A Fancy For Sapphires

April 1, 2012  |  Brooke Showell


Jeffrey Bilgore

In the 1960s, the Umba sapphires discovered in Tanzania
created a stir because of the unique orange coloration of some of the stones.
This never-before-seen shade plus a rainbow of other sapphire colors mined at
the site sparked an interest in fancy color sapphires that has continued until

“A lot of the drive on these sapphires is that they’re good
solid colors that block well with other colors,” says Douglas Hucker, chief
executive officer (CEO) of American Gem Trade Association (AGTA). As a corundum
variety — ruby is the other variety — sapphires are “one of the few mineral
species that produces virtually all colors. It’s all about the inherent
chemistry,” says Christopher P. Smith, president of American Gemological
Laboratories (AGL).

Part of the draw of fancy color sapphires is their inherent
quality compared to the more common blue sapphire, thus priming them for a
high-end audience. “When you think about blue sapphires, you can find
commercial-grade inky blue sapphires all over the world. But the fancy colors
that get to market are much more exciting,” says Robert Bentley of Robert
Bentley Company in New York City. “I haven’t seen a lot of commercial-grade
yellows, pinks and purples on the market. I’m not seeing low-end fancy colors
in natural, untreated sapphires; I’m only seeing nice stones.”

Colorful Choices

In the fancy color spectrum, “we’re seeing a rise in yellow
and pink sapphires — this has been the trend,” says Smith. Hucker agrees: “You
have the assorted sundry other colors — you get interesting purples and greens
— but in terms of sufficient supply, it’s the pinks and yellows we are seeing,
especially in the larger sizes.”

Yellow has always been popular, notes Joseph Mardkha, CEO
and president of ColorMasters Precious Jewelry in New York City, “but it has to
be the right shade — a more natural color, not a deeper golden tone and not
citrine-looking.” He describes the ideal pink hue as a soft bubble-gum shade.

Jeffrey Bilgore, New York City–based designer, manufacturer
and gem merchant, says purple and green colors are even more popular. The
purple ranges from light lilac to deep amethyst, while the green trends toward
a darker, almost murky hue. “Customers look at these colors and they’re
surprised to learn they are sapphires,” he states.

Also desirable is orange, as long as it is a vibrant shade
Bilgore describes as ranging from burnt orange to pumpkin. “Most people don’t
appreciate how rare an orange sapphire is,” Smith says. “You don’t often find
the right balance between chromium and magnesium to produce a vivid orange


While Madagascar and Sri Lanka are the biggest producers of
fancy color sapphires, “virtually any location that produces blue sapphire can
produce a certain quantity of fancy color sapphire,” says Smith, who cites
Burma, Tanzania and, in the U.S., the Rock Creek area of Montana as other color
sapphire sources.

The brilliant hue of a fancy color sapphire depends on the
elements that are incorporated while it’s growing. A pink sapphire gets its
color from chromium, yellow is a result of magnesium and a purple sapphire
reflects the presence of both chromium and iron/titanium.

Supply and Demand

Unheated natural sapphires, especially in larger sizes, have
become increasingly difficult to source, which has been driving up prices.
“Those that come out of ground naturally with vivid color, that don’t require
any treatment, are rare,” Smith notes. Mardkha estimates a 50 percent to

70 percent increase in price in recent years, mainly because of high demand in
Asian markets like China and India. “There may not be sufficient demand in the
U.S. to justify these prices, but there definitely is global demand,” he
explains. James Alger of the James Alger Company in Bedford, New Hampshire,
agrees, “It’s hard to find nice untreated fancy. There’s just not an
overabundance of supply — a lot of Sri Lankan production goes directly to
China; it doesn’t come to the U.S. anymore.”

Despite the increasing prices, there’s still high demand for
large, high-quality fancy color sapphires. “In the 15-carat to 25-carat range,
there’s much more demand than supply,” says Mardkha. “We can sell a 20-carat
pastel pink easier than a 5 carat. People are buying bigger and better pieces,
just like you see in diamonds. Even in smaller sizes, in better quality, it’s
getting harder to find merchandise.” Mardkha adds that he used to be able to
replenish stock at places like the Tucson Gem Shows but “now we find two stones
here, three stones there.”

Heated and Treated

As natural, untreated stones are becoming increasingly
costly and scarce, the price difference between unheated and heat-treated
stones is “much more pronounced now than it used to be,” Alger says. While the
couture market still has high demand for unheated stones, the majority of fancy
sapphires on the market are heated sapphires. “People often say something like
94 percent of sapphires on the market are heat treated,” Bentley notes. Heating
improves the clarity of a stone or enhances its color: For example, pink
sapphires typically start out with purplish color, then a light heating process
drives off the purple component and makes it a pure pink; yellow originates as
a paler color, and heating enhances its yellow quality. While heated stones are
generally more affordable than unheated sapphires, Mardkha estimates their
prices have jumped to where unheated stones were. Beryllium-diffused fancy
sapphires are fairly inexpensive in relation to heated and untreated stones,
but are the least desirable due to the manipulation involved. These stones are
heated at high temperatures for a length of time, during which all internal
inclusions are heated to the point where they’re no longer visible — in effect,
creating a synthetic color that’s better suited to melee than eye-catching
center stones. Bilgore says they’re “very difficult to sell in couture jewelry
because they are process-created gemstones.”

The AGTA requires dealers to disclose treatment, but as
Alger notes, “I see customers who have no idea the stones they’re buying are
diffused. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is very clear about mandating
disclosure of any treatment that has to do with the value of the stone.” To
determine treatment, a stone must go through an expensive lab test. While
generally not done with melee, better stones — generally over 1.5 carats —
should come with lab reports substantiating treatment or lack thereof. Premium
stones may require reports from two or three labs.

“Large yellow sapphires we see typically have a lab report
that they’re possibly heat treated but not beryllium treated,” Hucker says. He
also emphasizes asking specific questions of suppliers as to what treatments
have taken place. “Dealers may need to get a report on that stone; retailers
need to ask questions of dealers,” he says. “One of the things retail jewelers
are challenged with is making sure they’re getting what they’re paying for.”

Yet despite price inflation and a dwindling supply, the
brilliant colors of fancy sapphire still make for a sound investment
  “It’s got the cachet — it’s sapphire,”
says Hucker. “It’s got the big name, but it’s more affordable and more
desirable than many other color gemstones.” The sparkling golden yellows,
pinks, purples and greens of the fancy family “really offer limitless
potential,” Smith concludes.


A Fancy For Sapphires

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