Sapphires and The Mines of Madagascar

A Valuable Insight

As children we are all told that we should “learn something new every day”. Keep this in mind and read on as we provide you a lesson as well as an insight into sapphires. 

Common Sapphires

When heard, the word sapphire brings an instant association with a valuable, vivid and vibrant blue gemstone. The highly admired stone is used to fashion some of the world’s most exquisite pieces of jewellery and royal regalia, such as the Stuart Sapphire found on the Crown of Queen Elizabeth II.

The Stuart Sapphire is the center stone, found on the Crown of Queen Elizabeth II.

Recently, sapphire has been the ‘got-to-have’ gem for designers, stylists and fashionistas, gaining increasing popularity on the red carpet. Sapphires don many styles including: bold drop earrings, cocktail rings, statement necklaces, and stacked bracelets. Recent famous examples include Margot Robbie, in Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Zip” tassel necklace containing over 300 Sapphires, at the Oscar’s. The inspiration arises from a similar piece owned by the Duchess of Windsor in the 1930s.

In addition, Sapphire is a top choice for Sutra designer Arpita Navlakha, for its timeless beauty, glamorous luster, and great durability.

“In any form—full or rose-cut, sliced, bead or cabochon—Sapphires are remarkable to work with.”

Arpita Navlakha

Discovery of Sapphires in Madagascar

The discovery of large Corundum deposits in Madagascar in 1998 has caused the most recent surge of interest in sapphires. Madagascar is the world’s 4th largest island, located in the Indian Ocean off the south-eastern coast of Africa. This attracted mining companies, gemstone experts, traders and buyers and as a consequence bolstered the country’s economy.

Madagascar compared to the world.

The first find, although small, was in the early 1990’s in the north of the island. Conjunctively, the discovery in the small southern village of Ilakaka in 1998, increased the country’s relevance in the gemstone industry. Once a small, poverty stricken hamlet with a population of just 40 residents, the town suddenly expanded exponentially. What was once a sleepy truck stop of small shacks, suddenly became the mecca of sapphire miners. Over a two year period, hordes of people almost 60,000 strong descended on Ilakaka wishing to make a fortune. They came from impoverished towns all over the island and from Sri Lanka, Thailand and many other countries.

Before 1998 the largest producers of sapphires were Sri Lanka and Thailand. However between 1998 and 2007 Madagascar became the largest producer of sapphires in the world. Currently the country houses many mines, owned by international companies who are mining gemstones commercially. Smaller mines run by locals who are using traditional mining methods sit right alongside these commercially owned mines in mutualism.

The discoveries in Madagascar caused a ‘sapphire rush’ throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s which continues to this day. People flock to the island not only because of the quantity of stones which can be found, but also the impressive quality. As a result, they are equally comparable with Ceylonese ones in the global market.

Margot Robbie featuring Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Zip” tassel necklace with over 300 Sapphires.

The Commonalities of Sapphire

Gemstones form when minerals dissolved in rain water extract minerals from the Earth’s surface and trickles through natural cracks and crevices and deposits on the Earth’s crust. In addition, the layers of deposits(also called “seams”) compress across several millennia to form gemstones, between 3-25 miles below the surface of the Earth.

The minerals in the seams of sapphire(scientifically known as Corundum) deposits are predominantly full of mineralised aluminium oxide. Alongside the aluminium oxide, trace amounts of other minerals and elements such as iron, titanium, chromium, copper, and/or magnesium, can be found. It is these which create the exquisite colour or ‘hue’ of the stones. The colour most commonly attributed to Sapphires is blue. However, sapphires come in a variety of colours including yellow, purple, orange, and green shades. “Party sapphires” show two or more colours, and are unique in their own right. Almost all coloured gemstones in the corundum family are sapphires. There is an exception to the rule: red coloured corundum gemstones are rubies not sapphires.

Processing Sapphires

The statement that: “gemstones are mined bright and sparkly reflecting and refracting light and dazzling all who look upon it” is a common misconception. When they first see the light of day, after being deep underground for so many millennia, they are very colourful yet they are also somewhat dull looking. Prior to fashioning into stunning ornaments and jewellery, they must be cut and polished.

Sometimes, heat treatment is used in order to increase or decrease the intensity of their colour and to increase clarity by melting away impurities. The treatment process takes place in special ovens at temperatures exceeding 1500°C. Rubies and sapphires require significantly higher temperatures to alter colour and change clarity as their melting point is around 2000°C. After treatment the cutting and polishing brings out their beauty. Then finally, they are mounted in a precious metal, such as gold, silver or platinum and are ready to be worn!

And that’s the end of our brief lesson on sapphires.

References:

Margot Robbie at Oscars 2015 2015, photograph, Pinterest, viewed 29 April 2019, <https://i.pinimg.com/originals/63/0d/0a/630d0ae84b95747c18e8162e7f93b053.jpg>.
Stuart Sapphire 2011, photograph, Royal Collection Trust of the United Kingdom, viewed 29 April 2019, <https://www.rct.uk/sites/default/files/collection-online/0/b/149953-1297438620.jpg>.