Sapphire: a celebration of colour

today14 May 2023

Written by: Claudia Carletti


In this intriguing talk, Joanna Hardy takes the audience on a captivating journey through the history of sapphires, spanning from ancient times to the contemporary era. She begins by discussing the talismanic powers ascribed to sapphires during the Middle Ages, during which the gem was believed to possess magical properties and was treated with reverence and caution in various parts of the world. These mystical attributes of sapphires made them highly coveted by those seeking protection and divine favour.

Mrs Hardy highlights the significance of sapphire as the stone of choice for British royalty, particularly for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This popularity continued among subsequent royal family members, further enhancing the gem’s allure and prestige, as seen in the Imperial State Crown, set with St Edward’s Sapphire and the Stuart Sapphire.

The talk delves into the fascination surrounding sapphire jewellery collections owned by influential socialites, including Daisy Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor, and Elizabeth Taylor. These glitterati figures wore sapphires to symbolise wealth, status, and elegance, contributing to the stone’s desirability and cultural significance.

The speaker then introduces her book, ‘Sapphire,’ part of a trilogy which took over a decade to write and explores sapphire’s history and impact on human culture. Mrs Hardy seeks to transport the audience through time, much like a tea ceremony used by a gem dealer to prepare individuals for the enchanting experience of viewing gemstone collections.

Colour emerges as a key theme in the presentation, with Mrs Hardy emphasising that red, green, and blue represent the colours of passion, hope, and the heavens, respectively. Sapphire’s blue hue is linked to intangible elements like the sky and the sea, evoking a sense of wonder and mystery.

The talk also sheds light on the significance of colour in gemstones before the importance of cut and clarity became equally prominent factors in evaluating gem quality. In ancient times, the richness and intensity of colour were highly prized, and gemstones were valued for their natural form, durability, and enchanting hues.

Mrs Hardy shares insights into the magical process of gem formation within the Earth, emphasising the importance of chromium, iron, and titanium ingredients in producing the vibrant colours seen in sapphires. This natural alchemy, orchestrated by the planet itself, results in the creation of captivating gemstones.

Addressing the challenges of determining sapphire origins, the speaker highlights the difficulties in distinguishing sapphires from different regions due to ancient landmasses, like Gondwana, which were once interconnected and had complex geological histories.

The presentation also explores sapphire’s metaphysical and symbolic aspects, revealing its association with tranquillity, trust, faithfulness, protection, and healing. Sapphires were considered potent tools to combat the unknown, control fate, and safeguard against illness.

Moving on to the historical significance of sapphires, Mrs Hardy shares intriguing details about ancient trade routes, where gemstones were exchanged between continents for thousands of years. Sri Lanka, a source of sapphires for over two millennia, played a central role in these ancient trade networks.

The talk focuses on early sapphire artefacts, revealing that many of these stones exhibited a unique dimpling effect due to carving out surface-reaching imperfections to create subtle surface patterns through cutting. Sapphires were often drilled for various purposes, like being worn as amulets or talismans.

The historical significance of sapphire in ecclesiastical jewellery is also explored. Sapphire rings, worn by bishops, symbolised their vows to serve the Church faithfully and align themselves with divine powers. The talk highlights an exceptional relic jewel, the Middleham Jewel, which carried religious symbolism and was possibly associated with assisting in childbirth during the Middle Ages.

Mrs Hardy then highlights the enduring allure of sapphires throughout history, reflecting their physical beauty and the beliefs, myths, and superstitions surrounding them for centuries. Surviving historical jewels, like the Metaphysical Prophylactic Jewel, offer invaluable insights into the metaphysical beliefs of the past, showing how sapphires were treasured as potent talismans offering protection and reassurance in a tumultuous world.

Continuing this captivating talk on sapphires, Joanna Hardy delves deeper into the cultural significance of these mesmerising gemstones, taking us on a journey beyond Europe to explore their unique roles in various societies.

She starts by shedding light on the special place sapphires hold in Indian culture. Decking deities with exquisite jewellery in India has been integral to Hindu rituals for centuries. Jewellery with images or figures of deities is presented in temples as offerings, signifying the return of riches bestowed upon the gods, who, in turn, gave these precious gifts to humankind. One intriguing highlight is the depiction of a Hindu processional figure adorned with sapphires, an unusual choice considering sapphires are typically associated with the planet Saturn, believed to bring bad luck or bad omens. However, the fact that these gems are offered to the deity implies that good fortune or health has been granted to the worshipper despite the astrological challenges.

The talk then delves into the captivating world of sapphire carvings. These intricate artworks serve as windows into a metaphysical realm, conveying myths and legends through art when few could understand the written word. One enigmatic portrayal features a Roman Empress with a child’s face behind her head, symbolising themes of infertility or references to the past and future. The audience is also treated to the stunning sight of a deity carving, meticulously crafted from a single sapphire crystal, standing 2.9 centimetres tall. Another delightful highlight includes a photograph of the Maharaja of Indore wearing an unusual sapphire, believed to bring him good luck upon the advice of his guru.

The talk then moves to discuss the allure of sapphires in royal circles. From Queen Victoria’s cherished wedding brooch gifted by Prince Albert to her versatile Sapphire Coronet, an exquisite bandeau tiara cherished by the Queen even in mourning, sapphires have always featured prominently in regal jewellery collections. The magnificent St. Edward Sapphire, the oldest gem in the Royal Collection, and the Stuart Sapphire, both set in the Imperial State Crown, are also showcased.

As Mrs Hardy continues to take the audience on a beguiling journey, she explores gemstone-producing regions, including Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Australia. Each region boasts its own rich history and unique sapphire offerings. Sri Lanka, with its illustrious gemstone history dating back 2,500 years, remains an important source of stunning sapphires. Madagascar’s sapphire discoveries in the 1990s have brought forth an impressive array of gems, while Burma’s Mogok region is renowned for its exceptional sapphires. Meanwhile, Australia’s sapphires have seen a resurgence, with a renewed appreciation for their natural colours and distinctive qualities.

Throughout the talk, Mrs Hardy brings forth the beauty of these exquisite gems and the passion of those who cut and design jewellery, creating a harmonious synergy in the world of gemstones. The enduring fascination of sapphires continues to captivate collectors to this day, connecting them through history, culture, and the timeless allure of these precious treasures.

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