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The Great Beryllium Bake Sale
It's getting harder and harder to find golden sapphires that don't owe their color to beryllium treatment.


The gem industry is having second thoughts about the use of beryllium to color corundum. After condemning the flood of padparadscha look-alike sapphires created by the use of beryllium diffusion in 2001, dealers are now condoning a glut of yellow and golden sapphires produced by the same method.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to find calibrated yellow sapphires that don’t owe their color to beryllium treatment,” says Shawn O’Sullivan, a gem buyer for Jewelry Television in Knoxville, Tennessee.

For single stones in free sizes, where there is still a choice between stones yellowed the old and new ways, “the price difference is now only around 20 percent and shrinking,” says Benny Hakimi of Colorline in New York. If, and when, prices are the same for the two varieties, old-fashioned heat-treated yellow sapphire could disappear altogether.

Some say it already has. “Yellow sapphire produced by beryllium diffusion has been around since the process started,” says noted physicist John Emmett. “It is nothing new.”

But the scarcity of natural and heat-only alternatives in common sizes is new. Emmett explains the reasons for the sudden majority of diffusion-colored goods: “Natural yellow sapphires are quite rare. Heat-treated yellows are a lot less so but far from abundant. However, beryllium-diffused yellow sapphires can be manufactured from pale Montana and Songea [Tanzania] material as well as all the Geuda stones that didn’t turn a good blue when heat-treated. Believe me, there’s no end of material which lends itself to the beryllium diffusion manufacturing process.”

There’s just one problem: Many, if not most, of these sapphires are not being disclosed as what they are—at least, not at retail. While Jewelry Television says it is law-abiding, it uses a foggy phrase, “bulk diffusion,” to explain the process. Dealers swear they are being truthful and specific about the nature of the treatment on their invoices, calling it exactly what it is. And most major gem labs are pledged to making specific comments about beryllium on their gem identification reports.

Nevertheless, no one denies that the gem trade would like to be relieved of the increasingly difficult legal obligation to segregate beryllium-treated from heat-treated sapphires. Toward that end, it is searching for a way to legitimize and market beryllium-treated stones. Better yet, it hopes for solid gemological justification to lump these goods together with conventionally heat-treated ones.

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unheated yellow sapphire
It’s getting harder and harder to find all-natural yellow sapphires like this unheated yellow sapphire from Sant Enterprises in Bangkok, (66) 2266-8025.
yellow sapphire
Beryllium-diffused yellow sapphire. Photo courtesy of GIA.
yellow Montana rough sapphires
Three yellow Montana rough sapphires which were beryllium treated, with two faceted Montana sapphires traditionally heated. Sapphires courtesy of Glenn Lehrer.
Judy Chia, copyright AGTA GTC.


sapphires from Madagascar
Beryllium diffusion was first used seven years ago to create padparadscha-like sapphire colors, like these sapphires from Madagascar.
Albano Ballerini


blue sapphire
This blue sapphire has a naturally-occurring cloud containing beryllium. Photo courtesy of GIA.
Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer
Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer in the GIA Laboratory in New York.