Monday, November 24, 2008

Natural Sapphires?

In 1902, the first synthetic sapphire was grown by French chemist Auguste Verneuil using fine alumina powder and an oxyhydrogen flame. We have come a long way since then.

Sapphires have since proliferated in labs and factories, with over 250 tonnes flooding the gem market in 2003 alone. But synthetic gems are only the tip of this luxurious blue-violet iceberg. Almost all sapphires, 99%, are heat-treated in order to enhance their colour.

From Montana to Sri Lanka, Australia to China, these otherwise unattractive grey stones are mined from the earth and are heated at high temperatures in order to improve both their clarity and colour.

So, what does it mean when one stumbles across a 'natural sapphire'?

Firstly, the word 'natural' is in an of itself problematic, because in the world of gems it is not without its own specific interpretations. For most of us, 'natural' speaks to something created in nature without the heavy hand of man; something that exists separately from us. However, in this age of enhancement technologies, 'natural' is taken to mean something else.
For most of us who are new to the business of gems, it would seem obvious that a natural sapphire would be one which was neither synthetic nor heat-treated. However, for many in the jewellery business, a natural sapphire is one mined from the earth, regardless of whether it is followed by heat-treatment.

So, is the moral of the story buyer beware?

Yes and no. Natural sapphires are a rarity, but not an impossibility. Most stones claiming to be natural (mined and treatment-free) are accompanied by papers which support their claim, and this is something all consumers should look for if they are considering these stones, and their larger price tag. Consumers should also ask not only questions but also about what guarantee they will have that this stone is the genuine article.

But that is not to say that treated sapphires are to be avoided. Treated stones come with enhanced colour and clarity, not to mention a cheaper price range. I think the most important lesson to take from this is that regardless of whether the stone is "100% natural" or "a little bit treated", the consumer should know exactly what they are holding.

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