SAPPHIRE: MINE TO MARKET JOURNEYS
Once a sapphire is mined, many things need to be done to it before it reaches its final retail destination. It needs to be transformed from an unattractive, rough, rock looking crystal into a brilliant gemstone. This usually involves cleaning, heating, cutting and polishing. I have called this the mine to market journey. It is a journey that every mined sapphire must take. In the eyes of the public, it is an obscure journey and one that is not well known. The purpose of this essay is to shed some light on that journey, light many consumers can use to make better sapphire buying decisions.
I am especially interested in describing the journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana (USA) and comparing that journey to the journeys taken by most sapphires mined elsewhere in the world.
I am very interested in comparing these two journeys for two reasons. First, I own Americut Gems, a company that is a major supplier of polished Montana sapphire to retail jewelers who are mostly located in the United States. The journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana is very different in several important respects compared to the journey taken by sapphires mined most anywhere else. These differences are important. Just how important and why they are important will become clear later.
Typical Overseas Journey
I will begin by describing the main features of the typical mine to market journey of sapphires mined in locations other than Montana. The focus will be on production from countries in Asia and Africa because that is where nearly all gem quality sapphire is produced. (Thomas R Yager, W. David Menzie, and Donald W. Olson, “Weight of Production of Emeralds, Rubies, Sapphires, and Tanzanite from 1995-Through 2005” United States Geological Survey)
Sapphires are mined commercially in no less than twenty countries. These countries are widely scattered across the globe. There are many mines in Asia. The best-known Asian locations are Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Vietnam. African nations that produce sapphire include Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, and Cameroon. The African nation of Madagascar is in a class of its own because of the huge volumes of sapphire it produces. Australia is also a significant sapphire producer.
After they are mined, most sapphires need to be cleaned and heated. After they are cleaned and heated, all sapphires need to be cut and polished before they can be set in jewelry or sold as loose gemstones. Sometimes these operations are completed locally where the gems are mined. This is especially the case in countries where governments require that some or all of these processes are done locally. However, enforcing these requirements has always been difficult because of gemstone smuggling. This is especially true in countries where bribery of officials responsible for enforcement is not only possible but common. Consequently, there have always been extensive clandestine operations where sapphires are removed from their countries of origin and shipped elsewhere for heating and cutting.
One of the major motives for shipping sapphires from one country to another, whether clandestine or straightforward, is to artificially enhance their value. A good, real-world example would involve shipping a sapphire from Madagascar or Australia to Sri Lanka. As stated previously, Both Australia and Madagascar are primary sources of mined sapphire. Many of the sapphires recovered in both Madagascar and Australia look similar to sapphires mined in Sri Lanka. If those Sri Lankan looking sapphires that were mined in Madagascar or Australia could be sold as having originated in Sri Lanka, they would sell for higher prices. This pattern of price discrimination based on country of origin has created many chameleon sapphires and is one reason many mine to market journeys remain opaque.
If sapphires are mined in countries that do not require local processing, they are usually shipped to distant heating and cutting centers like Bangkok in Thailand and Colombo or Ratnapura in Sri Lanka. Whether clandestine or forthright, these sapphire mine to market journeys often involve multiple players. Sapphires often change hands many times before they are finally presented to the public for sale as fully transformed beautiful, lively gemstones. The chains of custody can be very complex and impenetrable.
Perhaps the most important implication these mine to market journeys have for consumers is that any attempt to retrace their sapphire’s journey is most likely a fool’s errand. With some exceptions, retail sellers cannot know with certainty where any given sapphire they are selling was mined. For some consumers, it is very important to know the journey. Their motivations vary but may include concerns about fair trade, working conditions of the miners, and the environment.
Gem Lab Country of Origin Reports
If any given sapphire has sufficient value, a country-of-origin report from a reputable gem laboratory is probably the best solution. However, most origin reports include the caveat that their conclusions are opinions. This is because mines routinely produce sapphires with characteristics that are atypical for that mine, and instead display microscopic features that mimic characteristics that are more common in other mines.
In addition, the problem of accuracy is compounded by the sheer plurality of mines in many different countries. There is considerable overlap in sapphire DNA among these many mines. Consequently, despite much research and effort, mistakes are possible. (Aaron C Palke, Sudarat Saeseaw, Nathan D Renfro, Ziyin Sun, and Shane McClure, “Geographic Origin Determination of Blue Sapphire” Gems and Gemology, Winter 2019, Vol.55, No.4)
Nevertheless, gem lab origin reports are the best solution for most consumers who are acquiring sapphires that have been subject to the mine to market journey I have described.
The Montana Journey
The Montana mine to market journey is very different from the journey I have just described. In some respects, it may be unique. Because of these differences and this uniqueness, owners of Montana sapphire will be pleased to know that the chances of overpaying for a chameleon sapphire are too remote to be of concern.
I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that Americut Gems is a major supplier of polished Montana sapphire to retail jewelers. The company has a large inventory that consists exclusively of sapphire that has been mined in Montana. There is no chance that sapphires in this inventory can get mixed up with sapphires that have been mined elsewhere. As the owner of Americut Gems, I acquire all of this inventory from the mine after it has been cleaned. I supervise all aspects of the heating and cutting operations. All of these operations are done by American companies in the United States.
The chain of custody is short and transparent. I can guarantee that all of the sapphires purchased from my inventory were mined in Montana. My guarantee is trustworthy and meaningful to my retail customers because of the shortness and transparency of the Montana mine to market journey. Gem lab country of origin reports may be useful for a small number of the most expensive sapphires to preempt concerns that could arise in the distant future. But for the vast majority of very fine sapphires, whose price tag may not justify the expense of an outside report, these trustworthy guarantees together with an understanding of their chain of custody will suffice in most cases to address customers’ concern about country of origin.
I have described the way things are done at Americut Gems to shed light on the general nature of the Montana “mine to market” journey. Other sellers of Montana sapphire may have custody chains that are different from mine but it remains the case that the Montana journey is generally shorter and more transparent than those encountered elsewhere. There are exceptions. Some Montana mined sapphires are shipped overseas for both heating and cutting. This occurs most often in the smaller sizes. The motive is to reduce production costs.
Summary and Conclusion
The purpose of this essay was to shed some light on mine to market sapphire journeys. Every sapphire takes this journey if it is to be changed from an unattractive dull looking rock into a highly polished, brilliant gemstone. First, I described the journey most sapphires take that are mined in Asian and African countries. Next, I discussed the journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana. I compared the two journeys. I took special note of the differences in their respective chains of custody and the implications this has for country of origin claims.
Nothing stated here should be construed as discouraging the purchase of sapphires that may have been mined anywhere in the world. Choosing the right sapphire is a very personal thing, and once a choice is made, that choice may override any concerns, if any, about origin. And for that large and growing number of individuals who have chosen to acquire sapphires mined in Montana, this mine to market discussion should give them a better understanding of what they have and a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of what they have selected.