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Australian Sapphire

Connoisseurs may glorify rare Kashmir sapphire with its soft velvety blue. Collectors may extol the hard-to-find Burma breed with its crisp royal color. And specialists in swank gems may laud the Sri Lankan variety for its cool stately hues.

But few sing the praises of Australian sapphire, even though it was about the only variety known to the common man for nearly 30 years until Thai sapphire, and later African, supplanted it as a market mainstay. Now it is unlikely anyone ever will.

For Australia’s claim to fame was in the realm of quantity, not quality. Indeed, it was to bulk what Kashmir was to beauty. Since the early 1960s, it had enjoyed unrivaled leadership as a sapphire producer. Then between 1985 and 1991, it went from supplying 70 percent of the world’s sapphire to less than 20 percent. That killed Australia’s reputation as the key source of bread-and-butter stones. Even when it was, dealers disliked its dark-toned, slightly greenish-colored goods.

Strangely, the consistent inkiness of color disparaged by connoisseurs made this sapphire indispensable to mass manufacturers and merchandisers. As late as 1989, dealers assumed that any mass-produced piece of sapphire jewelry used Australian material because it was the only reliable source of matchable blue tones.

Because America was the world’s chief manufacturing center for mass-production jewelry, the vast majority of Australia’s blue sapphires wound up here. But as chain stores became a bigger factor in Europe and as new markets for low-end jewelry emerged in the Pacific Rim area, exploding demand for inexpensive sapphire suited to mass production drove up prices for all but the lowest-grade Australian goods at least 50 percent in just two years.

Spiraling prices prompted exploration for sapphire in Thailand, long a producer of the gem. And since the Thais bought and cut 90 percent of Australia’s production, success with mining at home was sure to hurt sales in Australia. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Australian sapphire resisted oven touch ups.

Heat Treat

Ever since meaningful sapphire production began in Australia around 1890, bringing these gems to market has always been handled by people as strongly versed in gem enhancement as they are in cutting.

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Australian Sapphire