Australian Sapphires – Sustainable Gemstones At Its Best (Part 1)
Come 2020, reports show that Australian sapphires contribute to over 70 percent of the global blue sapphire production. Most global jewellery brands have turned to Australia to meet their demands. Apart from the unique look of the stone, a major reason is the emphasis on ethical sourcing and sustainability here. The Australian government and the mining industry work in tandem to enact environmental protection acts that protects native lands. Focus of mechanised mining and labour control along with strict paper trial ensures minimized erosion by unethical means. But, how did it all start? Read along!
The History Of Australian Sapphires
While the interest in Australian teal sapphires may be recent, it is worthy of note that Australia has been mining sapphires for about a century now, which in terms of gemstone mining is recent! The two main sources for sapphire in Australia are the New England fields, in northern New South Wales, and the Anakie fields, in central Queensland.
Sapphires were first reported in Inverell in the New South Wales region in 1854, while Archibald John Richardson found sapphire near the town of Anakie in 1873. While mining in the NSW region began almost 40 years later, Anakie was declared a mining field in 1902. By 1913, two tonnes of sapphires and other corundum had been mined through shallow alluvials and sink shafts in Anakie.
However, with WWI, operations came to a stand still and it was not until the 1960’s that the high demand for Australian sapphires in Asia prompted the opening of mines once more. Thus by 1969, the Anakie fields were almost fully exploited by full scale mechanical operations. Today, many small scale, semi mechanised operations run alongside the heavily mechanized operations. Similarly in the south, the New England fields had sporadic mining till 1959, when the opening of the Asian markets, spurred full scale mechanical operations. Interestingly, when seen at a chemical level, Australian sapphires have a similar make up to Thai and Cambodian sapphires, possibly due to similar basaltic origins.
Basalt distribution in Eastern Australia. Major deposits have been found in the Anakie fields, Queensland and the New England Fields (New South Wales). However some deposits have also been reported in Cooktown in the north and Tasmania in the South. Original Map adapted from the Mineralogy section of Australian Museum, published by Terrance Coldham in the journal of Gems and Gemology.
The Australia – Thailand Connection
Offices of Thai sapphire buyers in the Anakie fields during the 1960-70s. It was not uncommon to see 10 different buying companies at one field at the same time. From individual stones to mine run parcels, Thai buyers purchased most of the Australian sapphire rough.
Australia and Thailand have fostered a long standing relation with respect to sapphires since late 60’s. The sapphire boom between 1967 to 1979, led to increased production. Funding poured into more mining operations and mechanised mining that helped to establish Australia as a leading source of sapphires. Thailand stepped into become the global leader for sapphire trade, with most of their material coming from Australia. This relationship flourished because:
1. EXPERTISE OF THAI GEMSTONE CUTTERS:
Australian sapphires had been previously unusable due to their dark blue colour (owing to high iron content). Heat treatment implemented by the Thai, resulted in dissolution of the silk inclusions, yielding a much lighter, reflective variety of sapphires. Additionally, with Thailand’s historic experience of faceting gems, Australian Sapphires, particularly blue sapphires were cut and calibrated in large quantities and found a global audience.
2. GEOGRAPHICAL PROXIMITY:
Thailand is a hub for gemstone processing since time immemorial due to its favourable access to many South – East Asian mining hubs like China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Chantaburi in Thailand and more. Heat treatment of sapphires and other coloured stones have been perfected over the last century, yielding the best quality of stone sin terms of colour, clarity and more. Heat treatment is a long and laborious procedure that can take years to be completed. This becomes an expensive matter if done in Australia.
3. THE THAI LEGACY:
Multiple factors contributed in Thailand’s growth as the world capital for sapphire and ruby, between 1960’s and the end of 1990’s.
- The government endorsed a friendly tax system, regarding gold and diamond imports that enabled the jewellery industry to grow.
- The discovery of heat treatment by the indigenous people of Chantaburi enabled them to buy rough at low value that was considered of no value or to give higher prices than their competitors for the whole production of a given mine.
- The political situation around 1960’s and 70’s around Thailand was that most of its neighbours, most notably Burma, was turning to a communist model. So gems from these gem-rich nations were brought into Thailand for trade. Additionally, Thailand received military support from the U.S.A with particularly heavy investment in infrastructure. Thus, capital and technology became more easily available to Thai companies.
Fun fact, the heat treatment of colored stones was discovered by accident. In 1968, a market burned down in Chantaburi. A man named Samuang Kaewan discovered that it was possible to change the colour of stones by heating them. While he may not have been the first to discover it with many in France, Germany and Switzerland working on synthetics, this greatly motivated the people of Chantaburi to work with heat treatment. Sapphires were the first stone to be successfully heat treated. Thai buyers travelled to Sri Lanka and Australia to buy rough gems that would first be heat treated and then faceted and finished in Thailand. Contact with Australia also familiarized them with modern mining equipment which became crucial in the mining of new ruby deposits in the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1970’S.
DID YOU KNOW?
|Heat treatment of Australian blue sapphires and Sri Lankan blue sapphires are done for completely different reasons. The presence of silk in the primary reason for heat treatment of Australian blue sapphires while Sri Lankan Blue sapphires (Ceylon sapphires) are heat treated to darken their colour.|
The Colors Of Australian Sapphires
The iron rich Australian sapphires are predominantly blue. Australia has assumed a major role in the production of blue sapphires, that are heat treated in Thailand to remove the silk. Australian sapphires and teal sapphires are distinguished by their unique blue color, that is more saturated than Ceylon sapphires or Montana sapphires. Heat treatment of Australian sapphires is carried out to lighten the colour generally and bring out the fire of the stone.
Greenish-Blue Bicoloured sapphires (Teal sapphires):
Of all the bicolored sapphires, Australian teal sapphires have carved a niche in today’s gemstone market. These are essentially blue sapphires with a hint of green, courtesy colour zoning, that is naturally present in Australian sapphires. The teal sapphires that have a clear 50-50 ratio of blue and green are an extremely rare find, and we call them “mermaid sapphires”.
Yellow sapphires, Green sapphires:
Smaller deposits of yellow and green sapphires are found too and these are extremely valuable, considering how hard they are to come by in Australia. In fact, Australian green sapphires are of such fine quality that when they were first found around the Anakie region in the late 1800’s, they were thought to be emeralds and an entire town was named “Emerald” after the discovery!
Perhaps the most renowned type of sapphires from this region, Australian parti sapphires are coveted all over the world. The unique combination of blue, green and yellow with distinct colour zoning that is demarcated by a partition (hence the term “parti”), has carved a unique global identity. Confused how to differentiate between teal and parti sapphires? Click here!
- Other sapphires: Pink sapphires and Star sapphires:
Pink sapphires range from light to dark pink and can also include secondary hues like purplish-pink and orangish-pink. Stunning star sapphire specimen can be found in Australia, in a range of sapphire colors, particularly blue star sapphire.
In the next part we will be discussing:
- The special cutting of Australian sapphires at our factory in Thailand
- The Mine to Market Procedure.
- Treatments for Australian Sapphires
- What sets them apart?
- Competitors of Australian sapphires
So stay tuned!