Sapphires – Australia’s bright gem of the future
(Australian sapphires are often slightly darker in tone versus Kashmir or Sri Lankan)
When most people think of Australian precious gems their attention is often drawn to the world renowned Argyle mine (which is responsible for over 90% of global pink diamond supply) but in fact this vast island continent is home to one of the most suitable geographical locations for sapphires. Australia has been a mining nation for well over a century and counts itself as one of the original blue sapphire production centres. Many gem aficionados regard the sapphire more highly than diamonds and its hypnotic blue tones have resulted in demand far outstripping supply. Many of its traditional mining locations, such as Kashmir (see our earlier article The Beauty of the Kashmir Sapphire), were exhausted many years ago but the precious stone is still to be found in significant volumes in Australia, notably in Anakie, Queensland and the New England district of New South Wales. For this reason Australia today accounts for over 70% of global blue sapphire production and the demand for these stones is said to be increasing. Richland resources Limited, a UK company, is now one of the leading players in both raising awareness of the beauty of Australian sapphires and exporting them around the globe.
(Beautiful parti sapphires contain vibrant combinations of colour)
Australian sapphires are of a unique appearance that ranges across the colour spectrum from blue to green and shades of yellow. Australian stones are especially famous for their parti coloured stones, containing a mix of green, blue and yellow and some of the most golden sapphires that have ever been produced hail from here. Australia has produced the highest volume of commercial-grade blue sapphires of any nation on earth and the vast majority of parti sapphires available today come from down under. Peculiarly, some Australian sapphires are actually mined in Nigeria and other locations around the world but they are not produced in anything like the same quantities. Of all the Australian sapphires, the parti sapphire is among the most valuable due to its unique colour. As with all coloured stones its value is determined primarily by colour and then by the interplay of the remaining 3 Cs (clarity, cut and carat). Most corundum (which includes rubies and sapphires) are treated in some way and Australian sapphires are of igneous origin resulting in their containing a significant amount of iron, which can make the stones appear quite dark. Consequently many Australian stones are heat treated in order to reduce the effect of their darkness and improve their colour. Most of the stones from this area average around 3 carats and many of them are deliberately cut at shallow angles in order to help lighten their colour.
(Gem mining has been ingrained in Australian culture for over 100 years)
The first Australian sapphires were mined at the start of the twentieth century and their high quality was immediately identified. However they soon faced fierce international competition once the sapphire producers in Thailand mastered the heat treatment clarity enhancement method, enabling them to successfully market their sapphires by masking the subpar colour of their lower quality stones. The higher costs of production in Australia meant they were fighting an uphill battle with these new modified stones. Furthermore the development of treatments such as Beryllium enabled huge alterations of colour and quality of substandard stones, to the point at which they become regarded as fakes. In more modern times further challenges have come from Australia’s increasingly onerous environmental protection legislation and there have been some disagreements over the validity of land ownership rights established many years ago without any regard for the aboriginal population. As a result, the mine in New South Wales can only produce mostly untreated pink and orange stones. Consumers are however now becoming more aware of the value of untreated stones and the parti sapphire in particular is enjoying heightened popularity due to its colour and clarity.
(Over 90% of sapphires are heat treated making it harder for natural stones to compete)
Despite the quality of Australian sapphires, they have always faced strong competition from and often played second fiddle to Sri Lankan and Kashmir stones. There are however strong indications that things might be about to change. Richland Resources’ new mining project at the Capricorn sapphire mine in Queensland, Australia, is forecast to become the largest single source of sapphires in the world when it reaches full production. It is located close to the Anakie sapphire producing fields, where the volcanic activity of the region millions of years ago thrust the precious stones to the surface, enabling them to be mined from ancient river beds, now lying underground. Richland Resources have a strong history of operating gem mines, having been responsible for the ethical sourcing of tanzanite and for the creation of the tanzanite grading scale. Richland recently announced that the Capricorn site holds vast quantities of ethically mineable blue, yellow, green and parti sapphire. Despite the fact that it does not contain large individual sapphires the viability of the project is predicated on the fact that it can produce prodigious amounts of sapphires of a verifiable origin, a much in demand product in today’s market.
(Tiffany & Co are chief among the global jewellery brands turning to Australian sapphires)
Interestingly when a number of representatives of leading global jewellery brands, including Tiffany & Co, gathered at the Anakie gemshow and the Hong Kong International Jewellery Fair they expressed a deep interest in Australian sapphires. Remarkably they were not especially keen on the Australian blue sapphires, which they regard as a bit dark and inky, but they are excited about the parti coloured stones and the yellow and green sapphires. Given the historical example of the Australian tanzanite gemstone, which found itself heavily marketed and thus elevated onto the world stage, the future prospects of the Australian sapphire seem to be bright. Increasing interest from the Far East and China, coupled with rising demand among the jewellery houses of London, New York, Paris and elsewhere in the ‘old’ world, suggest that we may see a growing number of collections and individual pieces sporting the ubiquitous Australian sapphire, one of the finest gems on earth.