Blue Sapphire – AKA Liar Bane

The truth is revealed in this episode of Gem Junkies. Where are Blue Sapphires mined? What makes them blue? Wait, isn’t that the same stuff that makes Ruby, red? The answer to all this and more can be found in the episode! We wouldn’t lie to you, we have our Sapphires on.

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Jonathan: [00:00:00] We’re always live. From the minute, we walk in the room and she plugs it in. We’re live.

Brecken: Copy. Copy. Copy. Ready?

Jonathan: Sure.

Brecken: Welcome back to Gem Junkies, episode 6.

Jonathan: Six.

Brecken: Sapphire.

Jonathan: Sapphire.

Brecken: Yep. So, great week last week. Talked about, what did we talk about? Columbia. Emeralds. And, getting ready to do sapphires this week. Got a big trip planned this weekend for Father’s Day.

Jonathan: Headed to Utah,

Brecken: Headed down to Utah to visit my Daddy

Jonathan: Big two hours.

Brecken: Big trip And my brother’s coming into town. So I’m super excited to see Benny. Hi Ben. He’s the only one in my family that listens. . . He listens on his drive to work in the morning. So, [00:01:00] hello Benny. Shout out to my baby bro.

Jonathan: Should probably mention though that this is a two part series ’cause we’re only doing blue sapphire this week and then we’ll do Fancy Sapphire another week.

Brecken: It was, yeah. So when I was thinking about Sapphire, there’s a lot of stuff there.

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s the most popular gemstone.

Brecken: Yeah, there’s a lot going on in sapphire. Between all the colors and the different phenomena it can have. So we’ll deal with that next week.

Jonathan: You seem very organized today.

Brecken: I’m hyped on coffee.

Jonathan: I think, I think Savannah got you, gave you the IV of coffee.

Brecken: Yeah, she gave me a coffee drug. So I was sitting in my chair just like amped about sapphire.

Jonathan: Sweet. Yes. Well, you should be amped, since both of us wear sapphires for our wedding rings. Yes. I can see why you would, see this as one of our favorites.

Brecken: Yes, Jonathan and I have blue sapphires, or sapphires as they’re known. Any other color is not as fancy sapphire, in our [00:02:00] wedding rings, engagement rings. They symbolize faithfulness. And truthfulness. And what else? Nobility. Because every gemstone symbolizes nobility for some reason.

Jonathan: Well, if you go back to, uh, to the there was the Justinian code that actually made it illegal for anyone outside of royalty to have colored gemstones.

Brecken: Really? I forgot that. That’s true.

Jonathan: You forgot about the Justinian Code, huh?

Brecken: When did that end?

Jonathan: It’s part of the Roman Empire, so whenever the Roman Empire went away, I guess the Justinian Code went away as well.

Brecken: Okay. So, us meager mortals.

Jonathan: Peasants.

Brecken: Peasants.

Jonathan: I think they call us peasants because they’re mortal as well. They can die. They’re not gods.

Brecken: Well, they were all descended from gods, right? That’s what they thought. Anyway.

Jonathan: Anyway, yeah. Peasants.

Brecken: Well, ancient Greek and Roman queens thought that sapphires protected their owners from harm, [00:03:00] so no one could do anything naughty to them.

Did it save Caesar? No. In the Middle Ages, the clergy wore them to symbolize heaven. The blue symbolizes heaven. And in other times and places, sapphire was thought to guard your chastity, make peace, influence spirits, and reveal the secrets of the oracles.

Jonathan: Wow.

Brecken: Yep.

Jonathan: So it sounds like if for the chastity thing, it sounds like that really 16 year old girls, instead of getting class rings, they should be getting Sapphire rings.

Brecken: There you go. Chastity rings. Let’s not go there.

All right. The name comes from the Greek word, which means blue gemstone, which is Sefiros, but they actually think it should, they were actually talking about lapis lazuli, which is another blue gemstone, but we just have equated it to the sapphire. [00:04:00] The corundum variety of the blue gemstones.

Jonathan: Sapphire is a variety of the mineral corundum. So we talked about corundum a little bit when we talked about ruby. But it’s an aluminum oxide. Yeah.

Brecken: Mm hmm. It is. Aluminum oxide. So the three most abundant minerals on earth are aluminum, oxygen, and silicon. So it is extremely rare to get an environment where you just have aluminum and oxygen, which is why sapphire is so important.

Now, in its purest form, Sapphire is colorless. Corundum is colorless, excuse me. Corundum is colorless, and it’s with the trace elements of…

Jonathan: Titanium and iron.

Brecken: That give it its blue color. Darn you, iron. It’s in everything. Yeah. More iron equals a darker blue.

Jonathan: Right.

Brecken: And it’s just like ruby, obviously, [00:05:00] because they’re both corundum.

Jonathan: Corundum.

Brecken: That… Stones found in a basalt deposit, more iron, equal darker stones. So examples of that are sapphires from Thailand, Cambodia, Australia. Yep. And then there’s also non-basalt that are formed in marble, low iron bearing minerals.

Jonathan: Like cashmere.

Brecken: Cashmere. And straight from the USA, Yogo Gulch sapphires in Montana.

Jonathan: Right. What about Rock Creek?

Brecken: Rock Creek, too.

Jonathan: Rock Creek would also be non basalt?

Brecken: Yep.

Jonathan: Color?

Brecken: Color…

My hand shaking. So sapphires are blue. Obviously, when you’re valuing a colored gemstone, the most important trait is Color. Color.

Jonathan: And color can be described in three ways. You have hue, saturation, and tone.

Brecken: Right. [00:06:00] So the hue is the actual color. Color.

Jonathan: So that’s blue.

Brecken: So like a violet blue to a blue blue. That’s kind of what we consider sapphire.

Jonathan: Right.

Brecken: And then saturation is how intense that color is.

Jonathan: Yeah, the vividness or brightness of the hue.

