Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

A Fancy For Sapphires

One of the most popular gemstones, sapphire is generally thought of as blue; however, this gem also is found in a kaleidoscope of colors.

By 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 today.

“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 color.”

Sources

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.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2012. To subscribe click here.

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