Having lived in Sri Lanka for over three years, the question I am most often asked is ‘Did you buy a lot of sapphires while you were in Sri Lanka? Closely followed by ‘‘Where can I buy sapphires in Sri Lanka?’ I’ve become quite the expert in both those subjects having acquired quite a few sapphires and favourite food places in my time in Colombo. I’ve written a whole post on asking the right questions and little tricks to be aware of when looking to buy sapphires in Sri Lanka. It is one of the most read articles on this (food) blog so I can only gather that you, like me, have a weakness for shiny objects.
There are only four varieties of gemstones that are considered precious stones – diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. All the rest are considered semi-precious.
If you’ve read my first post, you’ll know that red sapphires are called rubies. That’s because sapphires are in the corundum family and corundum can come in all colours of the rainbow – we just call the red ones rubies.
The 4 Cs of buying sapphires
There’s one thing I haven’t covered on the subject though, and it’s one of the big 4 Cs of buying sapphires. Similar to diamonds, grading coloured sapphires relies on the 4Cs – cut, carat weight, colour and clarity. All these four elements together are considered when valuing a sapphire.
Sapphires: Carat weight
Let’s start with the basics. One carat = 100 points. That’s the unit that gemstones are measured in. A 50-point gemstone is also referred to as 0.5 carats, and a 70-point stone as 0.7 carats.
The higher a stone’s weight, the higher the price. Sounds easy enough, right? All jewellers and gemstone dealers have a weighing scale and they can weigh a stone in front of any customer. The number on the scale reflects the stone’s weight and therefore it’s price. There’s two things to note though – when trying to decide on a stone, have in the back of your mind the price per carat as well as the total price of the stone. It’s a bit like unit pricing at the supermarket, to use a very basic example.
While price is pretty standard across the board, expect stones that are just over 1 carat to be a bit more expensive. That’s because stones under 1 carat are sometimes considered a ‘setting size’ – unless displaying exceptional colour or clarity, they and are often used as side stones to accentuate a feature stone. Similarly, expect the price for a sapphire can go up if it ticks over into each carat i.e. stones that are 2 carats will usually cost more per point than stones that are 1.8 carats.
Here’s the thing though, carat weight and cut are intrinsically linked. The most important thing to be aware of is that many, many gemstone dealers sell stones that are not cut to maximise the stone’s optics. Let’s say you have $1000 to spend and there are two stones to choose from – one that is slightly asymmetrical, not too noticeable to the untrained eye and weighs 2 carats or one that is well cut but comes in at 1.9 carats. Most people would pick the larger stone – it seems better value for money, but might not bring out the best in the stone.
The cut is the ultimate display of a jeweller and gemologist’s craft. Sure, there’s setting as well, but the really good jewelers deal in stones and how to bring out the best in each one – after all, they are natural pieces each with their own unique characteristics. A skilled craftsperson will bring out the best in each stone’s colour, lustre, sparkle and make sure that the stone is symmetrically proportioned.
Most stones are cut to retain weigh to maximise the selling price, good jewellers recut the stone to optimise weight, proportions, and maximum lustre. Now just imagine that your jeweller has bought a mixed parcel of 10 gemstones from a dealer/miner. Of those, perhaps a few are properly cut but the rest will need recutting. Every recut is a few points lost here and there, over time that’s quite a few carats lost in the recutting process. Only the best jewellers who are committed to their art recut stones so that they are at their best.
Improperly cut gemstones are not a good investment, both from a monetary standpoint and simple because they’re just not that great to look at. The most obvious things that you should look out for symmetry and windows, where you can see right through the stone (this is a sure sign of poor craftsmanship).
The higher a stone’s clarity, the more you can expect to pay for it. Of course, that comes with a caveat – be wary of stones that are very clear, similar to coloured glass. I’ve seen a lot of these in Australian chain jewellery stores. Often referred to as ‘created sapphires’ these are lab grown. They lack the natural inclusions and variations that make gemstones such amazing things.
When selecting a stone, inspect it visually – both with the naked eye and then with a loupe. Always inspect stones with a loupe. You will be able to see inclusions more clearly and get a better idea of the quality of stone. It also signals to the seller that you have a good idea of what you’re after. If you ask for a loupe and are provided with a magnifying glass, ask yourself what the jeweller is trying to hide – a magnifying glass provides 2-3x magnification whereas a loupe is 10X. I don’t know a single jeweller worth their salt that does not have a loupe for customers to use, especially when they are at their stores, stalls or at trade shows.
Sapphires: Colour (see also treatment below)
Sri Lanka is especially famous for their blue and padparascha sapphires. The exact colour of padparaschas vary depending on who you ask – many a jeweller will try to pass off a peach, pink, orange or brown-hued sapphire as a padparascha – so be aware that if someone is describing a stone to you as a padparascha sapphire, it’s likely to come with an inflated price tag.
Colour is probably the most obvious and important consideration when buying a sapphire. As you know, sapphires come in all colours of the rainbow (except red – they’re rubies). When buying a sapphire, ask yourself if there’s a colour you are particularly drawn to. There are sometimes bargains to be had just by purchasing a colour that is considered less desirable, but is just as beautiful.
For instance, now that ‘royal blue’ sapphires are in vogue (thanks to the royal’s family infamous sapphire engagement ring), lighter coloured blue sapphires like cornflower (my favourite!) and light blue are comparatively cheaper. You can save hundreds of dollars by purchasing a stone that is a few shades of blue lighter. The same goes for padparaschas, you might be better off purchasing a peach or orangey toned stone that sits well against your skin.
So much of a gemstone’s colour is personal taste, plus it’s worth taking a look at what the stone in question looks like against your skin tone. I love green sapphires, but they look absolutely terrible on me! In my three years in Sri Lanka, I did not manage to find a single green sapphire that suited my olive skin tone. They made my skin look more yellow and the sapphire itself tended to look pond-y, that’s my term for the green that is often found in grotty ponds.
Lastly, and the thing I most wished I knew earlier – gemstones will usually look a touch darker after they’ve been put into a setting. This is because the setting inevitably cuts out some of the light entering the stone, and a little bit more light is also cut out when you wear it against your skin. Depending on the setting, a gemstone can appear a fraction or noticeably darker after being set into jewellery.
The fifth element: Treatment
There’s one more thing that can affect your sapphire’s value. Although not part of the 4Cs, it is good to enquire whether a stone has had any treatments applied to it, including whether it has been heated. Heat treatments are usually performed to enhance colour, deepening the blues (or other colour).
Heating is one of the most common enhancements to sapphires. Isam of Salie’s Fine Jewellery says it is hard to put a figure on it, but somewhere around 75% of sapphires on the market are likely to be heat treated. He advises that heat treatment is not something to be put off by – it is a completely acceptable treatment (as opposed to irradiation or diffused stones – this where a white stone has been coated on the surface with colour.) It’s a bonus if you do find one that is not heat treated, but don’t get hung up on it.
A last word
While Sri Lankans are a generally honest bunch, it pays to ask the right questions at any jeweller. Due to the extremely high cost of labour in Australia, it is usually very, very expensive to have a bespoke piece of jewellery commissioned. Not so in Sri Lanka – pieces that were purchased there have been valued at two to three times what was paid, that’s not even factoring in the labour costs.
If in doubt, visit the National Gem and Jewellery Authority who will be able to verify stones for you if you make an appointment. The cost varies between 1500 -3500 LKR for reports, and can take up to three days.
I must stress again that I am a hobby purchaser, not someone who buys for investment. Please do your own research before your purchase.