Journey to the stone podcast with Don Kogen about Sapphire


On this podcast of Journey to the Stone, we're going to talk about one of the gems that is closest to my heart. This is a gem I have been chasing since I was 13 years old. I know everything about it, I have been to pretty much every locale, I have hunted it down specifically, and I have personally discovered over seven deposits of this variety, putting them on the map. We are going to cover the legendary—and one of the world's most well-known gemstones—Sapphire.

I'm going to try and cover: the whole spectrum of all the major locales of Sapphire; the different varieties of Sapphire; and what's happening in the world market—what happened before, what's happening now, what's available, what's not available, etc.

So let's start with the legend of all Sapphires. What is the most well-known—and has been collected—Sapphire in the auction world, the collector world, the most in-demand Sapphire in the world, and also the most limited Sapphire in the world, due to mining depleting over 100 years ago? That is the legendary Kashmir Sapphire.

This particular deposit is the highest-known mine of any gemstone in the world, being mined at over 14,000 feet altitude. It is mined in the Kashmir Valley in the Paddar region of India. It produces some of the most important Sapphires on record, to date. This particular material is actually quite interesting because it's never very crystallized. It always has some velvety silk within the crystal structure. And that's how gemologists are able to identify this material as being the legendary Paddar Kashmir Sapphire. It is rare, it is exclusive, and it has demanded prices up to a quarter of $1,000,000 a carat.

If you look back historically at some of the legendary Sapphires that are in museums, that are in the most important collections, that constantly go to the main auction houses, Kashmir Sapphire always reigns. The highest price demanded per carat of any Sapphire in the world. Not because it's the most beautiful, by any means. There are more beautiful producing deposits. But it's a historical stone. It's got that legendary aspect to it, dating back hundreds and hundreds of years to the times of the Maharajas in ancient India, very similar to the Golconda Diamond, etc. And they're well-known.

Primarily producing blues, but you also do get some pinks, you get some purples, you get other varieties coming out of this legendary deposit. It is really, really unique and special when you can get some more open, vibrant colors, like hot pink, etc. They're not common. And they are very, very rare and very hard to find, due to the fact that this mine has been closed for over 100 years.

Didy Sapphire ring

Very difficult terrain. I have walked the “vertical limit” between Azad Kashmir to Paddar Kashmir, doing a lot of geological surveys between this locale, and actually researching the gemological deposits. This particular mine was formed—we used to think it was formed around 50 million years ago through the formation of the Himalayan Belt. But we now know that this mine was actually formed 25 million years ago through studies that we have done from walking this, you know, geological, mass amount of mountains. I mean, you're walking through the Himalayan Belt. And what basically happened is, you had the Indian tectonic plate and you had basically Eurasian plate colliding together, which created the highest mountain range in the world. And they still say that that mountain range is still increasing in height slowly. It's very, very slow. But as these plates collide together, this mountain range is still growing.

But something happened 25 million years ago. And this is recently that we found out this information, through our studies and going to Kashmir. And I've been there like eight times, and I walked the “vertical limit,” going back and forth over 800 miles, going all the way from Azad Kashmir to Paddar, back and forth. And, I mean, it's crazy terrain, very difficult. You're going up and down, from 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet to 15,000 feet. It's really, really difficult. You've got to be in top, top fit shape to do it. Very, very tricky, but I wanted to do it before I got too old to do it. So I did it eight times, going back and forth. I went village to village, got to meet people who had family within this industry, got to see their stones, got to learn everything I wanted to know about Kashmir Sapphire, and that was an experience of all experiences.

Now I'll take you to Sri Lanka. Now, Sri Lanka is one of the most remarkable locales when you're talking about that neon electric blue. 99.9999% of all Sapphires coming out of Sri Lanka—if you look historically to the 1980s and 1990s—the largest exports were made from Sri Lanka to Thailand. I sell a lot of rough. That's my core business. And what they used to export was Ottu and Geuda. And these particular deposits—Geuda and Ottu—these particular deposits were certain types of Ceylon Sapphire. When exposed to temperatures of 1,800 degrees, these particular Sapphires, through heat treatment, would turn this royal electric blue as well. And that is what 99.999% of the world's Sapphire deposit is, is this material that has been heat treated in Thailand, and sold throughout the world. And that's what you'll see in almost every shop in the world.

