By Brecken Branstrator
This cushion-shaped sapphire sold for $269,000 recently at Bonhams. It is of Ceylon origin, which is currently driving a lot of the demand in the premium sapphire market, one gemstone dealer told National Jeweler.
New York--In the world of fine jewelry, the sapphire needs little introduction. 

The gemstone has been in use for ages and traditionally is associated with qualities such as nobility, truth, sincerity and faithfulness. The most popular hue undoubtedly still is the blue, and in its finest quality the shade is the standard against which all other blue stones are compared.

Yet in today’s market, as fashion influences the use of other colors and consumers search for something different, fancy sapphires are moving into the spotlight as well. 

In fact, one of sapphire’s strengths is its color and price range diversity. The gemstone offers something for all types of shoppers, from those looking for collectible pieces to more affordable decorative objects and beads.

Like many colored gemstones these days, the supply of sapphires is not keeping up with global demand, as markets across the world continue to clamor for all colors of the stone. 

“Relative to worldwide demand, which has grown tremendously over the last 10 years mainly due to the increase of the size of the market in China, the supply of any type of desirable sapphire continues to tighten,” said gemstone dealer John Bachman.

The sapphire market’s main challenge right now is finding enough good quality stones at the source. While discoveries in Madagascar and Tanzania increased the supply several years ago, the global market absorbed that, and continues to want more.

Bachman said that while there has been some increase in the supply of heated blue sapphires due to improvement and new treatment techniques, he has seen quantities of natural material flat-line or decline slightly over the last few years. 

If supply isn’t increased soon to alleviate prices, growth in sapphire sales will be difficult.

Cara Williams of Bear Essentials agreed that she’s seeing supply down across the board, but “most markedly in the finer grades.” Luckily, she echoed that there has been some increase in supplies of heated blue sapphires due to improvement and new treatment techniques, allowing for greater supply in that area.

Sapphires are in demand from jewelry consumers now perhaps more than ever due to, among other factors, increased media exposure, and is expected to continue to increase.

Blue sapphires are still the most in-demand, though Bachman notes that in the last couple of years, desire for the pastel colors, particularly peach and light pink, has increased sharply.

Demand for any particular color largely is driven by trends in fashion and other consumer markets.  With Pantone’s recent announcement that Rose Quartz will be one of two colors of the year for 2016, the pastel-hued sapphires likely will continue to trend upward in popularity.

Williams also noted the increasing demand for pastel colors, though demand outpaces supply as peaches and pinks are not common colors for sapphires.

Untreated sapphires too are “beginning to get some well-deserved recognition,” she said. She added that this is something Bear Essentials always has dealt in, but it used to be a small market for the gem connoisseurs. Now, as buyers are more educated by the Internet, many more are asking for untreated stones and will pay more for them.

The United States also is adjusting to market dominance changes, Williams said. 

Whereas the finest sapphires might have been sent to the U.S. first at one point, now the Chinese luxury market is changing things and the high quality gems are headed there.

When comparing stones of the same quality, Bachman said natural, untreated padparadscha and blue sapphires continue to be the most expensive, followed by pink and orange, then by purple, violet, fancy light shades and yellows. 

Prices of all unheated natural sapphires of any color have remained “buoyant,” he said, though “Heat-treated blue sapphire is still the No. 1 volume seller, with prices trending slightly upward in popular sizes and stable in sizes over 10 carats.”

In fact, he said that in his 40 years of experience in the market, he has never seen the price of sapphires from the source drop, except briefly during times of big discoveries or major Western recessions. “When prices have dropped, sales and demand increased, ultimately forcing upward price pressure again,” Bachman said. 

Williams told National Jeweler that she doesn’t foresee the relative pricing of sapphires changing much in the coming years, as it is a traditional gem and thereby less impacted by trends than other colored gemstones.

And while size and quality used to be the primary factors driving price, she said geographic origin now plays a greater role, due in part to the prevalence of lab reports. While Kashmir is the most desired and expensive origin, it makes up a small part of the market. 

Burmese sapphires are next in prominence but stones from this origin of a decent size and quality also are extremely rare. Ceylon stones really are what is currently driving most of the premium market, followed closely by Madagascar sapphires, Williams said.

She also noted that, “There needs to be some leveling out of the prices we’ve seen rise over the past few years.”  

In addition, in September 2014, colored gemstone miner Gemfields announced that it had entered into a joint venture with East West Gem Investment Limited in Sri Lanka to add sapphire mining to its portfolio, which already include emerald and ruby operations.

It remains to be seen what impact the company’s addition of the last of the “big three” will have for the sapphire market.

Design trends
A major design trend that seems to be happening for sapphires right now is the inclusion of the blue stones as accents in bridal, on the shank or even as a halo surrounding the white center diamond. 

The blue stones offer the perfect pop of color for brides that are looking for something a little different but still with a classic feel.

Williams also noted that cushion cuts and more precise cutting are trending with sapphires. 

When it comes to jewelry, she added, the finer stones tend to get set into traditional designs while fancy-colored sapphire melee is popping up in trendier places, as micro-pave, in narrow bands or as multi-colored accents. 

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Since 1906, National Jeweler has been the must-read news source for smart jewelry professionals--jewelry retailers, designers, buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. From market analysis to emerging jewelry trends, we cover the important industry topics vital to the everyday success of jewelry professionals worldwide. National Jeweler delivers the most urgent jewelry news necessary for running your day-to-day jewelry business here, and via our daily e-newsletter, website and other specialty publications, such as "The State of the Majors." National Jeweler is published by Jewelers of America, the leading nonprofit jewelry association in the United States.