Venue and Value: The Wide-Ranging Prices of Sapphires and Emeralds

Sapphire and emerald used to be as prized for their supernatural power as they were for their stunning beauty. Sapphire was thought to protect kings from harm, cure eye disease, and even banish demons from the soul. The Persians believed the earth was balanced on a giant sapphire, whose reflection in turn created the sky. As for emeralds, the Romans thought one’s vision could be restored by gazing at them. Women wearing them supposedly gained immunity from epilepsy. Emerald was said to improve one’s memory and intelligence and to help its wearer amass great wealth

Today’s less-credulous consumers value the stones for their beauty and rarity. These qualities are determined in large measure by geographic origin. A highly saturated Kashmir sapphire or Colombian emerald will command a hefty premium over rivals from less-favored locales, and origin reports often prove critical in supporting high asking prices

The many sources of sapphire. The most famous source is Kashmir, the remote, mountainous region of northwestern India. The mines are nestled high in the Himalayas, a forbidding location that restricts mining activity.

The next important location is Burma (Myanmar), which produces high-quality gems in limited quantities. Although up to 90% of the gem material recovered at Mogok is ruby, the region also yields fine sapphires, some exceeding 100 cts. The best Burmese sapphires are an intense, highly saturated blue that’s in great demand. Lighter blues, yellows, and greens are also recovered from Burma.

Thailand ranks as the largest producer of jewelry-grade sapphire. Yet only a small percentage of its gems are considered top quality. In sheer volume, Australia tops all countries for sapphire production, but most of the yield is low-grade or industrial-grade material

Sapphire, in fact, is found on every continent. Among other important sources are Sri Lanka, Africa, Australia, and Montana. Sri Lanka is the world’s top producer of large sapphires (those exceeding 100 cts.). Sri Lankan sapphires have a pleasing color that tends to be lighter and brighter than stones from other locations. The color of African sapphires, best described as a medium blue, also holds great appeal. Australian sapphires used to be considered too dark and often had a secondary green color. With advances in heat treatment, however, the green can be driven out, leaving a better and more salable blue. Montana sapphire has received attention in the United States because it’s an American gem

Reports and pricing. Today, more sapphires are submitted to laboratories for reports than any other colored gem. That’s partly because non-controversial treatments for sapphires cause dealers to have a high level of confidence in them. Sapphires have always been heat-treated, but they’re not subjected to the intense heat used with the Mong Hsu ruby. Therefore, glass filling is not an issue. Nor do sapphires have the fillers associated with emeralds. All of these factors heighten demand

In most instances, the origin of a sapphire doesn’t affect its price. But there are three key exceptions. First and most important is Kashmir, whose gems have a “velvety” appearance with a highly saturated violetish blue. The color of a fine Kashmir is unmistakable. Its rarity and beauty make it the highest-priced of the blue sapphires and place it mainly in the collectors’ realm. Recently, a 5.16-ct. Kashmir sapphire was offered for $18,000 per carat, or $92,880. An 8.61-ct. Kashmir sapphire was priced at $20,000 per carat, or $172,200

Next in the origin hierarchy is Burma. The finest Burmese sapphires have a rich, highly saturated blue that’s unrivaled by stones from other locations. A certified Burmese sapphire commands a premium of some 20%. For example, a fine-quality 4.13-ct. Burmese sapphire recently was offered for $3,800 per carat while a similar-grade 4.58-ct. Ceylon was $3,000 per carat.

The third origin of importance is Montana. Unfortunately, Montana sapphire rough offers a low yield. Yogo Gulch material, for example, yields only about 20% gem-quality stones on average. Despite repeated attempts to mine material on a large scale, production remains too small to be commercially viable. And U.S. taxes are high on what production there is. All this means high prices. As a result, manufacturers through the years have had little success selling Montana sapphire. Tiffany & Co. once tried to promote Montana sapphire, but few were willing to pay the stiff prices.

Today, Montana is significant as an origin only to U.S. collectors. The Yogo Gulch area is important not only because of its U.S. location but also because these gems aren’t heated. The distinctive cornflower blue color of Yogos occurs naturally. As such, the gems sell at a premium. Recently, an unusually large 2.16-ct. Montana sapphire – Montana sapphires rarely exceed 1.50 cts. – untreated and of extra-fine quality, had an asking price of $7,000 per carat. Other areas in Montana such as Dry Cottonwood produce sapphires that respond well to heat. These gems are likewise priced higher than comparable material from other sources.

Padparadscha: a league of its own. Padparadscha sapphire from Sri Lanka has light to medium tones of pinkish-orange to orange-pink. Unfortunately, pink or orange sapphires are sometimes falsely labeled as “pads” to capitalize on the rarity of the real thing.

