Vintage Jewelry with Synthetic Color Change Sapphire

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The concept of a "trend" is an important one in the jewelry world. Having a good understanding of historical trends is an invaluable tool for gemologists, appraisers, and collectors alike, as knowing what to look for in jewelry can help you to weed out reproductions and identify the best work. 

Going beyond the gems and jewelry universe, trends can often tell you something about the time in which they were popular. For instance, jewelry made during the Edwardian era rebelled against larger, machine-made designs and embraced delicate, handmade motifs which made the most of new innovations in the manipulation of platinum. Conversely, the Retro period coincides with World War II when all platinum was removed from the open market for use by the military, so you will only see pieces made from gold and silver. 

It is the same with mid-century jewelry that uses synthetic color-change sapphires. The technology to grow sapphire, including the color change variety, was first discovered in the early 20th century. This was a time of exciting innovation. Several methods such as flame fusion and flux growth were used to grow sapphire and there was a great deal of enthusiasm surrounding the newfound ability to grow gems. Some jewelers treated high-quality synthetic stones with as much care and reverence as natural gems, producing expensive, high-fashion jewelry. Others, however, made more affordable items that cost a fraction of the price. This allowed for more individuals to have access to the gem.

Synthetic color-change sapphires are fascinating because their strong color-change effect caused by high levels of vanadium overwhelms what most natural sapphires can exhibit. Quite often, you will be able to see both warm purple and cool violetish-blue colors strongly expressed at the same time. It is a highly distinctive and very attractive trait that makes it relatively easy to pick out these stones even from a distance. 

Sometimes synthetic color-change sapphire was used as a simulant for alexandrite, another color-change gem. Alexandrites were first discovered in 1830 in the Ural Mountains in Russia and named for the young Alexander II who would become Tzar. Alexandrites, particularly those recovered from Russia, also exhibit a powerful color-change phenomenon; in sunlight, alexandrite appears green but in incandescent light, it is red. They were, and remain rare gems. Thus, synthetic color-change sapphires were used in place of both natural sapphire and alexandrite. 

Each year, an exclusive show featuring vintage and antique jewelry is held in Las Vegas. This year, I encountered several dealers who had synthetic color change sapphire jewelry for sale. The first piece that I encountered was a ring featuring a single, massive, synthetic color change sapphire. 

An 18kt yellow gold ring featuring a sizable 16.5mm synthetic color change sapphire owned by The Gold Hatpin.

The image on the left was shot in incandescent lighting conditions. As you can see, the stone is a warm reddish-purple color. The image on the right is the same ring placed in a case lit by fluorescent lights which caused the gem to appear much bluer. The owner of this bold ring is Diane Richardson of The Gold Hatpin located in Illinois. She described how the huge stone is representative of synthetic color change sapphire jewelry that was considered desirable during the mid-century. "I would say that they were popular in the 50s and 60s". 

I asked Diane how often she sells synthetic color change sapphire jewelry and she said she has seen quite a lot over the years. Interestingly, she spoke about how many people, both dealers and buyers alike, don't know that the gem exists. "I don't see a lot of people looking for them, but when they see examples, they are attracted to the color." She says that such pieces are always wonderful conversation starters and, whenever she sells one, she tells her customers, "You are getting two rings for the price of one!"

Also, Diane was careful to point out that the ring she is selling is set in an elaborate 18kt gold setting which has both polished and Florentine finishes. This, she said, showed that while the stone is synthetic, it was still treated as a valuable and desirable gem. Not second class by any means.

Elizabeth Dmitrova of Elizabeth Dmitrova Antiques in California said that she has had a hard time finding any synthetic color change sapphire jewelry in recent years; "I used to find them regularly, but I can't remember when I last saw one for sale." That being said, she stressed that individuals who own this type of jewelry treasure their pieces and often become collectors. "People don't mind that they are synthetic. They are a rarity and people wear and love them!"  

Fortunately, I found a second dealer, Julia Rover of Roy Rover Antiques, who had in her possession a brooch with not one, but two, big synthetic color change sapphires. 

An 18kt yellow gold unsigned brooch with synthetic color change sapphires and diamonds. This Brutalist-style piece is likely from the 1970s.

Julia happily shared a great deal of personal knowledge about the gem. Firstly, she explained that jewelers love synthetic gems, color change sapphire included because it is significantly easier to match them. Because growing conditions are highly regulated, the final color expression of synthetic stones is quite consistent, and they usually have very good clarity. Also, manmade gems can often be grown in large carat weights. This allows for stones to be cut in standard calibrated sizes and shapes. With these factors combined, finding matched sets can be a much more straightforward process than it is for natural stones.  

Interestingly, Julia said that there is a second reason that some people, both in the past and present, mistake or mislabel synthetic color change sapphire as synthetic alexandrite. According to her, a great deal of Russian-made synthetic sapphire was sold through Alexandria, Egypt following World War II. This was purely happenstance, but it led to some buyers mistakenly referring to their purchases as synthetic alexandrite, mistakenly referencing the city, not the stone.  

She continued that this knowledge is helpful for professionals and collectors to have because, if they come across an unidentified piece with Egyptian hallmarks, they are very likely looking at synthetic color change sapphire sold in the post-war era featuring manmade Russian stones. 

While synthetic color-change sapphires were a popular gem for a time, they are now a largely forgotten treasure. I encountered two additional dealers who were selling what was almost certainly jewelry set with synthetic color change sapphires who asked that I not photograph their pieces as they had not independently identified the stones. In an amazing coincidence, fifteen minutes after I spoke with Julia about Egypt being a source of jewelry with synthetic color change sapphires, I encountered a dealer who was selling an Egyptian-themed Ankh brooch set with many large gems. He told me that the strong color-change effect told him that the stones were synthetic, but he had no prior knowledge of synthetic color-change sapphires. 

Marc Bookstein of M. Kantor & Associates LLC said that he has come across a fair amount of the gem over the years, yet he has no buyers for it. He said that he often removes the gems from their settings to salvage the metal and gives the stones away as gifts. He actually has a bowl sitting in his office filled with these left-over synthetic color-change sapphires.

So, if you ever find yourself wandering in an antique/vintage jewelry store and see a richly colored gem that shows both warm purple and cool blue tones, you might be looking at a fascinating and fun piece of history featuring a now largely forgotten gem.

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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