Original Sins

At Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction on April 25, a beautiful 22.66 ct. blue cushion oval brilliant sapphire was sold for just over $3 million, the highest price ever paid for a natural-color sapphire. The stone was accompanied by a Gübelin Gem Lab report noting that the stone had “characteristics consistent with those of sapphires originating from Kashmir,” and an AGTA report stating “probable geographic origin is Kashmir.” Neither report mentions quality.

This event raises a number of questions: Is the stone from Kashmir? (Note that wording on the reports—characteristics consistent with and probable geographic origin—indicate not quite 100 percent certainty.) If it is from Kashmir, does it look like a Kashmir sapphire is supposed to? (Remember, neither report discussed quality, i.e., degree of excellence.) Is origin important?

Burmese ruby, Kashmir sapphire, and Colombian emerald have traditionally represented the highest degree of excellence for those gemstones. Yet each location produces stones of varying quality, ranging from poor to superior. In fact, country-of-origin designations actually refer to a distinctive characteristic unique to a location—not just the highest degree of excellence. The most distinctive property of an Australian sapphire, for example, is its very dark greenish blue color. A Ceylon sapphire, to take another example, is expected to be sky blue rather than the cornflower blue that distinguishes Kashmir sapphires. Yet, on rare occasions Kashmir-like sapphires are found in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

The most distinctive traits of Colombian emeralds are their highly saturated, vivid medium-dark green color and superior transparency. But in an article titled “The Mystique of Place,” written for Arthur Groom’s July 2006 Eternity Emerald Report, Bill Hoefer notes that country-of-origin reports for emeralds are not based on excellence, so the premiums they garner are nothing more than what he calls “an origin surcharge.”

“You have to take every stone on its own merit,” says Groom, an emerald wholesaler and retail jeweler in Ridgewood, N.J. “We all get carried away if an emerald is said to be from Colombia. But we have stones from Afghanistan that will just blow people away.”

Groom adds, “I strongly believe in using the certificate as a tool. It’s an educational process with the retailer. But if everything is equal, whether an emerald is from Afghanistan or Colombia, should the Colombian stone cost more? Does that make any sense to you?”

Not long ago only three professional gemological laboratories offered a country-of-origin report on colored gemstones: American Gemological Laboratories, New York; Gübelin Gem Lab, Lucerne, Switzerland; and Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), Basel, Switzerland. Today, the list of labs offering origin reports is growing, thanks in part to new technology that unlocks the secrets of a gemstone’s unique chemistry and growth.

Policies vary among labs. GGL, for example, requires “sufficiently clear and unanimous indications for one single origin,” before it’s included on a report, says managing director Dr. Daniel Nyfeler. “When the indications are insufficiently clear (i.e., that we cannot exclude a second or third origin), we do not mention an origin at all. In the latter case, we often add a separate note, in which we explain the overlapping evidence and thus our conclusion not to give an origin.”

AGL uses what it calls “different levels of confidence” when determining the provenance of a gemstone and uses different nomenclature to convey this, according to Chris Smith, AGL’s new vice president and chief gemologist. For example, it may combine a country of origin with the term “classic” when the confidence level is very high. Or it may use a sentence such as “based on available gemological information, it is the opinion of the lab that the origin of this material would be classified as ‘Burma.’ This is to communicate that while much of the evidence suggests Burma, the determination is not totally clear.”

But identifying country of origin has an inherent problem: Because geology doesn’t conform to political boundaries, gemstones from different countries can share identifying properties. That’s why the Gemological Institute of America’s Gem Lab is taking a different approach to the issue.

GIA’s Gem Lab is new to country-of-origin reports. Although GIA has been reporting on gems from specific localities for over half a century, the laboratory staff believes that the features they use to identify many rubies and sapphires from certain localities make it impossible to pinpoint an actual country with 100 percent certainty. Instead, the lab provides what it calls a “geologic environmental source-type classification,” which tells how a gem was formed and includes a list of possible localities where the relevant type of geologic formation occurs and where that type of sapphire or ruby might have been mined.

Consider, for example, Kashmir sapphires. Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir all have produced very similar blue sapphires with similar inclusions and similar chemistries—because they have similar geological formations. They all look like what many would simply call “Kashmir.” Some say that if they had been found in Madagascar first, they might today be called “Madagascan” instead.

Burma provides the opposite example. Rubies from Mogok and Mong Hsu are classified on traditional country-of-origin reports as “Burma” or “Burmese,” yet Mogok typically provides the finest color, and Mong Hsu rubies are usually treated with high temperatures to clarify and improve color. GIA’s system would give different source-type information for those two localities, and from that, one could envision a stone’s appearance.

Neither the traditional approach to country-of-origin nor GIA’s new system of geologic source-type classification is entirely satisfactory. Traditional country-of-origin reports may be used to garner an “origin surcharge” where none is justified, and GIA’s country-of-origin reports lack the romance of places like Kashmir and Burma.

There’s a third way. One lab, AGL, offers complete quality grading on its origin reports for colored gemstones and has done so for three decades. (GIA, it should be said, has been teaching a quality-grading system for over three decades, but it has never been used on its laboratory reports.) So, a ruby report from AGL that lists Burma as the country of origin could also include a report on the stone’s quality, which is a more accurate indication of its value.

Although AGL’s quality-grading system is not yet universally accepted, such a quality report would have been a useful addition to the country-of-origin reports that accompanied the 22.66 ct. Kashmir sapphire auctioned by Christie’s. Because the degree of excellence isn’t mentioned on those reports, we’re left wondering whether or not the stone has the appearance of a fine-quality Kashmir sapphire and whether or not the hammer price was based on the stone’s beauty, the Kashmir origin, or both. Only its new owner knows for certain.