Sapphires have been known and loved by people for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks believed that the world’s first ring contained a sapphire. Rulers of Ancient Persia believed that the sky had been painted blue by the reflection of sapphires. Others wore it for protection while travelling. They have a life and depth of colour that is at once entrancing and exciting.
Sapphire’s technical name is Corundum. Pure corundum is a colourless aluminium oxide. Trace amounts of iron and titanium give corundum its wonderful colours. The usual colour of sapphire is from pale blue to deep indigo. All sapphires are pleochroic, that is they change colour slightly as the stone is turned. (This effect is often hard to see, as the change is generally from one shade of blue to a slightly different shade of blue!)
Sapphire is also one of the hardest of gemstones, only diamond is harder. It rates at 9 on the Moh scale of hardness, where diamond is 10.
The most prized sapphires come from the Kashmir region of northern India. They have a rich blue luster and are captivating. The Karhmir mines were mostly exhausted during the 1880s; Burmese sapphires are also highly prized, but political events make the region very difficult to access. Nowadays sapphires are mostly mined in Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Kate Middleton’s engagement ring contains a 12 carat Sri Lankan Sapphire.
Historically, sapphires were considered a stone of promise, and very often given as an engagement ring.
Sapphires were also royal stones – the oldest European crown in existence contains a circle of gold set with sapphires and pearls. This was made in the Seventh-century, for King Recceswinth of the Visigoths. “The Wedding Ring of England” is a sapphire ring made for the Coronation of King William IV in 1831. It has been worn at every coronation since, with the exception of the coronation of Queen Victoria, whose fingers were too small for the ring to be adjusted.
The oldest stone in the British Crown Jewels is St. Edward’s Sapphire, first set in the coronation ring of Edward the Confessor, who became king in 1042. The legend says that one night, Edward met a beggar and gave the man the ring. Years later, envoys of the king were in Syria, and met an old man. He gave his name as John the Evangelist, and gave them the ring to return to the king, with the message that they would meet again in Paradise. Soon after, Edward died, and was buried with the ring. The ring was later disinterred and set in to the centre of the cross of Britain’s Imperial State Crown; it can be seen in the image below, towards the top of the crown.
Similarly, sapphires have a reputation as holy stones. They are mentioned in the bible, for example this quote for Ezekiel :
You were in Eden, the garden of God. Your clothing was adorned with every precious stone*–red carnelian, chrysolite, white moonstone, beryl, onyx, jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald–all beautifully crafted for you and set in the finest gold. They were given to you on the day you were created.
Some sapphires exhibit a beautiful star when light is shined upon them. They are called Star Sapphires, and the effect is called Asterism. Star sapphires are quite rare; Helen of Troy is said to have owned one, and attributed her conquests to it. Some Sri Lankans believe that if you even own a star sapphire you will always be lucky! Their intrigue is heightened by the fact that if you cut a star sapphire into tiny pieces, and polish each piece, then each will also display a star!
The most famous star sapphire in the world is the 563 carats Star of India; it is the size of a golf ball, and was once the property of JP Morgan. In 1964 it was stolen from the American Museum of Natural History; when the thieves broke in, they discovered that the only alarm in the museum, which was attached to the Star of India, had a flat battery! The men were arrested in Florida after attempting to ransom the sapphire back. It was returned to the museum, where it is still on display today.
Sapphires also have an interesting, if understated, role in clock-making history. John Harrison’s award winning clock, the H4, which enabled sailors to calculate longitude as well as latitude, used sapphires in the workings; this was a recent development by a Swiss scientist, and enabled watches to be made with mechanisms that did not wear out very quickly. The H4 clock was immortalised in a series of British stamps in 1993. Harrison’s clock was also the subject of the book “Longitude”, by Dava Sobel.