True pads are found mostly in Sri Lanka, although in rare cases other locations – Vietnam, Africa, and even Montana – may produce them. Purists insist that the name “padparadscha” should be reserved for Sri Lankan gems, even when the color of a sapphire mined elsewhere mirrors that of a classic pad. In his book Ruby & Sapphire, Richard Hughes finds this approach “both impractical and illogical. Even if it were possible to determine the provenance of every stone, it is a needless complication to doing business.”

A sapphire sent to the Gemological Institute of America’s Gem Trade Lab will receive a document that characterizes the stone as natural or synthetic and notes the presence or absence of treatments. But it will not state the origin, and the name padparadscha will not be used. GIA recognizes padparadscha only as a trade name. This is much the same as a report labeling blue tourmaline as tourmaline only and not mentioning the trade name indicolite, or a red tourmaline not being labeled as rubellite. When it comes to padparadscha, however, the name has tremendous meaning in dollar terms. The padparadscha distinction is critical in supporting the high asking prices.

A very-fine-quality 2.17-ct. padparadscha from Sri Lanka recently was offered for $5,000 per carat. Although Vietnam isn’t known for mining pads, a 6.29-ct. sapphire with a Gübelin certificate labeling it as the only known pad from Vietnam had an asking price of $10,000 per carat. A 7.01-ct. pad from Sri Lanka recently had an asking price of $15,000 per carat. With prices like these, it’s easy to see the importance of an origin report for padparadscha.

African padparadschas cost considerably less, but not so much because of their origin. Pads from the Umba River region of Tanzania have a brownish overtone to the hue and tend to be more orange. Prices for a 2-ct. African pad will be about $3,000 per carat

Emerald sources. Colombia historically has been the most important source of emerald. Tucked away in the Andes Mountains lie some of the richest emerald deposits in the world. Throughout history, the finest emeralds owned by royalty and other world leaders came from Colombia.

The Ural Mountains in Russia also produce top-quality gems. More recently, African deposits yielded emeralds that gained attention for their quality. Mined only since the 1920s, African emeralds are relatively new to the world. Brazil is by far the greatest producer, with a wide range of quality. While most Brazilian emeralds are classified as commercial, some very fine gems have come from Brazilian mines. Other sources, such as Pakistan, Australia, and the United States, are less significant

Diminished demand. Given all the negative publicity about enhancements, it’s no surprise that emerald sales have fallen dramatically. Issues regarding Opticon and other synthetic resins as well as natural and synthetic oils have contributed to the decline.

Today, fewer emeralds are being submitted to laboratories for origin reports than in the past. When emeralds are submitted to a lab for origin reporting, no doubt there’s a second motive at hand. The report is meaningful only if there’s information about the treatment as well. Some in the industry still lean toward traditional cedarwood oil only. Time will tell if the market comes to accept other treatments. In the meantime, you’ll find many sellers boasting not only of Colombian origin but also about the fact that only oil treatment was used

Plymouth, Mich., auctioneer Joseph DuMouchelle feels that buyers consider treatment as important as origin. He recently auctioned a ring containing a 3.50-ct. Colombian emerald (which was oiled only) and a 4.10-ct. D-flawless diamond. The diamond carried a GIA report, while the emerald had an American Gemological Laboratories report. As it happened, the reports were crucial to the sale. Without a report on both stones, the ring would have little chance of selling for the right price.

Colombia counts. When someone requests an origin report for an emerald, the hope is for Colombia. Other countries produce some very fine emeralds that rival Colombia’s. Still, they will not command the price of Colombian emeralds. A 2.08-ct. extra-fine Colombian emerald recently was offered for $7,000 per carat. By contrast, a fine 2.0-ct. Zambian was $2,800 per carat and a 3.29-ct. Zambian was $4,750 per carat. Clearly, Colombian origin makes a difference in price

While $7,000 per carat may seem like a lot for the Colombian emerald, the treatment controversy has hurt even the finest and rarest Colombian gems. Just 10 years ago, prices for a 1-ct. Colombian were $10,000 to $12,000. A 2-ct. gem would go for $15,000 to $20,000 per carat. Prices for most categories of emeralds today are about half what they were in the not-so-distant past.

Many dealers speculate that prices will rebound, but even if they’re right, it will take several years. Ray Zajicek, president of Equatorian Imports in Dallas, feels that dealers should buy now to take advantage of the low prices. He and others believe that emerald historically has been too important not to rebound

Richard B. Drucker is the president of Gemworld International and publisher of The Guide, a pricing periodical he began in 1982. An international gemstone consultant, he has published numerous books on the jewelry industry.