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Umba Sapphire

Twenty-two miles from the Indian Ocean, at a small bend in Tanzania’s Umba River near the Kenyan border, you’ll find a unique two-mile-radius corundum deposit that produces just about every color of sapphire imaginable. Since the pipe’s discovery in 1962, its distinctive stones have earned the name Umba sapphire.

Around 1965, a family of gem dealers cornered the Tanzanian fancy sapphire market by jointly buying most of Umba’s output. Nearly 35 years later, the family still has barrels of rough sapphire waiting to be cut. Gem supply is normally a case of feast or famine: a new find comes onto the market, is available and affordable. Then supply dries up and prices skyrocket.

The family’s stockpile of Umba fancy color sapphire is an attempt to hold prices at a reasonably high level, while keeping supply steady. It also is an indication that acceptance of the earth tones of Umba sapphire is an aquaired taste. While the market for pure ice-cream sweet pastel sapphires from Sri Lanka and Tanzania’s other sapphire deposit, Tunduru, remains strong in Japan, Europe, and the United States, many sapphire connoisseurs still disparage the earthy tones of Umba, which have an acid edge to their color.

Of course, it’s always possible that attitudes toward Umba sapphire will change markedly in the next few years. Dealers who specialize in African gems say that jewelry makers and retailers are slowly beginning to recognize Umba sapphire on its own terms. What’s more, African fancy color sapphire has benefited from a new openness to fancy color sapphire in general since the early 1980s, especially stones in the pink family. While Umba is not known for rose pinks, it excels in pinkish-orange shades (variously described as “salmon” to “sunset” colors) that have begun to catch the public’s eye. As important, Umba has given the world sapphires with unique hues and color changes that are found nowhere else. What follows is a quick glimpse of Umba’s sapphire spectrum.

Padparadscha Paradox

Without a doubt, the most famous Tanzanian fancy sapphires are its so-called “African padparadschas.” When the firm with a corner on Umba’s production began cutting and selling East African orange sapphires in the mid-1960s, somewhat provocatively dubbed them “padparascha” the orange-pink sapphires Sri Lanka is so famous for producing. Purists who believe that padparadschas proper hail only from Sri Lanka objected so much that the firm now calls its stones “African padparadschas.”

Why do so many in the trade insist on this differentiation? One West Coast dealer explains that most African padparadschas have a strong tinge of brown that is noticeably absent from the Asian variety. Nevertheless, this dealer maintains that some East African padparadschas have an indisputable right to be sold as such, regardless of origin. “The trade doesn’t seem ready to accept the notion that bona fide padparadschas can come from Africa,” he says. Whether called “padparadscha” or not, many of these stones, even ones with some brown, have deep distinctive burnt orange and salmon colors that merit attention from collectors.

Haunting Deep Purples

East African sapphire has no peer in the purple range. The most superb of these stones have an intense cherry-orchid purple.

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Umba Sapphire