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A Brief History of Sapphires

The mining of sapphires dates back to 800BC.

The word sapphire is derived from the Greek word 'Sapphirus'. It is accepted that the great authorities on ancient mineralogy, Theophrastus and Pliny, were probably NOT referring to the sapphire gemstone of modern days when using Sapphirus, but instead, we're referring to the gold spangled Lapis-Lazuli.

Roman Gold Ring with Sapphire - 3rd Century AD
Roman Gold Ring with Sapphire - 3rd Century AD

It is more likely that the ancient word for modern sapphire was 'Hyacinthus'; the following description was written by Gaius Julius Solinus, a 3rd century Latin grammarian and geographer. He wrote -

"Amongst those things of which we have treated is found also the Hyacinthus, of a shining blue colour, a stone of price, if it be found without a blemish, for it is extremely subject to defects. For generally it is either diluted with violet or clouded with dark shades, or else melts away into a watery hue with too much whiteness. The best colour of the stone is an equable one, neither dulled by too deep a dye, nor too clear from excessive transparency, but which draws a sweetly-coloured tint from the double mixture of brightness and violet. This is the gem that feels the influence of the air, and sympathises with the heavens, and does not shine equally if the sky be cloudy or bright. Besides, when put into the mouth it is colder than other stones. For engraving upon, indeed, it is by no means adapted, insomuch as it defies all grinding; it is not, however, entirely invincible, since it is engraved upon, and cut into shape by means of the diamond."

Roman Sapphire Cameo - 1st Century AD
Roman Sapphire Cameo - 1st Century AD

In this passage, Solinus refers to several characteristics of sapphire, especially its blue colour and its extreme hardness. The characteristic colour of a sapphire is a clear blue, very similar in hue to a blossom called cornflower—the more velvety the colour, the greater value of the blue sapphire.

The history of sapphire spans back to the Old Testament of the Bible with mentions in the books of Exodus, Job, Ezekiel and Lamentations. For example, Ezekiel 28:13 proclaimed, "You were in Eden, God's garden. You were dressed in splendour, your robe studded with jewels: Carnelian, peridot, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald, all in settings of engraved gold. A robe was prepared for you the same day you were created".

Known by the Greeks and Romans as Tabropane and by the Persian's as Serendib, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) was often referred to by writers as a utopian land of natural riches and great beauty. The earliest gemstone reference to the island was as the origin of the valuable gems given by Middle Eastern King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba in the Old Testament. Centuries later, in ancient Iraq, an oral story-telling tradition passed on the tale of castaway Sinbad the Sailor, whose sixth voyage saw him shipwrecked on the same island, where rivers flowed with him rubies, diamonds, pearls and many precious things. From a western perspective, Sri Lanka's natural resources were already being traded into Europe through India via the Silk Route during the same time period as Alexander the Great, in the third century BC.

For millennia, sapphires have been used for alchemy, magic, healing rituals, and astrological prophecy. Arabian kings wore sapphires to protect themselves from envy and physical injury, and early sailors believed that sapphires would protect them from drowning at sea. Up to quite modern times, the sapphire was regarded as a charm or medicine, and very extraordinary powers were attributed to it. It was dedicated by the Greeks to Apollo because, when consulting his oracle, they thought that the possession of this gem, from its heavenly nature, would secure them an early and favourable answer. However, the ancient Greeks rarely used sapphire for personal adornment, possibly because of the difficulty of manipulating such a hard stone.

Medieval kings wore sapphires around their necks as a defence against harm. One of the oldest known stones clearly identified as sapphire is St. Edwards Sapphire; it is believed this gemstone dated back to the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor's coronet in 1042.

British Imperial Crown featuring The Stuart Sapphire
British Imperial Crown featuring The Stuart Sapphire

Another example of this historic gem is The Stuart Sapphire. This 104ct oval cut gem in a fine blue colour belonged to the first king of Scotland, Alexander II, and there is evidence that this sapphire was set into his coronation crown in 1214. Passed down through generations of Scottish royals, the sapphire is officially noted in possession of Stuart King James II when he ruled England and Scotland. Historians agree that when James II fled England in 1688, bound for France, he took the sapphire with him. A century later, the sapphire was back on English soil in possession of King George III. By the time George's granddaughter Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the sapphire had become the centrepiece of the Imperial State Crown and was later used for her coronation a year later. The sapphire took pride of place at the front of the crown until 1909, when it was moved to the back to make way for a lustrous newcomer, the Cullinan II, cut from the largest diamond ever found. The Cullinan II and the Stuart Sapphire are now joined by a band of 8 emeralds, 8 sapphires and 2 rows of pearls.

Sapphires have withstood the test of time and will continue to endure in reverence and popularity. Our next blog post will feature famous sapphires throughout the ages. Stay tuned.



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