But every once in a while, you'll see the hand of Mother Nature in effect, where that production of this beautiful crystallized neon blue occurs. And that occurs in Sri Lanka, known as the cornflower or the royal blue colors. This particular material is extremely rare if it has no heat. Because heat also reduces Rutile needles, which is the silky aspect in unheated stones. So unheated stones coming out of Sri Lanka also have a little bit of silk. If you find them with good crystallization, they are extremely rare! And extremely coveted! And very, very collectible. But they're very, very hard to find—and they represent maybe one in 10,000 Sapphires, to have that nice blue color with good clarity in the natural form. They got amazing colors, predominantly the cornflower blues and the top royal neon electric blues that you'll see coming out of Sri Lanka.

And then also—one of the most important collectible gems in the world that is predominantly a Sri Lankan phenomenon, it goes back hundreds of years to the Maharajas as well—is the Padparadscha Sapphire. If you can get Padparadscha Sapphire with that perfect lotus color, of the integration of pink-orange like the lotus flower, that particular material soars at auction, and collectors pay huge premiums. Up to $50,000 a carat, no sweat. And Kat Florence has so many notable Padparadschas that I've collected through the years, like 10.00 carat unheated Ceylons. I've got a couple that have come from other locales as well, even as rare as Mogok.

I am a big fan and collector of the Padparadscha Sapphire because I know they're only one in a million stones, they're extremely rare. They're coveted. Mother Nature has to have the perfect storm of events to basically put together the perfect trace elements to give you that lotus flower color. And it can come in multiple types. You have the Sunset or the Sunrise: the Sunrise being more of the pinkish-orange variety, and then the Sunset being more of the orangey-pink variety, and then everything in between. But they must have a predominant pink-orange effect integrated within the crystal structure. And if you can get these stones unheated, it's super rare. They are very uncommon.

So when I go to Sri Lanka, I export about hundreds and hundreds of kilos of rough material, because that's my core business. And I sell that to cutting factories all over the world. And what I try to do, when I'm going through these hundreds and hundreds of kilos, I have sorters who grade the rough. And whenever they see a Padparadscha, they pull it aside. Or they see a hot pink, they pull it aside, or they see a violet, they pull it aside.

These stones are extremely rare. They actually represent a miniscule amount of what Mother Nature produces—if you can get nice purples, and nice, hot, deep, vivid pinks, and you can get that rare integration of the pink-orange Padparadschas—making them one of the most collectible Sapphires in the world. Now, Kat Florence only deals with unheated varieties, and these varieties are very uncommon. They come predominantly out of my collection of going back and forth to Sri Lanka for over 30 years. They're extremely rare. They're coveted. And if you like sparkle, Sri Lankan Sapphire gives you sparkle.

Now I'll go to the Mogok Stone Tract, because the Mogok Stone Tract not only—first of all, its Ruby demands the highest price per carat of any color gemstone in the world, second to Blue and Pink Diamond. There is no other colored gemstone that's even close. Emerald is about a quarter of $1,000,000 a carat; Kashmir Sapphires, a quarter of $1,000,000 a carat. Ruby demands over $1,100,000 a carat, coming out of the Mogok gemological mines of the Mogok Stone Tract.

And that particular area—now, I've been going to this area for a long time, right? I've lived in Thailand for the last 30-odd years. So when I was very young, like 15, I was ignorant. I was a little bit dumb. I didn't really care. You could not enter into Mogok, or you could not go into Burma, at that period. It was a closed country. And I used to sneak across the border.

Now, it was basically, if they caught me, I don't think I would be here making this podcast right now, because it was not… you were not treated well if you snuck across the border. But I used to do it either way. And I used to travel into the Shan State, through the Shan State, follow the Mogok Stone Tract, and stay with the villagers.

I speak Thai fluently. I also speak other dialects—Northeastern, Eastern, from the area of Southeast Asia. And I grew up in Southeast Asia hunting these rare stones. So I was going to Pailin, Cambodia, at the time; I was up in Vietnam when the new discoveries were happening up there, up in Luc Yen; so I'd been all over there, and I used to go across to Burma. It’s one of my favorite locales to go to because of the legendary Pigeon Blood Red Ruby, but it also produces what's known as the Mogok Blue Sapphire.

