Soaring sapphires and spectacular spinels

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

As world demand for luxury fine-coloured stones has accelerated in recent years, the price of sapphires has soared to unprecedented levels, says jewellery expert, John C. Benjamin

As far as jewellery is concerned some things sell well and some things don’t. I learnt this maxim nearly 40 years ago when I worked as a cataloguer at Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers (not to be confused with the Phillips auction house which operates in Mayfair today). For example, a platinum and diamond double clip is infinitely more desirable than a Victorian gold and diamond flower spray brooch. A vivid Edwardian emerald and diamond ring will attract considerable interest while a modern “treated” emerald certainly will not and a beautiful Georgian rivière necklace is far more appealing than a foreign-made modern gold construction of dubious provenance and design.

Coloured stones – specifically rubies, emerald and sapphires – could often be bought quite cheaply in those far-off days of the 1970s and 1980s. Sapphires are particularly interesting since they come in such a wide range of colours as well as the best-known blue varieties. The cheapest blue types are found in Australia, Africa and the Far East and are characteristically the colour of blue/black ink. A really poor Australian sapphire ring could be bought in those days for a little as £50-100 per carat. Ceylon sapphires are a pretty cornflower blue but still seldom sold for more than £300-400 per carat while Burmese sapphires – a deep royal blue which I personally found very appealing – were still pretty cheap; it was rare for a 6-8 carat Art Deco Burmese sapphire ring to fetch more than £12,000-15,000 unless it happened to be by Cartier or a similar maker. It was only the rare and beautiful Kashmir stones which ever fetched the dizzy heights of £50,000 plus for a decent-sized gem. Kashmir sapphires are found in the inaccessible mountainous region northwest of the Himalayas – a region now lost today to modern mining methods. A glorious warm, velvety blue colour, once seen they are never forgotten.

I always knew that a time would come when sapphires would be properly appreciated and prices would soar to unprecedented levels. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that auction houses, dealers and shops began to realise just how underpriced sapphires actually were and, as world demand for fine-coloured stones began to accelerate, so prices very quickly shifted upwards.

Kashmir sapphires are found in the mountainous region northwest of the Himalayas 

Today, those £12,000-15,000 Burmese sapphires are easily fetching £100,000-150,000 and Ceylon sapphires, the “Cinderella” variety, can comfortably make £5,000 per carat for a decent-sized stone.  However, the vast majority of sapphires pale into insignificance against the best stones from Kashmir. In June Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold a 10.33 carat Kashmir for over $239,000 per carat, in other words £100,000-150,000 per carat appears to be the benchmark for these wonderful stones if you are lucky enough to own one. Frankly, I don’t believe the ceiling has been reached yet as demand well and truly outstrips supply for these rare and exceptional gems.

One coloured gem which has really made an impact in recent years is the spinel. While they are not remotely as well known as sapphires and rubies, they have been appreciated by jewellers, gemmologists and historians for centuries; indeed, the “Black Prince’s Ruby” mounted in the Imperial State Crown is actually a spinel while the Mughal Emperors of 17th and 18th century India wore huge spinel specimens as turban jewels and amuletic pendants, sometimes inscribed with prayers and personal mottoes.

Last month Bonhams took in for sale an octagonal-shaped, emerald-cut, claret-pink spinel brooch in a diamond setting. This rare 50 carat gem is well documented as it was formerly in the collection of Henry Philip Hope who gave his name to the fabulous blue diamond currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. No one was surprised by the estimate of £150,000-200,000 but who would have expected it to have fetched £962,500?  Coloured gems are definitely the “hot property” of today.

John C. Benjamin is an independent jewellery valuer, historian, lecturer and author offering advice to private clients wishing to buy or sell jewellery and gems.        

01296 615522/07931 325212

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