Brecken: Right, so if it’s not saturated enough, the stone can tend to look gray.

Jonathan: Right. Right. You need plenty of saturation, but if it’s over saturated, then it tends to look black.

Brecken: Yeah, too dark.

Jonathan: Too dark.

Brecken: And then hue, wait, tone, hue, saturation. No.

Jonathan: Yeah, we went the other way. Saturation, hue, saturation, now tone. Right.

So then the tone is the lightness to darkness, whether it’s a light… Or dark, so if it’s too light, you get all the way to clear and if it’s too dark, you go all the way to black. So you need,

Brecken: you want everything in [00:07:00] the middle.

Jonathan: Middle is, middle is best.

Brecken: Yeah, just right down the middle of that. Yeah. Colors. scheme.

Jonathan: Chacal is more of a medium blue.

Brecken: Yes. Now, an ancient myth about sapphires is that they needed to ripen in the sun. Ooh. Yeah.

Jonathan: Ripen?

Brecken: Ripen. And the longer they absorbed those sun’s rays, the more intense the color was.

Jonathan: Or else they become like a raisin.

Brecken: Yeah, like a raisin, but they don’t shrivel.

Jonathan: No, obviously not.

Brecken: But, so they’ve now equated that to a heating of sapphires. Right. So they think that myth kind of talks about heating sapphires. And it’s a very common treatment for sapphires, heat treatment.

Jonathan: Right. What percentage would you say of sapphires are heated?

Brecken: 90%.

Jonathan: It’s got to be, yeah, at least 90, maybe even higher. 99, definitely [00:08:00] 90s, high 90s.

Brecken: High 90s. So heat treatment goes back centuries. Okay. Where they would, just, like, put it in a little pot over the wood burning fire in the middle of the house and sit there and blow on it.

They would! They’d just sit there with a long pipe and kind of stoke the fire. And it was used, actually, not to change the color, which it is now, but to enhance… The appearance.

Jonathan: So to make the clarity better.

Brecken: Yeah, to make the clarity better. We are bumble bum in this.

Jonathan: So now it’s done more to improve or enhance the color, but also can enhance the clarity as well.

Brecken: Right. And it’s crazy. It can enhance the clarity by making the stone more transparent to remove silk or it can be used to add silk.

Jonathan: You can add silk?

Brecken: Yeah, you can add silk.

How do you add silk?

So silk is [00:09:00] an inclusion in sapphires that is rutile needles that kind of all go together to give it a velvety appearance when it’s in its most beautiful form. Otherwise, it can give it just the appearance of being cloudy and included. And they, usually heat treat to remove those rutile needles when they do not enhance the color quality of the gemstone.

Jonathan: Okay, so how do they add silk? How do you add a rutile needle into a gemstone

Brecken: They add an element to it which adds the rutile needles. It’s done at extremely high heat and we can talk about that more when we talk about star sapphires.

Jonathan: Okay.

Brecken: Which is next week. Okay.


Jonathan: You’re bossy today.

Brecken: I guess so. One thing that I really think is cool with heat treatment is they’ve been able to take [00:10:00] gems or sapphire rough that was used for garden gravel in Sri Lanka and make it into beautiful fine sapphire crystals with just heat. So, there’s two types of this rough. Do you know their names, Jonathan?

Geuda and Duhn.

Jonathan: That’s right, Geuda and Duhn.

Brecken: Geuda liked the cheese, but not spelled like the cheese. Right. Geuda comes from Sri Lanka, Duhn comes from Madagascar. They’re both kind of a milky, grayish, smoky color. And until about 1970, it was basically used for gardens. Yeah, it was trash stuff. And then the 1970s, the Thais really started experimenting with what you can do with heat.

Jonathan: Was that before or after their fire?

Brecken: It was after the fire. Do you want to tell the story of the fire?

Jonathan: Well, there’s not much.

Brecken: There’s not much of a [00:11:00] story.

Jonathan: So in Canterbury, which is one of the main Sapphire centers.

Brecken: Gem centers.

Jonathan: For trading and that kind of stuff.

Brecken: Cutting, trading, everything.

Jonathan: The market. Yeah, so the market burned down. So the gem market burned down and they weren’t able to get all their sapphires out, and some of them turned better colors.

Brecken: Yeah, and it was a really, really, really hot fire that burned for like two or three days. And they were like, hmm, let’s try this. And so they started just experimenting. And I think the thing that’s really interesting now, I’ve, they call them burners, people that heat gemstones. And they send their kids to Harvard. To get PhDs in engineering to figure out better ways to heat gemstones, and it is like family secret. It’s like the bush beans recipe. [00:12:00] You don’t talk about it. It is just not talked about. I went to a burner And everything was shut down. They had nothing running, nothing going. So you couldn’t see how they were doing anything.

Jonathan: So when we talk about heat, how hot are we talking?

Brecken: So to heat Geuda from Sri Lanka, you have to heat it to 2, 912 degrees Fahrenheit, about 1, 600 degrees Celsius to get it to change color.

Jonathan: Right. So heating is usually anywhere from 500 to 1800 degrees Celsius, which is 932 to 3270 degrees Fahrenheit. So we’re talking hot, real, real hot.

Brecken: The interesting thing that I remember is that Geuda from Sri Lanka is harder to get. It’s more difficult to get it to turn blue than the Duhn that comes from Madagascar.

That takes a lot. Lower time, lower temperature to [00:13:00] make it into a fine quality sapphire. Right. So the three things that you really need to take into consideration when we’re talking about heat treatment of gemstones is one, the time and temperature. Two, oxidation or reduction condition.

So, either they’re adding oxygen in,

Jonathan: which makes it a lighter blue,

Brecken: or they’re reducing oxygen,

Jonathan: which makes it darker.

Brecken: So, it’s very technical. That’s why they all go to Harvard to study this. Then, number three, during the heat process, they can also add chemicals which interact with the gemstone and enhance its color as well.