The Mogok Blue Sapphire is expensive. It's very, very unique. Just like all gems from the Mogok Stone Tract, that is the finest grades of what Sapphire can become. So you do get a lot of royal blues. You get a lot of open, vibrant colors and a lot of sparkle.

It's very difficult to get clean Burma; they usually tend to have a silky patch to them if they're natural unheated. That's why most people heat the stones: to reduce the silk aspect. Because what happens when you heat Sapphire is, the needles—the Rutile needles within the crystal structure—is what that silk is, and you're not actually removing it; you're just sort of melting it. What happens is: the needles become less visible to the naked eye, allowing more crystal to go through the crystal structure. And that's why a lot of people like to heat the stones. It's sort of like an aging process, making that steak a little bit more well-done. And so it brings out the perfect brilliance.

What I collect, and I've always collected, is the stones that are perfect from the hand of Mother Nature. To have a vibrant, intense, royal blue Mogok Sapphire that has crystallization is so rare. It's unheard of. A little bit of inclusions is actually accepted in the Burmese stones. Like, for example, the $1,000,000 a carat Sunrise Ruby that was sold at auction. That $1,000,000 carat Sunrise Ruby also was not perfectly clean. So it's the expectation coming out of either Kashmir and Mogok stones, is never to be perfectly clean anyway. They're looking for nice color, nice size, good crystallization, and great vibrance—and that, the stones coming out of the Mogok Stone Tract will give you.

And we've also found—very rarely, and I collect only rare—so I found some Padparadscha colors coming out of Mogok as well. You get the occasional nice yellow. Predominantly the yellows coming out of Sri Lanka reign supreme. The deep, vivid yellows—you get some nice natural color yellows. I would say one in 100,000 yellows in the marketplace is actually unheated. So you would say 99,999 had been heated.

The Thai market controls the yellow market, because they buy this lighter color yellow coming from Sri Lanka or Africa. They heat it to improve the color and reduce the Rutile needles in the crystal structure, bringing out that electric pop that comes out of Yellow Sapphire. But if you can get a deep, nice color, or a vivid color, like a fancy yellow or a canary yellow color or golden, in natural—that is extremely rare, and very, very difficult to find. Predominantly out of Sri Lanka. You do not find this color coming out of the Mogok Stone Tract. You get more of a medium to lighter yellow. And you do get some clarity there, but you see more of lighter colors coming out of the Mogok Stone Tract.

In Mogok Stone Tract, predominantly you see the Pigeon Blood Red Ruby. You get a lot of Spinels, you get some Peridots that are unbelievable coming out of there; but their stones are world-respected. I mean, the Mogok Stone Tract: they’re top, top of the line.

I'm going to introduce you to the imposter mine. The impostor mine is the Didy deposit in Madagascar. Why we call it the impostor mine is because it's produced some of the most important Sapphires, Rubies, and fancy-colored Sapphires ever. It is really a remarkable deposit.

So right there in a national forest, what happened is two illegal loggers pulled down a tree, and in its roots, there were these two stones: a red one and a blue one. He took these stones down to the capital, Tana. He met some Sri Lankan guy who gave him $20,000 in cash for these two stones. Can you imagine that? A normal guy in Madagascar getting handed $20,000 in cash for these two stones? I mean, that created a riot. What happened is: he went with all this cash back, and within a week we had 10,000 people migrating into the national forests.

Now, you're not allowed to mine in the National Reserve in Madagascar. You know what I mean? That's where the animals are. You're not supposed to mine in this particular area. Anyway, people saw the riches. It was like the gold rush in California. Everybody started moving. It was like a whole town moving, and a lot of it came from the Ilakaka area, because that was the big strike. About five to 10 years prior to Didy was the Ilakaka, in a different part of Madagascar. And a lot of people were just running towards this Didy deposit, because they knew it would be short-lived, and the return was unbelievable.

