Nature lavished her finest blues upon sapphires, the “Gem of the
Heavens.” Although the word “sapphire” itself means blue, the gem is
found in nearly all the colors of the rainbow.
Blue sapphire was called hyacinth until the Middle Ages. When
mineralogists discovered that it was a member of the corundum family
and existed in a variety of colors, they renamed the blue stone
sapphire. They named other gems according to their colors, such as
green sapphire, yellow sapphire, and pink sapphire. Only two stones
retained their own names: ruby for red sapphires; and padparadscha
(“lotus-blossom” in Sinhalese) for the pinkish-orange red gems.
The traditional blue color is described as cornflower blue or
Kashmir blue after the region in India where blue sapphires were
Blue sapphires have always been connected with the sky and vision.
Ancient people believed that the Earth sat upon a huge sapphire,
which reflected its color to turn the sky blue. Many believed that
sapphires repelled envy and the spirits of darkness while attracting
the spirits of light. Others think their power is restrained to
merely revealing liars. Early physicians fed their patients powdered
sapphires to cure insanity. Travelers wore sapphires to protect
against accidents while enroute. Those who wear sapphires are
usually wealthy, as fine sapphires are valued about the same as
Many believe that the Ten Commandments were carved on a sapphire,
making it a sacred stone. Sapphire became the gemstone of choice for
priests and is still often used in ecclesiastical jewelry. Kings
also chose sapphires as symbols of their faithfulness and wisdom.
Corundum, the mineral from which all sapphires are formed, is
extremely abundant and found worldwide. Corundum is the second
hardest natural substance known. Only diamonds are harder. Corundum
is also very tough–it won’t chip or crack easily. That’s why
sapphire rings are so popular–they’ll stand up to daily wear in an
In its pure state, corundum is colorless. Minute amounts of
impurities provide the vivid hues. Titanium creates blue; chromium
produces rubies; and iron turns corundum yellow.
Corundum ore yields only a very small percentage of gems.
Padparadscha is the rarest, making it very expensive, with quality
stones selling for as much as $10,000 a carat. On the other end of
the scale is commercial corundum, an inexpensive abrasive mined for
industrial use. Australia, China, Myanmar (Burma), and the United
States presently mine gem-quality corundum.
Synthetic sapphires have been successfully manufactured since the
early 1900s. They are indistinguishable from natural stones, except
to experts. Similarly colored stones may also be sold as imitation
sapphires. Sapphires are also easily mimicked in glass.
Most genuine sapphires today owe the purity and clarity of their
colors to heat treatment. Others have been irradiated to improve
their color. Heat treatment is permanent; colors enhanced by
irradiation may fade.
****Sandra I. Smith, Writer ****