Jonathan: Like beryllium.

Brecken: Like beryllium and rubies. So we call that, we take that one step outside of heat treatment and we call that diffusion. Where they’re actually adding chemicals to the gemstone. The next place to go I think would be sources.

Jonathan: Sources or mining.

Brecken: Or [00:14:00] mining. Let’s talk about sources, and then we’ll talk about mining.

Or we’ll kind of talk about mining with the sources, because different sources have different mining techniques, depending on where they’re located in the world.

You are bossy today

I’m, dude, I’m on it. I’m type A personality today. Let’s get this going. So do you know what is the premier source for Sapphire?

Jonathan: The premier source was, historically, was Kashmir.

Brecken: Which I find interesting because it was only mined for six years.

Jonathan: That’s not very long.

Brecken: No, from 1881 to 1887.

Jonathan: Hmm, interesting. And we should probably mention, if you don’t know where Kashmir is, it’s on the border of Pakistan and India, right in that highly contested area. So not only is there… Is there, supposedly it was mined out, but, you know, with new technology and stuff, you never know.

Brecken: I mean, in the 1880s, what did they know?

Jonathan: Yeah, so, I mean, just like [00:15:00] they’ve gone back to Montana and mined a lot more now, because they have new technology.

Brecken: Right, so a landslide first exposed the sapphires in Kashmir, and then they mined it all up. And the problems today with going back and mining is that it’s in that politically unstable area. And it’s constantly covered by snow because it’s the top of the Himalayas.

Jonathan: Yeah, so the only good thing about global warming is maybe we’ll get some new gemstones.

Brecken: Oh, no. Too soon. It’s, no, too soon. The polar bears, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Oh, I forgot about the polar bears.

Brecken: They’re so cute.

Jonathan: Sapphires, polar bears, sapphires.

Brecken: Polar bears all day. Yeah, I think you’re right. Polar bears.


Jonathan: There is plenty of sapphires.

Brecken: So, I think we should talk about two. They’re, Jonathan, I’m trying to keep us on track and you’re talking about polar bears.

Jonathan: Oh, you brought up polar bears.

Brecken: They’re so cute.

Jonathan: I did my homework.

Brecken: Okay, Kashmir sapphires, why are they so highly regarded? Why are [00:16:00] they the best?

Jonathan: Due to the silk.

Brecken: Yes. It’s due to the inclusions.

Jonathan: No heat treatment necessary.

Brecken: They’re these brilliant blue colors that have a velvety look. And I didn’t understand that until I saw one. And it looks like velvet. It diffracts the light inside the stone, so it just… Shimmers everywhere and it’s a soft color.

Jonathan: Beautiful.

Brecken: Beautiful.

Jonathan: Beautiful.

Brecken: And that’s why we all want a Kashmir sapphire. Now you can get sapphires from other places that have the same look, but they’re not Kashmir and that’s why those Kashmir sapphires go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Christie’s Auction House or Sotheby’s or wherever they’re auctioned now.

Jonathan: Or even millions.

Brecken: Or millions, yeah.

Jonathan: Depending on the size.

Brecken: Depending on the stone. Another source is, uh, Myanmar, or Burma, but their fine blue sapphires are rare there. They’re more known for their spinels and their rubies.

Jonathan: Right, but they do produce some [00:17:00] beautiful…

Brecken: Yeah, sporadic and rare. They’re recovered in, alluvial deposits, so on riverbeds.

Jonathan: Yep.

Brecken: Next would probably be the most important or significant source of… Sapphires ever,

Jonathan: Well probably ever, but and today, which is Sri Lanka,

Brecken: or Ceylon,

Jonathan: Ceylon sapphires, which Ceylon could also, does kind of include part of Madagascar too.

Brecken: I mean if you’re talking Pangaea wise.

Jonathan: Yeah, and color and sourcing and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between some of the Madagascar material.

Brecken: Yes, but speaking of Ceylon, we’ll get to Madagascar. It is considered the first source of sapphires ever discovered in the world. It’s been supplying sapphires for over 2, 000 years.

Jonathan: That’s a long time.

Brecken: It is. It’s actually one of the Earth’s [00:18:00] largest concentration of gemstones. On the little island of Sri Lanka, there are over 40 different gemstone species found there.

Jonathan: That’s a lot.

Brecken: It is. Most of it is found in river gravel or alluvial deposits. And you have to think about it they have a ton of rain there with typhoon season and everything. So they have really high erosion rates. So it erodes everything down to riverbeds, modern riverbeds, or ancient riverbeds that are now covered up. So they have to go in there. One thing that I found super interesting about Sri Lanka is that by law, they must use non mechanized equipment.

Jonathan: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Brecken: So, no motors, they’re sitting there, sifting stuff by hand, and, yeah.

Jonathan: But they do some primary source mining in Sri Lanka as well, right? How [00:19:00] do they dig those holes, all by hand?

Brecken: All by hand, non mechanized. It’s law.

Jonathan: Wow.

Brecken: Baby. It’s law. That’s why there have been no big mining conglomerates or anything like that that have gone into Sri Lanka. They’ve really managed to keep foreigners out of their gem mining business.

Hmm. Interesting.

It is. That’s where my sapphire is from. Ceylon.

Jonathan: Mine is not.

Brecken: Yours is not. Yours is Thai. Which is another source.

Jonathan: It’s a, also a source, but it tends to have a lot more iron and be a little bit darker in color.

Brecken: Yeah. So the salt. Deposit. And the two main mining areas in

Jonathan: Thailand were… Kanchanaburi and Chanthaburi.

Brecken: Yes. That’s always confused me. Yeah. Kanchanaburi.

Jonathan: Chanthaburi.

Brecken: Darn it. Okay.