Anyway, that Sri Lankan guy who bought it for $20,000—close friend of mine—went back to Sri Lanka, sold the Sapphires, no joke, for $600,000. And then they ended up selling it at auction, for a combined total value of $2,000,000 for the two pieces. So that was the exponential rush going into Didy. This was in 2012. Now I went in there, early days, because I spent a lot of time in Madagascar. I've hunted Spinel in the northern part; I discovered Demantoid over in the mangroves in Madagascar, as well as 100 different varieties… Madagascar is one of the most amazing producing countries for stones in the world.

But here it was: the rush was on, so off I go to Didy. It was still early days, there was only a few hundred people there, and I start buying these stones, and I start to realize, Holy Moly, there's Sapphires here that resemble the identical look and identical feel of the Kashmir Sapphire. And I was thinking to myself, oh my goodness, we're gonna have a problem here. We've got Sapphires coming out of Madagascar that had the exact same inclusions as Sapphires that come out of Paddar Kashmir that sell for a quarter of $1,000,000 a carat. This was crazy.

Ceylon Pink Sapphire ring

So what I did is: I stuck around for literally four months in the jungle while the whole madness happened. I bought every Sapphire I could that had this phenomenon. I bought, in total, less than 10 stones. That's all I've ever seen like it. But they are crazy. So, stones like this—you will see Madagascar Didy stones that look identical to the most expensive Kashmirs. They're very uncommon. Most of the stones tend to be more of the darker variety, but every once in a while, it'll blow your head off.

What also was producing this deposit was Padparadscha. Nobody had ever seen Padparadscha that would rival the finest-quality Sri Lanka in unheated form. Remember, what was good about the Didy deposit is that a lot of the rough material was actually good enough to be cut in the crystal natural form. That is uncommon in Ruby and Sapphire. Usually, 99.99999% of all stones in Ruby and Sapphire must be heated. These particular stones could be cut in the natural form, which was extremely rare and extremely uncommon.

Anyway, it was short-lived. 2012, the hunt was on, 10,000 people, cities being built in the middle of the jungle. It was crazy time. It was wild. I remember Dr. Peretti from GRS coming in by helicopter to do analysis on the stones. It was a big deal: Rubies that look like Mogok Sapphires that look like Ceylon and Kashmir. It was crazy days. Anyway, the military came in, shut this down, kicked everybody out. And there's been no more mining since, and we're pretty much done with Didy. They enforce the rules and regulations.

And it's okay, it's the way it works. And let the lemurs and the animals be happy. Because the deposit—most of these places that it was mined, it was pretty much just found at very low depths, and everybody could get back to living in a happy environment. And that was it. And most of the miners just headed to a different direction and a new discovery in Madagascar, which is a constant thing. Whether they're discovering Sapphire, or discovering Ruby, or discovering other different types, everybody went back to continuous mining.

So the Sapphire world has actually been one of my most exciting worlds. And I could go on and on about the discovery of the Mambilla Sapphire in Nigeria—I was one of the first people there—that produced material that was identical to the Pailin deposit coming out of Cambodia. More of a royal blue Basaltic type, as opposed to the neon electric varieties. And I can go on and on when it comes to Sapphire because it's endless.

But guys, I tell you now, when you see Sapphires in Kat Florence, these are some of the most collected stones I've held on to over the years of my gem hunting of over 30-odd years. And when you see it, there's always a characteristic. Like the Padparadscha is a color that nobody's ever seen before, or it's a historical stone, or the yellow is so vibrant and electric and deep. You know I mean? Or it's a Didy that looks like a Kashmir Sapphire that nobody has in the world. That's what I focus on. That's what I love to hunt. I like to collect rarity. I like to collect what nobody in the world has. And the rest I sell off in rough, because that's my core business.

So keep your eye out on Sapphire. I'm constantly looking for new discoveries of Sapphire and Ruby all over the world, because my core business is selling rough Sapphire and Ruby, as well 200 other gem varieties. But Sapphire, Ruby, being hundreds and hundreds of kilos every month, even close to 1,000 kilos on certain months. Because Sapphire and Ruby is one of the most recognized types of mineral in the world, Corundum. You got your Ruby, Sapphire, being two of the big four; then you got Emerald and Diamond, of course.

So hold on to these gems. If you do get a Kat Florence Ruby or Sapphire, specifically any of the colors I talked to you about, hold on to them. Because the price is only going up! Straight on up.

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