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Article: A Brief History of Sapphire Jewelry: From Ancient Royalty to Modern Luxury

A Brief History of Sapphire Jewelry: From Ancient Royalty to Modern Luxury

A Brief History of Sapphire Jewelry: From Ancient Royalty to Modern Luxury

Sapphire is synonymous with a deep 'royal blue color, its alluring charm has captivated people the world over for thousands of years. Sapphire is the name given to a gemstone called corundum, a gemstone that can be found in many colors and on many continents. Although sapphire is most often associated with blue, sapphires come in many shapes, sizes, and colors with the notable exception being red - Red corundum are known to us as 'ruby'.
Though these other colors do exist, it is the deep royal ocean-like blue tones that Sapphire derives its etymology from. From Greek 'Sapheiros' and Latin 'Saphirus' (both meaning blue), this gemstone has a history that spans centuries and is intertwined with the artistic, ecclesiastical, mythological, medical, royal, and industrial history of our species, to name but a few!

Sapphire Rings

Ancient Civilization

Etymology can often be a fascinating insight into the world our forebears inhabited, giving us a glimpse into the minds of men and women who lived millennia before ours.

As mentioned above, sapphire does indeed come to the English language as a descendant of the Greek and Latin words for the color blue. But those words are believed by some etymologists to have roots stretching back to Sanskrit, perhaps the world's oldest written language! The Sanskrit Sanipriya (शनिप्रिय), from "sani" (शनि) meaning "Saturn" and "priyah" (प्रिय), dear, or "sacred to Saturn". According to Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, there is a wish-granting divine tree of life called Kalpavriksha (Sanskrit: कल्पवृक्ष, lit. 'age tree') whose roots are made of sapphire and the rest of the tree is comprised of other precious gems such as rubies and diamonds. Hindu tradition also holds the belief that a person who wears sapphire will cause Shani (Saturnto be more favorable towards the wearer.

Sapphire Jewelry
Ancient Egyptians were using sapphire for healing ailments of the eye. Sapphire was closely associated with The Eye Of Horus. The Book Of The Dead gave instructions on how to fashion an Eye Of Horus amulet out of sapphire, which was supposed to help the wearer open their 'divine' third eye. Healers of the day used to grind sapphire into a powder and Cleopatra is said to have used sapphire in her makeup. The Egyptian belief that sapphire aided not only the 'divine' vision but our mortal vision as well has carried on through the successive dynasties and cultures which came to control Egypt in the following centuries.

The Ancient Persians also held interesting beliefs regarding sapphire. Sapphire gems were said to be fragments of a large pedestal upon which the entire world was held, thus giving the sky its blue color. Sapphires were a large part of the Silk Road trading network, connecting East and West, spreading new ideas and beliefs back and forth, often as valuable as the precious cargo the merchants carried.

Classical Civilization

Though the Greek and Roman civilizations are regarded as 'ancient' by contemporary humans, the ancient Indian civilization predated them by thousands of years, making them relative newcomers to the sapphire scene.

The Ancient Greeks took control of Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered the ancient kingdom. The Egyptian beliefs regarding sapphire's healing properties and its ability to open one's eyes to the realm of the gods had passed down to the Greeks themselves, who associated sapphire with wisdom and vision, attributing sapphire to their god, Apollo.

Sapphire History

At Delphi, the site of the famous Oracle, the Oracle would often wear sapphire, again to open her 'divine' eyes and get the wisdom of the gods. It was said that Helen of Troy, 'the face that launched a thousand ships' owed all her of desirability and comeliness to the massive sapphire she owned. 

As had happened with Egypt, eventually the Greeks themselves were bested by an upcoming power, the Romans.

The Romans were incredibly impressed by the Hellenistic culture. They adopted many Greek beliefs and noblemen were often taught by Greek tutors and spoke Greek in day-to-day life. The Romans held much the same beliefs regarding sapphire's healing properties as the Greeks did.

There have been some impressive examples of carved sapphire intaglio found at Roman sites such as Pompeii. The Romans wore sapphire jewelry as status symbols and for fashion much like we do today. Another beautiful example of Roman sapphire master craftsmanship is the sapphire ring once belonging to Emperor Caligula, whose reign began in 37 CE.
Sapphire also held spiritual significance to the Hebrews and later on, the Christians. Sapphire also represented the tribe of Issachar, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Later Christian beliefs regarding sapphire show up in the Book of Revelations when describing the spiritual New Jerusalem.