Jonathan: So, the interesting thing when we’re in Chanthaburi is, is that we, it’s, it’s volcanic. [00:20:00] And so you hike up this volcano and you ring the bell.

Brecken: Khao Ploi Waen. It just means mountain, gemstone, gemstone mountain or something, gem mountain volcano.

Jonathan: And then it’s pretty cool, you can look out and you see, it’s a big farming area. So when you look out, it’s not like you see holes everywhere, mines everywhere. You see farms everywhere. And then it’s kind of interesting that the farmers basically are farming on top of sapphires, but obviously you don’t go that deep when you’re farming. And so when the farmers are ready to retire, they want a new house or something like that.

They mine.

They would suddenly be switched from farmers to miners. And so it’s very interesting. You’d see, you could look out and see, and if you saw a really nice house on a plot of land, you’d know, Oh, that one’s already been mined.

And if you see a little straw hut, and a farmer is still farming it, you know, oh, that one hasn’t been done yet. And so [00:21:00] you can kind of look out, and then once they’re done mining the whole area, then they turn it back into a farm again. So it’s kind of interesting how they’re just naturally…

Brecken: I thought it was cool. Jonathan and I had the opportunity over five years to go and visit the same mine in Chanthaburi and it was this little farmer and his wife. And they strategically mined different areas of their farm, and the last spot they mined was where their house was. And so they kind of mined all around, and then they tore down their house and mined there and built a new house when they were done.

Jonathan: Yeah. We haven’t been back though to see the new house.

Brecken: We haven’t seen the new house. But hopefully, it was good for them.

Jonathan: Yeah, hopefully, it turned out well. They were, they were nice.

Brecken: It really, Thailand’s major role in the Sapphire industry is cutting and trade.

Jonathan: Yeah, cutting, heating.

Brecken: Heating, that’s true.

That’s where all the burning is done, the cooking.

Jonathan: The cooking.

Brecken: Yeah, that’s where all the, and Chanthaburi, Chanthaburi was the leader in [00:22:00] commercial quality goods from the 80s to the 90s until Australia came to be. But a close neighbor to Thailand, Cambodia, where Jonathan and I also had a chance to visit the mines there, produces some beautiful sapphires as well.

Pailin, which means… Otter’s play. And so when we went there, we were told the story of how they discovered gemstones in the area. And there was someone kind of, I don’t know, on a self-exploration mission, just walking through the area. And he saw an otter playing with one big red stone and one big blue stone. And he said, there must be rubies and sapphires in this area. So they came back, started mining, and found rubies and sapphires. So the name of Pailin is inspired by that story of the otter playing in the river.[00:23:00] The hard thing about gemstone mining in Cambodia is that in the 1970s, it was…

Jonathan: With the Khmer Rouge.

Brecken: With the Khmer Rouge, the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, they controlled the mines in Pailin until… late 1990s, and so they’re just now beginning to re-establish and when Jonathan and I were there it was

Jonathan: you do not leave the trail because there are active mines still.

Brecken: There are active landmines still so you didn’t go off the path. Cambodia is doing a huge cleanup job trying to locate and find all these unexploded land mines, but still it’s a huge problem and obviously when you’re talking about mining, it affects their ability to go in and mine, when they don’t know if there’s an undetonated explosive device.

Jonathan: It’s scary.

Brecken: It is.

Jonathan: So then after Thailand, Cambodia.

Brecken: And then Australia. Which really ticked off the Thais [00:24:00] and the Sri Lankans.

Jonathan: And they were the largest producer of sapphires back in the late 80s.

Brecken: Yeah, Thailand and Sri Lanka until Australia came into the market in the 80s, 90s and started mechanized mining of sapphire. Now their sapphires are a dark inky blue. And so they’re more what we would call commercial quality, not your fine sapphires.

Jonathan: Right, almost black.

Brecken: But today about 90% of your commercial sapphires come from Australia.

Jonathan: Yeah, and which are all dark blue to black.

Brecken: Dark blue to black.

Now there are some nice sapphires that do come from Australia. There’s a competition between Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Australia. And a lot of your Thai cutters or Sri Lankan cutters would buy Australian gemstones, the finer stones, and call them [00:25:00] Thai or Sri Lankan because they would, one, get more money for them, and two, they wanted to make sure that the Australian gemstones had the connotation of being just Dark and inky, that nothing nice, nothing fine came out of there. So sometimes Australia does get a bad rap. Not all their stones are dark and inky blue.

Jonathan: Thank you. The Australians thank you.

Brecken: I do love Australians. We do love our opal, but I will say that virtually every gemstone that comes out of Australia has to be heat treated because it is so dark.

Jonathan: Right. They need to add some oxygen to lighten it up.

Brecken: Probably the, one of the most major sources today in sapphires is Madagascar. Right. For your fine quality. I think for fine quality sapphires you have Sri Lanka and Madagascar really at the top.

Right, yeah.[00:26:00]

And Ilakaka is a city. It was a field until they discovered sapphire and then there was like a gold rush, a mine rush, gold rush. I’m doing air quotes here. You can’t see me, but there was a mine rush. The interesting thing about Madagascar is that it has some basalt. And some non-basalt, so that’s where you can get the really fine, high quality, and then non-basalt, and then also you get the duhn, and they’re saying that Madagascar is going to be a great source for sapphire for decades to come, because of the amount of material there.

Jonathan: Lots. Speaking of another country that is extremely gem rich.

Brecken: Pangea!

Jonathan: Yeah.

Brecken: Back to that. They used to be at the same place.

Jonathan: Amazing.

Brecken: And then, I think, last for your major, I would call it a major source, or significant source of sapphire, [00:27:00] is Montana.

Jonathan: Yeah, and so, Yogo is not producing that much, and never really produced that much, but Rock Creek just got reopened two, three years ago, and it’s producing quite a lot of sapphires and a really…

Some really cool tealy blues, so a lot of those blue green sapphires that you see, most of that material is coming out of, Montana.

