by Janet Spencer

Because sapphires are so resistant to scratches, they are an excellent gem that can be worn daily without worry. Come along with Tidbits as we admire sapphires!

SAPPHIRE FACTS

Although usually thought of as blue, sapphires come in a rainbow of hues. Sapphires in any color, but blue are known as “fancy sapphires” and are called according to their color: yellow sapphire, pink sapphire, purple sapphire.

• Sapphires are made of aluminum and oxygen, which combine to form a mineral called corundum. Most corundum is cloudy with flaws, but rare glass-like pockets of pure gem-quality corundum are the source of sapphires.   

• Different mineral impurities cause the variations in the colors of sapphires: blue is caused by titanium and iron; if there’s only iron, it’s purple; iron plus chromium results in orange; small amounts of chromium give us pink sapphires; and large amounts of chromium create red rubies. If there are no impurities at all, the sapphire is as clear as a diamond.

• Sapphires, rubies, and emeralds generate more revenue and economic activity than all the other gemstones (aside from diamonds) combined.

The rarest color, and the most valuable sapphire, is a pinkish orange created by chromium and magnesium. This is called a padparadscha sapphire, named for an aquatic salmon-colored lotus blossom found in India. These rare gems are found only in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Tanzania.

• Most other gemstones are based on some form of silicon, but sapphires, rubies, and emeralds are all based on corundum and are never found where silicon is present. This makes these three gemstones the most sought-after jewels.

• Minerals are measured on the Mohs hardness scale, named after the German mineralogist who invented it. Talc is the softest mineral, measuring 1; diamond is the hardest, measuring 10. A diamond-like crystal called moissanite comes in at 9.5. Sapphires and rubies measure 9, making them the third-hardest mineral in the world.

• Ancient Greeks believed sapphires would enhance psychic powers; Buddhists thought sapphires would hasten spiritual enlightenment; in the 6th century, Catholic cardinals wore sapphire rings in order to promote chastity. Sapphires were thought to ward off evil.

• Some cultures allowed only royalty to wear sapphires, which may be where the term “royal blue” originated.

• The word “sapphire” has been spelled in dozens of ways over the past seven centuries.

• The Black Star of Queensland is a 733-carat sapphire found by a 12-year-old boy in the 1930s in Australia. The family used it as a doorstop for years before discovering its value. His father sold it for $18,000 in 1947 (about a quarter million in today’s dollars). Today it’s been carved into an oval about the size of an egg and is worth an estimated $88 million.

One of the biggest sapphires ever found was uncovered in Madagascar in 1995. In its original state, it weighed nearly 40 lbs (17.97 kg) and was estimated at just under 90,000 carats in size. Dubbed the Millennium Sapphire, it was deemed too precious to split into ordinary gemstones. Instead, world-famous artist Alessio Boschi was hired to turn the remarkable stone into something unique and extraordinary. Boschi carved 134 different figures into the sapphire, each depicting a different person or event through history. When he was done, the gem had been whittled down to about 61,000 carats, weighing 27 pounds (12 kg). It’s about the size of a football. It’s now been designated a national treasure of Madagascar.

• The biggest sapphire ever found was dug up in Sri Lanka in 2021. Weighing in at 683 lbs (310 kg), it’s estimated to contain 1.5 million carats. The boulder-size gem is named “the Queen of Asia” and is worth an estimated $100 million. Experts estimate that it’s around 400 million years old.

• The most expensive sapphire ever sold at auction fetched a price of just under $17.5 million at Christie’s in Geneva, Switzerland, in November of 2014. Named the Blue Belle of Asia, this 392-carat gem, currently the centerpiece of a diamond-encrusted necklace, is the size of a biscuit.   

• One particularly famous sapphire is called the Star of India. This golf-ball size gem is noted for the star-like pattern embedded in it. The star is actually caused by fibers of mineral imperfections, aligned in a particular pattern, that reflects light in a star-like configuration. At 563 carats, the Star of India is the one of the largest blue star sapphires in the world. It was discovered 300 years ago, and has been in museums since it was faceted in 1905.

THE GREAT JEWEL HEIST

`At the time, it was the biggest jewel heist in history. It happened in 1964, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Three guys scoped out the place that day and returned that night with tools. Roger Clark stood guard while Allan Kuhn and Jack Murphy jumped a fence, scrambled up a fire escape, attached a rope to a pillar, and climbed into an open window on the floor that housed the Hall of Gems and Minerals.

• They broke into three display cases, gathering 24 priceless gems, including the Star of India. They climbed back out of the with their loot, and nonchalantly hailed cabs to take them back to their rented room.

• When the theft was discovered, the director admitted that security had been lax. Windows had been left cracked open. Batteries in the burglar alarm were dead. No security guard had been on duty. The gems had not been insured. Detectives found no fingerprints on the scene.

• Cops followed up on a tip: three men renting rooms near the museum had been hosting wild, expensive parties. A search warrant turned up a map of the museum and books about gems. Just two days after the robbery, the three burglars were taken into custody.

• Roger Clark squealed, leading investigators to a locker in a bus terminal. Detectives recovered the priceless Star of India and several other stolen gems, but not all. Allan Kuhn, Jack Murphy and Roger Clark were sentenced to three years at New York’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

• A few days after the sentencing, the Star of India went back on exhibit, now secured in a thick glass display that pivots out of sight into a black two-ton safe every night. It remains there to this day. Ten of the 24 most valuable gems were back where they belonged; the others were never recovered.