Before 1980, sapphire was synonymous with blue. Few jewelers even knew—or cared—that the gem came in other colors—especially yellow and gold. They weren’t alone. Most sapphire dealers felt the same way.
One of the few exceptions, famed New York cutter Reggie Miller, Reginald C. Miller Inc., remembers buying the finest yellows and golds for next to nothing on his frequent trips to the Far East during the early 1960s. “Dealers in Ceylon (the world’s chief sapphire mining center) didn’t even want to be bothered with fancy-color sapphires—certainly not yellow,” he recalls. “They stored the rough in big sacks and cut it on days when there was nothing else to do if you wanted to keep busy.”
Now all that’s changed. Ceylonese dealers make a point of showing him their best fancy yellow sapphires. “I don’t know if it’s because I specialize in fancy sapphires or because there’s a real trend in the making,” Miller wonders.
The situation is the same in Thailand, the world’s central market for polished sapphire. New York dealer Isaac Pollak, LGP Inc., reports seeing almost as much yellow as blue sapphire on a recent buying trip to Bangkok. “There were so many yellow sapphires that I was stunned,” he says.
What is behind this decade’s supply-side explosion of yellow and golden sapphire? The same thing that’s behind the supply-side explosion of better-color ruby and blue sapphire in the preceding decade: heat treatment.
Only in the case of yellow sapphire, the surge in supply has not been matched by a surge in demand. Indeed, the endless profusion of heated stones suggests production for the sake of production—making this yellow sapphire one of the decade’s greatest technological marvels but also one of its greatest marketing mishaps. What went wrong?
High Heat, High Hopes
The rationale for treatment of yellow sapphire is clear. Until very recently, most yellow sapphires that jewelers saw were pale and unattractive. Fine natural yellows and goldens were rare, making these stones of interest mostly to collectors.
But around 1980 some dealers in Thailand, the heat-treatment capital of the world, began experimental cooking of pale yellow sapphires. After all, they were cheap and plentiful. So there was nothing to lose. Besides, oven heating—considered by many to imitate nature—had improved thousands of blue sapphires. Surely, yellow sapphires would benefit from baking, too.
Their hunches paid off. Heating routinely transformed “wallflower” stones from soft pastel yellow shades to bright, vibrant canary, golden and orangy yellows. Unfortunately, many of these hues, with their electric golden character, were rarely, if ever, encountered in nature. Thus stones betrayed their oven origin at a glance. The obviousness of treatment and the unusualness of the color produced, no matter how beautiful, made marketing this stone a big gamble. Marketing became an even bigger gamble when dealer speculation and stockpiling in anticipation of a craze drove prices for these treated stones to levels rarely, if ever, achieved by natural ones. Could what was in essence a novelty stone when it was introduced justify sustained consumer prices? Ultimately, the market said no.
Of course, no one knew that in late 1981 when the first wave of these heated sapphires hit the U.S. market. Prices for stones with the very finest deep colors often exceeded $400 per carat. Many dealers paid them because they expected a bonanza. What they got was a glut.
Indeed, the 1982 Tucson Gem Show—a show where many gem trends start or fail to start—seemed congested with heated yellow and golden sapphire, which should have been seen as a clue to the newcomer’s lack of acceptance at its unrealistically high debut prices. Shortly afterward, when dealers realized there was a surfeit of supply and a deficit of demand, prices for the stones started to nosedive.
Six years later, the surfeit of recognizably treated yellow and golden sapphires hasn’t subsided and prices are still seeking a level where they will trigger demand.
This isn’t the case for lighter, natural and natural-appearing stones. These have no trouble selling to jewelers, usually at levels between $60 and $200 per carat. Ironically, such prices are half those asked for the far more abundant distinctly treated variety a few years back.
Meanwhile those deep-baked golden-orange stones that were once the talk of the jewelry world are now spurned by dealers. “Some dealers blame the failure of these treated stones to sell on their artificial-looking color,” says noted jewelry appraiser Elly Rosen, Brooklyn, NY. “Perhaps they should consider that the real culprit may be price. Treatment gives us golden sapphires that fill a color gap and they would sell if made available at prices which reflected a balance of supply and demand.”
The Facts of Life
Some say the current fall from favor of doubtlessly heat-treated yellow and golden sapphire is merely part of a cyclical fashion shift from deep to lighter colors. Others contend it is part of a growing disaffection with rampant gemstone tampering.
It’s neither. Rather, Rosen says, “the fall seems to stem from the failure to have tested the market and determined the stone’s place in it. Once the stone’s market level was found, demand could have been developed on that basis.”
Instead, dealers acted as if jewelers and manufacturers would share their enthusiasm for the new sapphire and that success was assured. It might have been if prices for the stones were lower. So expensive were these stones that some marketers sought to produce lower-cost deep yellow stones by coating oven failures with chemicals, then heating them to induce a lovely surface layer of color. This process is called color diffusion. And while it is permanent, it is considered artificial because the color layer is only skin deep. Immersion in solution will reveal its superficial nature.
Sellers of color-diffusion sapphires also assumed the market would welcome their stones and were shocked when the trade reacted with outrage. The gemological community wasn’t any kinder. When a couple of unsavory dealers tried to sneak color-diffusion stones through the New York Gem Trade Laboratory undetected as such, the Gemological Institute of America issued “special alert” gemological bulletins to users of its lab. That ended any chance for these color-coated golden baubles to gain acceptance in the trade and, quite possibly, added to the troubled stature of the colored-through-and-through heated variety.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 7.41-carat yellow sapphire shown in the header image is courtesy of Intercolor, New York.