Brecken: Yeah, so Rock Creek is all an alluvial deposit, so they’re, they’re mining riverbeds. Yogo… is directly from the host.

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s source mining.

Brecken: And it’s an extremely difficult recovery. It all has to basically be blasted out with dynamite.

Jonathan: Underground.

Brecken: Underground.

Jonathan: Super safe.

Brecken: It’s not safe. So, only about 10% of the stones recovered are over 1 carat from the Yogo mine.

Jonathan: Yeah, very small.

Brecken: Very small recovery. They’re typically pretty flat crystals. So when we get them, we do sell Yogo Sapphire and [00:28:00] what is called Montana Sapphire, but a lot of the Yogo material is really flat. You have to do ovals or rose cut, very thin cut gemstones. They have also reopened the Yogo mines.

The Baides.

The Baides? Is that who bought it?

Don Baide.

Don Baide. And, they’re actively mining it?

Jonathan: Yes. Yeah, they got it all reopened.

Brecken: It’s, it’s difficult to mine in the U. S.

Jonathan: Yes.

Brecken: Let’s be honest. Lots of regulations. There’s huge mining costs. Labor in the U. S. is much more expensive than it is elsewhere in the world. And that’s why they command the premium that they do. It’s probably one of the premier American gemstones, Montana Sapphire.

Jonathan: Yeah. Especially more material than anything else.

Brecken: More material? I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Jonathan: Well, there’s like, where else in [00:29:00] the U. S. is there that much material? Like, that there’s that much, like, gemstone material. Like, total number of, total number of gemstones, carats wise.

Brecken: Oh, okay. Now I know what you mean,

Jonathan: Maine produces quite a bit of tourmaline, but still, like, more sapphire came out of Montana than…

Brecken: Yeah, but what’s tourmaline?

Jonathan: Tourmaline.

Brecken: Sapphire. So I think that wraps up the basics of sapphire sources.

Jonathan: Blue sapphire.

Brecken: Yes. So next week we’re gonna cover fancy sapphire and phenomenal sapphires.

Jonathan: And synthetic sapphires.

Brecken: And synthetic sapphires.

Jonathan: Well, thank you for listening to another episode of Gem Junkies. If you have any, questions or comments. Feel free to email us at [email protected]

Brecken: and make sure you subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, or Google Play. And if you like us, rate us and leave us a message. We’d love to, hear from our listeners. Also, if you want to know more about what we do at Parlé Gems, you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook[00:30:00] @parlegems.

Thank you so much for listening, and next week is Fancy Sapphires.

Jonathan: Alright, thank you.

Brecken: Bye bye guys.

Are we boring?

This is good.

Are we too boring?

Jonathan: No, we talked about fires. We talked about chastity.

Brecken: Okay.

Savannah: I think once a week she asks that. Yeah.

Jonathan: Are

Brecken: we boring?

Jonathan: Okay.

Opals, Queen Victoria, & A Sassy Shoulder

What do Opals, Queen Victoria, and a sassy shoulder have in common? Find out as we introduce Part One of our Opal series. In this episode, we discuss the origination of Opals, the science behind their creation, stories and fables from this ancient gemstone, and a brief look at all of the regions producing this fabulous rainbow gem.


Jonathan: I think everybody loves opal. It’s the queen of all gems.

Brecken: Ah, yep. So say the Romans… and they’re dead.

I didn’t have my coffee, so I’m a little off my game.

New Speaker: All right. You guys are ready.

Jonathan: This is the hardest part. Starting. Starting is hard.

Brecken: It’s me.

Jonathan: Wewe

Brecken: Hi, this is Brecken

Jonathan: and Jonathan

Brecken: of Gem Junkies. Are you ready?

Jonathan: I am ready

Brecken: podcast number two,

Jonathan: podcast, number two.

Brecken: We’re like big kids now.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Brecken: We’ve had our first podcast.

Jonathan: Yeah. That now it’s training wheels off. So we got gymnastics tonight, right?

Brecken: Yes. We, Jonathan and I, have twin two-year-olds, girls, and they are just the most precious, loving, amazing little girls. Right, Jonathan?

Jonathan: Yeah. Or they can be wild, crazy two-year-olds, because they are two.

Brecken: And so we go to gymnastics every Tuesday night. And yeah, they enjoy it. They get their wiggles out.

Jonathan: Get your wiggles out.

Brecken: So this week we’re doing opal, which we’re gonna do a whole series on, but first we wanted to touch back on last week. Our Lotus garnet episode.

Jonathan: Yeah. Thank you for all the very nice comments. And we got some emails with some questions, some we will answer directly, but one of the ones that came up that I thought was really good is where does Lotus Garnet come from in Tanzania?

Brecken: Right! It is from the Mahenge region in Tanzania

Jonathan: and the Mahenge region is in central Tanzania. Kind of south central versus like Tanzanite

Brecken: and mint garnet

Jonathan: Mint garnet, tsavorite that all comes from Northern Tanzania, right near the Kenya border, near Sabo National Park, which is how tsavorite got its name. So thanks for writing in and feel free to ask any questions that you have about this week’s topic of opal.

And you can write us at [email protected].

Brecken: Perfect. And so let’s talk about opal.

Jonathan: So opal is very special to me. It’s how my dad started the company in 1973 as a longhaired hippie college student, just as a summer job. He went up to Spencer, Idaho, and mined opals and then brought them home and cut them in the back room of a single wide trailer and boom there’s how Idaho Opal and Gem got founded.

Brecken: Yeah. So our name, our original company name, was Idaho Opal and Gem Corporation. And about mid-nineties, we switched it to Parlé, which is how you know us now. Our original name traces us back to our roots, our origin. Yes, our blood,

Jonathan: our blood roots.

Brecken: Jonathan was sorting opals in diapers. Right?

Jonathan: Definitely not.

