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Sapphire

If someone were to ask you to name a gem family famous for its wide range of colors, you might answer garnet or even tourmaline. But would sapphire spring to mind?

Probably not, since the word sapphire is synonymous with blue and has been so ever since the Romans coined it, ironically, to describe the haunting violet-blue of the lapis lazuli they found in Afghanistan. Over time, the Latin word "sapphirus" was attached to a multitude of other blue gems—including the magnificent deep-blue corundum found for millennia on the island of Sri Lanka (formerly British-ruled Ceylon) off the southern coast of India. Today, when the word sapphire refers to gems of a certain chemistry rather than color, dealers use the word interchangeably with every kind of corundum except ruby.

Nevertheless, don't blame yourself if the word sapphire is still a color-word meaning blue. It has taken the world centuries to recognize, and centuries more to celebrate, the corundum color wheel. The fault lies partly with the confusing language used to describe this gem.

For more than 1,000 years, writers on gems such as the Greek naturalist Theophrastus (Third Century BC) and his Roman counterpart Pliny (23-79 AD) sang the praises of a multicolored gem species known as hyacinth . In a poem called "Lapidarium," written between 1067 and 1081 AD, an abbot named Marbodus, who later became the Bishop of Rennes, described some of the hyacinth's paintbox array of colors:

One, like pomegranate flowers a fiery blaze;
And one, the yellow citron's hue displays.
One charms with paley blue the gazer's eye
Like the mild tint that decks the northern sky:
A strengthening power the several kinds convey
And grief and vain suspicions drive away.

Today, scholars are sure hyacinth was what we now call sapphire, a species then found mostly in Ceylon. Curiously, the same writers discuss another Ceylonese gem with similar qualities to hyacinth named carbuncle (meaning: to glow like an ember) now known as ruby.

Only scientists from the Arab world like al-Biruni (973-1050) and Teifaschi (1184-1253) had the insight that ruby and sapphire are the same species.

Meanwhile, Western commentators continued to separate ruby from sapphire. Writing of his world travels, trader Marco Polo (1254-1324) mentions being shown both rubies and sapphires when he visited "Seilan." Since ruby was then—and for more than six centuries afterward—the world's most valuable gem, it's understandable that this Italian merchant would focus almost exclusively on red corundum. Although later voyagers to this island south of India noted resemblances between its rubies and sapphires, they stopped short of lumping them together.

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Sapphire