"The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation stone was jasper; the second, sapphire..." (Rev 21:19)

In older texts, there is often no distinction made between sapphire and lapis lazuli, as both are blue gemstones and were often used interchangeably. Sapphire had also gained a reputation for warding away malignant spirits and preserving the general well-being of rulers and royalty. The royalty of Europe which arose following the collapse of centralized Roman authority kept alive this association of sapphire with protection.
Sapphire studs

Middle Ages

The chaos of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe brought many changes, but the people's reverence for sapphire never ended. Sapphire was used in great numbers by clergy of the Church, who saw the deep blue color as representing heaven and divinity. The people of the fractured former Roman empire in Italy still regarded sapphire as a treatment for sore eyes. Pope Innocent III (died 1216 CE) decreed that the rings of Bishops were to be made of solid gold and set with an unengraved sapphire, to symbolize the Bishop's purity and sanctity. 

Jewel exchanges and gift-giving became a common practice during the Middle Ages, to show respect from one monarch to another, or to/from noblemen to curry favor in Royal Courts. 

Sapphires undoubtedly were traded and passed as highly prized valuables. Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed by Elizabeth I in 1587, was known to have an extensive gem collection, which included sapphires from Sri Lanka. She used sapphire to treat sore eyes, rubbing a sapphire pendant against her eyes as needed. 

Sri Lanka Sapphire 

The written history of sapphire mining in Sri Lanka goes back to the days of the writer and astronomer Ptolemy.(died 170CE) Sri Lanka's history of sapphire mining and production could very nearly warrant another full article of its own! As mentioned by Ptolemy, beryl and sapphire were very common export 'products' of the Sri Lankan industry. Sri Lanka has been called many different names over the centuries. The Sinhalese lovingly called Sri Lanka 'Ratna-Dweepa' meaning 'Land of Jewels'.

To the Persians who traversed the Indian Ocean and traded with the Sri Lankans, the country was known as 'Serendip', the ancient land which seemed to have an endless supply of precious gems! in later centuries, Sri Lankan sapphire's brilliant blues and high quality was not lost on the famous explorer Marco Polo, who took many gemstones including Sri Lankan sapphires with him to Venice.

Sapphire Ring History

In the early 1500s, the Portuguese colonized Sri Lanka, naming it 'Ceilão'. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese in 1638, using the name 'Zeylan' before themselves being replaced by the final wave of European colonialists, the British, who named the island 'Ceylon' in the late 1700s/early 1800s. The 'Ceylon sapphires' were extremely high quality and were noted for their deep royal blue colors, but Sri Lanka is home to almost every shade of corundum, including the majestic Padparadscha (meaning Lotus Color), a stunning orange-pinkish colored sapphire. 

Several notable sapphires have been mined from Sri Lankan mines, including the Star of India, the Star of Bombay, and the Logan Sapphire. The city of Ratnapura is known as the 'City of Gems' and it remains the 'gem capital' of Sri Lanka to this day!

The British Royal Family

The British Crown Jewels contain some of the finest examples of sapphire gems anywhere on the planet. The Imperial State Crown contains a sapphire known as 'St Edwards Sapphire', originally belonging to Edward the Confessor (died 1066) as well as the Stuart Sapphire, itself weighing 104 carats!

'Ceylon Sapphires' were noted for their exceptionally high quality and were extremely desirable, with the British Royal family, in particular, taking a shine to them. Queen Victoria was a lover of jewels and she was gifted a sapphire brooch the day before her wedding. Her husband Prince Albert also gifted her a diamond and sapphire coronet which she cherished immensely. She wore this coronet to the first Opening of Parliament since the death of her beloved husband and was said to be in mourning for the remainder of her life.

Sapphire Earrings

In more recent times, Queen Elizabeth II had an extensive collection of sapphires, including some she inherited from family members. In 1981 King Charles III gave Lady Diana Spencer (Princess Diana) a sapphire engagement ring, the same ring that was given to Kate Middleton (Princess of Wales) by her husband and heir to the British throne, William, Prince of Wales in 2010.

If you feel like continuing the long tradition of wearing sapphire, you can order your own piece of sapphire jewelry from our ready to wear section here.


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