Brecken: Yeah. At least diapers. Maybe you were potty trained early. I don’t know.

I think the best place to start with opal is probably its formation, like how it’s made. So do you wanna take that away, Jonathan?

Jonathan: No.

Brecken: You want me to be the scientist this week?

Jonathan: Yep.

Brecken: Okay. So opal is formed when silica-rich water percolates down through the soil and ends up against a hard surface that it can no longer percolate through. And then it forms bands of silica, which is your opal. Oh, go ahead, Jonathan.

Jonathan: And so the silica spheres stack on top of each other. If you looked under really high magnification, you’d see a bunch of like marbles all stacked up in a pan. And if you shook them and got ’em arranged all evenly, that would form precious opal. If they were all mixed all up and all different sizes and all over the place that would give you common opal, which has no play of color.

Brecken: Right. So the difference between common opal, which is extremely common, and precious opal is the fact that it has the phenomenon of play of color. And it’s actually where the light enters the gemstone and kind of wraps around the silica sphere and comes back to your eye with pretty color.

Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s one step past a prism. So most of your gemstones are like a prism. The light enters the gemstone, it bounces around inside, and it comes back to your eye.

With opal, it’s one step past that and it actually breaks it down to its spectral colors. And so that’s where you get all the different colors based on the size of the micron’s spheres, which you end up at 0.2 of a micron for blue, 0.25 for green, and 0.32 for red.

Brecken: Right. And red is considered the most prized color in an opal. It’s the rarest color.

Jonathan: And therefore the most expensive.

Brecken: And therefore the most expensive. We love those reds.

Jonathan: Yeah, reds are definitely the best.

Brecken: So the major sources for opal nowadays are obviously Australia, which has been probably the major source for the past few hundred years, I would say. Then Mexico for fire opal, and then Ethiopia, and also a little bit from Brazil too. The US has opal. It’s how our company started. My father-in-law Frank started mining opal in the 70s in Spencer, Idaho. But it’s in really thin veins of opal and it’s in the really hard host material.

Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s in rhyolite and it’s right up by Yellowstone National Park. And it was formed by the same formation that formed Yellowstone. And so because of the rhyolite, they have to blast out all the opal. And we all know with a gemstone that’s the same hardness as glass, blasting anything doesn’t do very well on that kind of material.

Brecken: So you end up with really thin seams and you have to make triplets out of them, which is where they glue either ironstone or an onyx backing to it, and then cap it with quartz or a sapphire crystal or glass. Depending on the caliber of the triplet.

There’s also opal in Nevada.

Jonathan: There is opal in Nevada. There’s black opal in Nevada, which is the only other place where there’s really black opal other than Australia.

Brecken: So it comes from a petrified forest, right? So the opal, the silica actually went in and replaced the trees. Kind of filled in that fossil.

Jonathan: Yeah. The organic material fell apart and the silica replaced it.

Brecken: Right. And that happens in Australia too, because it was an ancient seabed. So I got to visit Nessie when we went to Sydney, Australia, she’s a dinosaur that’s all opal.

Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s like mostly common opal with just small amounts of play of color. But I think you’re jumping ahead a little that’s actually,

Brecken: I know. I like Nessie.

Jonathan: Oh, you love Australia cuz that’s where it has the most opal.

Brecken: That’s true.

Jonathan: So we should probably talk about where was opal first found. Was it A- China, B- Slovakia, or C- Idaho?

Brecken: I’m gonna say B. Slovakia.

Jonathan: That’s right. It was first found in Slovakia.

Brecken: What did I win?

Jonathan: The pleasure of being right.

Brecken: I do like that. So opal gets its name from an ancient Roman word “opalus.”

Jonathan: Yes. Which means “a change in color.”

Brecken: All right. So they probably saw the play of color that we all see in opal. We don’t need much, I guess, human intervention to make it beautiful. Really, most of your opal is just polished. It’s not cut like a diamond or a Sapphire to bring sparkling liveliness to the stone. So if you think in ancient days, they didn’t have the cutting equipment that we have now. So. Your diamonds, your rubies, your sapphires, your emeralds were either mostly cabochons or the facets were really poorly done, which is why opal, I think was such a special stone to them. They kind of glow from within, so you don’t, you don’t need a lot to make them beautiful.

A lot of people think that opal is unlucky, right Jonathan?

Jonathan: Yep. That’s a common thing, but I think they’re very wrong.

Brecken: They are wrong. Opal used to be considered an incredibly lucky stone. A lot of the ancients believed that it was incredibly good luck that it gave the wearer the gift of prophecy, that it could heal you. And that it, in some terms had like these mystical powers. It wasn’t until. Sir Walter Scott, is that who it was?

Jonathan: Yep, Sir Walter Scott wrote Anne of Geierstein. And Anne of Geierstein was a super popular book at the time as popular as Harry Potter, which is kind of interesting since the main character was

Brecken: Hermione!

Jonathan: Yes. Hermione,

Brecken: just like in Harry Potter.

Jonathan: And what was so special about Hermione?

Brecken: Well, Hermione was beautiful and the villagers did not like it, they just didn’t think this woman could possibly be this beautiful. And she was poised and had grace and she always wore. “She always wore.” She always wore this amazing opal and happened to catch the eye of the King.

And the villagers didn’t really like this very much. They thought there was something odd about this beautiful woman that just happened to come into town. And she wore an amazing opal that just seemed to glow and give the woman magical powers.

Jonathan: Yeah. She was an outsider and they all thought she was a witch.

Brecken: Of course, if you don’t like something a woman does, she’s a witch.

Anyway, she ends up having a baby with a king, and the king and she get married. They have a baby and the villagers were like, “We’ve never seen her in church. Why doesn’t she go to church?” So they go to church to have the baby baptized and one clever villager decides they’re gonna throw some water, holy water, on the opal. And she just drops down. Right. She doesn’t die, she just collapses.

