When importer Richard Postrel buys pink sapphire from Burma tribesmen, they call it ruby—and don’t take kindly to contradiction.
When cutter Reggie Miller buys pink sapphire from Sri Lankan dealers, they call it padparadscha (an extremely rare pinkish-orange sapphire)—and act offended if you suggest otherwise.
For hundreds of years, Asian dealers have been calling pink sapphire all kinds of things. Everything but what it is. And, until recently, many gem dealers in America took after them—insisting pink sapphire was, at the very least, pale ruby. As a result, pink sapphire had to fight an uphill battle to be recognized in its own right. Now the stone is finally beginning to have a wide following as a fancy sapphire.
“America is waking up to the fact that there is sapphire that isn’t blue,” says Miller, Reginald C. Miller Inc., New York. “It may sound crazy but there was a time when jewelers didn’t know or recognize any other color in sapphire.”
Given such color blindness, dealers sitting on inventories of pink sapphire who wished to be honest about their goods had to sit on them—unless they had deep reddish-pink stones from Burma many in the trade considered ruby. Even today, these Burmese sapphires are the center of a raging nomenclature controversy regarding the crossover point from pink sapphire to ruby. Many dealers, as well as gemologists, contend that calling any pink corundum “sapphire” is a misnomer. Pink, they argue, is simply light red and, therefore, all such stones should be called ruby. If the trade must use the term pink, this contingent urges these stones be known as pink ruby rather than pink sapphire.
But pink sapphire specialists seem content to leave things as they are. “It’s a gemological issue. Pink is just different than red,” says David Cohen, Rafco International Inc., New York. “So leave the pink corundums associated with sapphire and the red ones associated with ruby.”
At the heart of the sapphire-ruby nomenclature controversy is a money battle. Since ruby is usually far more expensive than sapphire, it is hoped that being able to call sapphire ruby will entitle it to more money. That’s hoping for a lot. A name change could help at most a handful, ones involving reddish-pink stones from Burma that pink sapphire specialists might contend are borderline rubies.
But one strongly doubts whether the nomenclature battle is worth waging over the vast majority of pink sapphires, most from Sri Lanka and far lighter than the exceptionally rare Burmese stones that many swear are rubies. Anyone who has seen parcels of standard Sri Lankan pink sapphire knows that labeling these stones as “ruby” is stretching the term rather thin.
That doesn’t stop people from trying, especially dealers and gemologists armed with a little color science. They’ll tell you pink isn’t even a recognized spectrum color, merely “desaturated red.” Maybe so, but pink is, and has always been recognized as a color distinct from red in the jewelry and, fashion worlds. In fact, even dealers who long ago insisted that pink sapphire was the same as ruby implicitly acknowledged there is a difference between pink and red stones by dividing pink into two categories: “feminine” and “masculine.” Today, pink sapphire needs no cover-up or apologies.
To the contrary, the recent popularity of pastel-color gems has opened doors for pink sapphire and given it Cadillac status among the many gem varieties being used to meet the demand for pink. Since early 1987 alone, prices for this gem have jumped 30% to 40%. And the best of the breed in a 3-carat size can fetch up to $2,500 per carat wholesale, remarkable for pink sapphire but still roughly one-third the price of its 3-carat super-fine Thai ruby counterpart.
“Best of the breed” in pink sapphire is often described as “hot pink,” a pure, vibrant color with no violet or purple. It is assumed such stones are from Burma. As such, they are exceedingly hard to find. Occasionally, Sri Lanka, the prime source for pink sapphire, comes through with highly saturated pink stones on a par with those from Burma—but not often enough to challenge Burma’s preeminence.
Even so, Sri Lankan producers may pretty pinks. For the most part, they tend to be light and lively, usually with highly visible amounts of violet and purple. Generally, explains Miller, the more violet the stone, the lower its price. Strongly violet stones in 1 to 3-carat sizes shouldn’t cost the jeweler more than $300 per carat. Punchier, pinker stones in the same size range can run up to $1,000 per carat while pure-bred pinks can hit $1,500 per carat.
Prices for pink sapphire make a quantum leap in sizes over 4 carats. Generally, dealers quote prices for very fine stones in the 4 to 5-carat range between $3,000 to $4,000 per carat.
Quoting prices for fine pink sapphire in sizes above 5 carats is futile. These stones defy any kind of price survey. Almost no dealer has them. And those who found who own one or two prefer to keep price a very private matter between themselves and any potential client.
As we said before, pink sapphires which command top dollar are from Burma, or should we say, assumed to be from Burma. Some dealers, who aren’t sure of or don’t wish to be pinned down on country of origin will describe stones as “Burma-like” or “as good as Burma.” But the point is this: Burma means top grade.
Whether or not an exemplary pink sapphire is actually from Burma, such stones always have two traits that go hand in hand: intensity and tone that push the stone beyond any association with pastel color.
But color alone does not justify premium prices for pink sapphire. While not as important as color, clarity has a big bearing on the value of pink sapphire. Indeed, one drawback of Burma stones, comments New York dealer Isaac Aharoni, Isaac Aharoni Inc., is their tendency to be more included than the Sri Lankan variety. Because most pink sapphire is lighter in tone and less saturate in color than ruby, dealers advise jewelers to buy eye-clean stones.
While citing quality factors in pink sapphire, we must make note of brilliance. Although partly a function of clarity, brilliance is also affected by cutting and polishing, too. Dealers say that many pink sapphires cut in Sri Lanka are so badly botched that they are deprived of the brilliance they could have. Thankfully, most feel they can turn to Thailand, which in the last decade has emerged as the world’s major sapphire cutting center for fine cuts.
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 11.97-carat pink sapphire shown in the header image is courtesy of Reginald C. Miller Inc., New York.