Sapphires from Kashmir are legendary for their beauty and, alas, their unavailability. Burma and Sri Lanka fill the gap
Consumer studies consistently rate blue sapphire the most popular colored gem, and it’s easy to understand why. Universally adored, the color blue reflects the elements around us and, occasionally, even the emotions within us. The finest blue sapphires live up to its mystical appeal, none more so than the legendary stones from Kashmir.
Sapphires from the tapped-out deposit, located in the Himalayan region at the center of a decades-old dispute between India and Pakistan, occupy the highest rung on the sapphire hierarchy for a complex set of reasons. Chief among them, of course, is color. Prized for a “sleepy,” “velvety” texture often described as “cornflower blue,” a result of microscopic inclusions that diffuse light throughout the stone, the very best Kashmirs are said to exhibit the same magnificent blue at both midday and midnight.
Sizable fine quality specimens can easily fetch $25,000 to $30,000 per carat at wholesale, making them far and away the most expensive sapphires in the world.
“Kashmir is where kings and queens got their stones,” says New York gem dealer Jeff Bilgore, referring to the Indian maharajas who laid claim to the finest booty from the deposit, which saw its lion’s share of production between 1881 and 1887 — yet another reason why a grading certificate specifying a Kashmir origin is considered by many dealers to be the Holy Grail. But given their rarity, the market has had to make way for blue sapphires from other parts of the world. The second highest premiums are commanded by stones from Burma, which, when comparing fine quality specimens, tend to be darker and more saturated than Kashmirs and also more tinged by purple. In a lucky break for gemologists, internal features make it easy to distinguish between the two types. Not so for the considerably less expensive blue sapphires from Sri Lanka (nostalgically, still known in the trade by its old name, Ceylon), the world’s first source of fine quality sapphires, or stones from Madagascar, where an abundant deposit has made blue sapphires widely available, if not downright ubiquitous.
Troubles occasionally arise when inconclusive internal features allow a Malagasy or Sri Lankan sapphire to masquerade as a more valuable Burma or Kashmir specimen, but gemologists say this is the exception and certainly not the rule. The same applies to unheated stones: In a market saturated with heat-treated blues, a natural unheated sapphire is a rare gem, indeed. In jewelry, the fact that Kashmirs are so pricey (consider the 22-carat stone that sold at Christie’s last year for $135,000 per carat) means most are mounted in simple platinum or gold settings, giving pride of place to the gem itself. In this league, cutting-edge design is superfluous. Nobody likes to experiment with multimillion dollar rocks.
Getting the blues The 22.66-carat cushion-shaped Kashmir sapphire in the setting at left set a world auction record for a sapphire when it sold at Christie’s New York in April 2007 for $3,064,000, or $135,000 per carat. At top, a 20.78-carat Ceylon sapphire ring, $155,100, by Geneva-based designer Elke Berr.
Blue sapphire loose stone image provided by ICA