Jonathan: She collapses and then they take her back to her room and they close the door. And then when they open the door again, she’s gone.

Brecken: She’s gone, she’s disappeared and never heard from again.

Jonathan: Yeah. And what’s what I, think’s funny about this is that everyone latched onto this when this was like less than one-tenth of the book, the whole rest of the book as you can tell, it’s called Anne of Geierstein. So it’s really about Anne of Geierstein.

Brecken: Not Hermione and her opal.

Jonathan: Not Hermione and her opal, which is only one little tiny part of the book. And so, you know, it’s a wonderful tale and really contains nothing to indicate that Scott meant to represent opal as unlucky.

Brecken: About the time that Sir Walter Scott wrote this book, the Australians were discovering opal. And Queen Victoria happened to have a vested interest in Australia. And as they did in most of the world, at that time, she wanted opal to be the prized gemstone that it should be. This is why she made it acceptable to hand out or give opals as gifts. Right. So you can receive opal as a gift.

Jonathan: Yeah. So, that’s where it came from that you can’t buy opal for yourself, but it’s okay if it comes as a gift.

Brecken: Right. But she even had a little slip-up with an opal broach, right?

Jonathan: She did.

Brecken: During her coronation, she was wearing an opal broach. That was, I don’t know, clasping something together. And the broach broke.

Jonathan: Shoddy craftsmanship on the broach. I don’t know what this has to do with opal.

Brecken: It has nothing to do with the opal, but it revealed a little too much skin than was acceptable at the time. So I think it was just her shoulder, but anyway, it didn’t help opal’s luck.

Jonathan: Nope. That didn’t help either.

Brecken: All right. So we all agree that opal is an extremely, extremely lucky stone and a beautiful stone. Who doesn’t like opal?

Jonathan: So throughout history, there’s been a lot more about opal being lucky than unlucky, but there’s definitely some more recent history about it being unlucky, which is why I think that has tended to stick in the general population today.

Brecken: So I think it’s important to kind of delve into the sources of opal that we’re seeing on the market right now.

Jonathan: We have the primary sources of where opal is actually coming from right now would be Australia, number one, Ethiopia, number two, Mexico, number three, and a little bit from Brazil, number four.

So those are probably your top four sources that are in current production.

Brecken: I think the Brazilian material is really cool. It’s got a pattern that’s called rain fire.

Jonathan: Yeah. It’s like little confetti all throughout the opal.

Brecken: You can pick up a piece of Brazilian opal and know it like right off the bat, just because of its pattern.

Jonathan: When it has that pattern.

Brecken: Yeah. When it has that pattern and it’s also incredibly stable.

Jonathan: Very stable material. Very little of it ever crazes or dehydrates or anything like that.

Brecken: It kind of almost has that jelly, that jelly opal look.

Jonathan: Yeah. It kind of has that look. So that’s the fourth. So next would probably be talking about Mexico.

In Mexico, about 70% of all opal out of Mexico is just common opal. So they call it fire opal because it’s colored by iron. So most of it has an orange, a red, or a yellow tint to the base color. So rather than white or light in color, like most opal it has that fiery look that orange and yellow, and most of it has no play of color. And it was formed by volcanoes. It’s volcanic rather than sedimentary.

Brecken: Yeah. It comes out in these really cool, like nodules that are what, sandstone surrounds them. And you can kind of like chip away at the sandstone because it’s really light. I mean, it’s really soft.

Jonathan: It’s really soft and you can kind of scrape it away.

Brecken: And you get these really cool amorphous shapes that lend themselves well really creative jewelry.

Jonathan: And so we find that much more interesting. And it’s also one of the only opals that are faceted. So they do a lot of faceting of the orange and red material.

Brecken: You’ll hardly ever see an Australian faceted opal. No, it’s not gonna happen.

Jonathan: You just don’t see it. It’s mostly from your Mexican.

Brecken: Well, it wastes a lot of material too.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah. But that’s not a problem with Mexican, because most of it’s just common anyway.

Brecken: And then the next is Ethiopia.

Jonathan: Which has really been producing a lot in the last 10 years.

Brecken: Yeah. We saw it come to market 9-10 years ago really strong when we were in Tucson.

Jonathan: Yeah. So we were at the Tucson Gem Fair and that’s where 10, about 10 years ago it really came on strong. And so the Ethiopian material is very interesting. Most of it is hydrophane. So hydrophane means it’s porous kind of like a pumice stone and not such big holes, but uh, little tiny holes and so if you drop it in a glass of water, most of the color disappears. You take it outta the water sometimes it dries out. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Brecken: Right. And it’s not so much a problem for durability, like cracking and crazing.

Jonathan: No cracking and crazing it’s fairly stable.

Brecken: But the problem is like daily wear.

Jonathan: So if you think about all the things ladies and even men wear on a daily basis, you know, your perfume, cologne,

Brecken: body lotion, even body oil. Even red wine.

Jonathan: Yeah, if you’re dunking your opals in… ,

Brecken: but it can actually take the color of, for instance, red wine and it can dye the stone.

Jonathan: Yeah. So that’s one of the interesting things is a lot of them, a lot of the Ethiopian material has dyed all kinds of crazy blues and purples and greens and oranges.

Brecken: Frank, my father-in-law Frank, had an opal lecture at Conclave a couple of years ago, and my mission was to go around Tucson and find dyed Ethiopian opal, and the color, all different colors. I had hot pink, lime green, and purple. And it, I mean, it’s kind of interesting.

Jonathan: It still has a play of color.

Brecken: But it’s dyed hot pink. Yeah. So it’s different.

Jonathan: It looks fake.

Brecken: Well, it is. Yeah. Well, it’s dyed hot pink opal. Like it doesn’t happen in nature.

