespective of price, is a challenge.
Second Tier Clarity
The second tier of value for sapphires of the same color grade are stones that are clarity graded VS (very small inclusions) but still eye-clean to SI (small inclusions), which may very well not be eye-clean. In both instances, inclusions are numerous and/or large under a 10X loupe or are eye visible. The prominence of inclusions visible to the naked eye is the primary driver of value within this tier. If inclusions are prominently visible to the naked eye from any viewing distance, the stone’s value drops dramatically. Most commercially available “gem-quality” sapphires fall somewhere within this second tier.
Third Tier Clarity
The third tier of value for sapphires of the same color grade are stones that are clarity graded SI to I (included) — clearly “not eye-clean.” These eye-visible inclusions may have a moderate effect on durability, and/or may be so prominent that the stone isn’t suitable for use in jewelry. These sapphires are plentiful.
Although cutting usually has the least impact of the 4 Cs on the value of colored gemstones, the quality and choice of cut does affect the value of a sapphire.
Cuts that maximize light return, such as brilliant cuts, or those that enhance color, such as step cuts, are recommended. Emerald and marquise cuts add the most to a sapphire’s value, followed by round and pear cuts. Common cuts for sapphires include ovals and cushions.
A cabochon cut can make a sapphire with the right arrangement of rutile crystal inclusions display a lovely asterism or “star stone” effect. Cabochons can also be used for sapphires with inclusions that would be considered too unsightly for faceting.
A Cabochon Cut Blue Sapphire
The price per carat of sapphires increases gradually at carat sizes of 2, 3, and 4. As opposed to rubies, high-quality smaller sapphires aren’t uncommon. However, sapphires over 5 carats are rare and will see a jump in price per carat.
Here’s an overview of characteristics associated with stones from the following regions.
Kashmir sapphires are legendary. Often exhibiting “cornflower” blue, a strong to vivid, medium-dark violetish blue to pure blue, they set the color standard for sapphires. Their renowned velvet glow intensifies their color. Since the Kashmir mines dried up over a century ago, Kashmir sapphires are nearly priceless.
Burmese or Myanmar Sapphires
Like Kashmir sapphires, violetish blue to pure blue Burmese sapphires have strong to vivid saturation and medium to dark tone. Their color, known as “royal” blue, can have even greater saturation than that of Kashmirs. However, Burmese sapphires lack Kashmirs’ velvet luster and can sometimes appear dark or inky under incandescent light. Nevertheless, these exceptional sapphires still command high prices.
Ceylon or Sri Lankan Sapphires
Sri Lankan sapphires have the same hue as Kashmirs and Burmese but tend to have slightly weaker saturation and much lighter tone (medium-light to light). Therefore, they have more brilliance (light return) than those sapphires, although their blue color may not be regarded as fine.
A Deep Royal Blue Ceylon Sapphire from Sri Lanka
The majority of Montana sapphires have pale or steely blue-gray colors. They require heat treatment to gain an attractive color. However, sapphires from the Yogo Gulch, Montana deposit are known for their beautiful “cornflower” blue color, even without heat treatment. Yogo Gulch sapphires tend to come in sizes of half-carat or smaller. Those who want a large Yogo Gulch sapphire will have to pay a premium.
Cambodian or Pailin sapphires range from violetish to very slightly greenish blue, with medium to dark tone. Their dark tone makes them well suited for melee (less than ¼ carat) since they remain saturated in smaller sizes. However, they may appear too inky to be attractive in larger sizes.
Thai and Australian Sapphires
Kanchanaburi sapphires look similar to Sri Lankan sapphires but lack their brilliance. They can sometimes appear grayish when desaturated. Most of them also look a bit milky.
Thai and Australian sapphires tend to be dark and are described as inky or blue-black. Their dark tones hide their color and brilliance. Australian sapphires also often show strong green and blue pleochroism. This means that they can appear strongly blue from one angle but strongly green from another.
Beware of Sapphires with Two Names
Merchants use many legitimate trade names to market sapphires. Unfortunately, sometimes unscrupulous vendors may attach the name “sapphire” to less expensive gemstones to appeal to unwary consumers. This holds true particularly for less expensive blue gems, due to sapphire’s strong association with blue. For example, you might find blue tourmalines referred to as “Brazilian Sapphires.” Furthermore, this same association with blue means some consumers are unaware of sapphire’s other possible colors. Thus, some vendors wrongly promote fancy sapphires by associating them with gemstones with other strong color associations. For example, yellow sapphires sometimes appear for sale as “King’s Topaz.” Of course, sapphires, tourmalines, and topazes are different gem species.
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I hope this helps you if you're ever shopping for a sapphire.