Sri Lankan Sapphire

Sri Lanka, the West Virginia–size pear-shape island 40 miles southeast of India, has been a treasure trove of gems for more than a thousand years. Even as gem deposits from other locales come and go, the mines of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, continue to produce fantastic gems.

Known for its sapphires, rubies, and chrysoberyl cat’s-eyes, the island nation also produces some of the world’s finest zircons, garnets, quartzes, topazes, and more.

“They’re your classic Ceylon goods,” says Jeffrey Bilgore, sapphire expert from New York, looking at his necklace of 49 sapphires set in platinum. “And they’re all unheated except for the pinks, which could have been subjected to a low heat.”

The phrase “unheated Ceylon” is rare and may be an oxymoron, considering that “traditional heating” originated in Sri Lanka, in the mid-1970s, with the heating of geuda sapphires. While the heating of almost all sapphires has been “traditional” since then, the influx of Madagascar sapphires into the Sri Lankan market has introduced another element of disclosure.

Colors of Sri Lanka. Pastels are the norm for Sri Lankan goods, including blue, pink, yellow, violet, purple, orange, and green, but the country does produce bright, saturated colors. In fact, many blue Ceylon sapphires have been set next to the finest Burma and Kashmir sapphires, simply because the colors matched.

Most Sri Lankan sapphires are heated. Merely stating that a stone is Sri Lankan implies heat treatment—or that it might be heated in the future. This is due in part to the local rough, which is commonly color-zoned. Heating evens out the color. It can also enhance the color. Madagascar sapphires look and react the same way, which is why there are Sri Lankan experts in Madagascar and Madagascar sapphires in Sri Lanka.

Of all the colors, nice greens are the most difficult to acquire. Some of the teal, aquamarine, peachy, and pinkish-orangey padparadscha are also hard to get, notes Bilgore. “The blues are not hard to find. It’s just a matter of wanting to cut them into a round shape, which most people won’t do.”

Cut. It isn’t uncommon to find that the cut of a Sri Lankan stone is less than ideal. Sri Lankan cutters often cut for weight, a practice born of centuries of working with color-zoned bipyramidal rough. “You will almost always see Ceylon goods cut as a cushion,” says Bilgore. “This saves the most weight from the rough.”

Buyers should examine cut stones to check their potential after recutting. “You must see what’s inside the stone and what you can bring out by recutting,” says Bilgore. “And then you have to be willing to take the risks and recut the stones.”

One of the classic Sri Lankan weight-saving cuts shows all of the color in the culet—the remainder of the stone is colorless. Sri Lankan cutters understand that the face-up color is provided by the color in the culet and the weight and overall appearance is aided by retaining the colorless sapphire top.

Origin. When travel from one gem-mining area to another was extremely difficult, gem-locality names referred to color and quality unique to a particular deposit. “Ceylon” meant sky blue, “Burma” meant royal blue, and “Kashmir” meant cornflower blue. Locality names no longer have the same significance. “Sapphire, more than any other material in the better goods, overlaps in appearance,” notes Bilgore. “Some of the Madagascar stones look like some of the best Burma stones you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Buying Sri Lankan goods requires knowing your suppliers. Madagascar and East African goods are sent to Sri Lanka and processed together. Most dealers assemble parcels based on color matching, and blend in outside goods with the matching Sri Lankan goods.

Bilgore recalls a Sotheby’s auction in the 1980s that presented a stunning sapphire necklace set with four top Kashmir sapphires and one Ceylon stone. Bilgore called it the best piece of sapphire jewelry he’d seen. “The fifth stone was as good as the other four.”