Jonathan: It’s kind of crazy. So that’s kind of the strange thing about Ethiopian opal is that hydrophane and not all of it is hydrophane, but it’s, you know, all the parcels and everything get mixed. So you never know what is and what isn’t, cuz there’s no way of telling just from looking at it that, you know, this absorbs this much water and that absorbs that much water. You just can’t tell. So we’ve chosen to stay away from Ethiopian opal and focused primarily on Australian and Mexican

And the other thing that I think we should talk about is how you value an opal. What makes an opal valuable?

Brecken: Red!

Jonathan: Red definitely does.

Brecken: The more red, the more valuable. Also the brightness too.

Jonathan: Yeah. And so that’s what I always say is the most important part after what kind of opal is it? Is it a black, a boulder, a light, a doublet?

What is it after that? The most important part, saying that the type is all the same is the brilliance. How bright is it? And I like to compare it to, you know, a 10 wat light bulb versus a hundred wat light bulb. The a hundred wat light bulb is obviously much more valuable than the 10.

Brecken: Does it glow?

Jonathan: Yeah. Does it have that just absolute glow? And then the next thing that would be important, but mostly in black opal is its body color, base color. Base color becomes very important. Is the base color, does it add value to the play of color or does it take away from the play of color?

Brecken: Yes, the black color. So when you have that really, really black base color, it can make the play of color just pop, just scream. Sometimes though, when you get kind of in that gray middle tone, I think it detracts from it. Some it kind of weakens.

Jonathan: Same with, I think, in the Mexican or Ethiopian material, that stuff it’s kind of yellowish. Is that it’s hard to see the play of color. And the play of color just doesn’t really, it’s not as striking. And then I think transparency is really important. Is it a see through or is it opaque? And the more opaque the opal is, the more that play of color really jumps out at you. Where if it’s see through you know, it’s kind of cool, cuz it looks different on everything that you wear it, which is why some people like it transparent. But from a market standpoint, the more opaque, the more valuable.

Brecken: Yeah. The thing I like about opal is beauty is really in the eye of the beholder. I mean, whatever you like.

Jonathan: If you love blues and greens, it’s even better because they’re much less expensive than reds and oranges. So that’s one of the things is it

Brecken: If you like gray base that are kind of transparent. Perfect! There’s an opal for you. Like there’s an opal for everybody and yeah.

Jonathan: And that’s the other thing, is that opal comes in every price point. You can get an opal for $10 and you can get an opal for a million dollars and everything in between.

Brecken: And no two opals are the same.

Jonathan: So every one is unique and unique to the person, unique to the design. And that’s the great thing is people, a lot of times will ask us about our designs, “is that a one of a kind?”

And I said, “well, the opal’s one of a kind, so yeah.” You can’t ever repeat an opal.

Brecken: No. And a lot of times we actually make opal pairs for earrings by cutting stones in half.

Jonathan: So we call those a split.

Brecken: You can’t, I mean, matching opal is, it’s an art and my mother-in-law is extremely good at it.

Jonathan: Yeah, she does all our bracelets. If you wanna talk about matching. Matching 10-12 opals in a row, all to go together, it gets tricky.

Brecken: It’s time consuming and tricky and you, it takes a special person.

Jonathan: So one of the other cool things that also comes into value is about pattern is that. More pinfire or more broad flash. Your pinfire, like your little tiny dots of color, whereas your broad flash is like one single flash of color across the whole gemstone. Or the very most valuable is called Harlequin. If you think of like flagstones all put together in a garden, all blocked together, kind of and that’s, that would be the most valuable pattern.

Brecken: Yeah. We actually had. Pattern that we bought a couple years ago. Do you? I called it pixie dust. Cause it had like all the green little sparkles through it.

Jonathan: That’s like a pinfire, but like a really, really fine and very bright pin fire that was some cool material.

Brecken: I know, it made me think of tinker bell.

Jonathan: And then we’ve gotten some really interesting new doublets that have our tiger stripe pattern.

Brecken: Tiger. Zebra. Depends who you are, who you ask. We haven’t named that one yet. I’d probably lose too.

Jonathan: Uh, so that’s something that’s kind of cool is that you can even get with pattern, you can even get a cat’s eye opal.

Brecken: Actually your dad has that really cool star opal.

Jonathan: But those are much more rare and you can’t find. Don’t tell people about things they can’t have.

Brecken: Yeah, actually this is a, it’s a cool stone. That was actually mined in Idaho. And it’s got a three ray red star.

Jonathan: Very cool. We’ll try to get a picture of it and put it on the blog. That one’s really cool. And we’ll also post some pictures of the zebra or tiger stripe and to kind of give you guys some different ideas of what different patterns look like. And if there’s a pattern that we mentioned that you really wanna see that we don’t put up, just shoot us an email.

Brecken: I think the only thing we really didn’t get a chance to cover today. Well, opal is such a broad category. Like there’s so much we didn’t talk about. So I, we’re gonna do this in kind of a series.

New Speaker: The opal series.

Brecken: The opal series. And so, yeah, so we’re gonna have an opal series and I think next week, we’ll talk about Australian opal.

Jonathan: So the number one source for opal, and there’s so many different types of opal as well that come out of Australia. So we’ll definitely talk about all the different types and what makes Australia.

Brecken: So I didn’t grow up in the business and growing up, I thought that opal was only that really milky, white. Well, let’s not say ugly because I don’t wanna use that word, but you know, boring stone. And so when I met Jonathan and he showed me all of the amazing colors and the range of opals that you find in Australia from blacks to lights to boulder, it’s pretty amazing. So we’re excited about next week.

And if you have any questions or comments about this week, or have any topics that you would like us to cover next week, just email us at

Jonathan: [email protected].

Brecken: And we would be happy to answer your questions. That’s gonna do it for today. Thanks for listening.

Jonathan: Thanks for listening. Bye.

Brecken: Bye Felicia.

Jonathan: I got my groove back. I was hurting at the beginning. I was like, “I don’t want to do this!”

Brecken: Okay.