Origin of name
The name “Blue Belle of Asia” seem to reflect both the quality and the region of origin of this extraordinarily beautiful blue sapphire, said to be one of the top quality blue sapphires in the world. The word “belle” means a beautiful woman, and has been used metaphorically to refer to the extraordinary beauty of this enormous blue sapphire. The stone is held in the highest esteem for its highly prized peacock blue color and its excellent clarity. The stone was discovered in the traditional gem basket of Sri Lanka, the Ratnapura district, in the year 1926, and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an Island Nation in the South Asian region, situated at the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent. Thus the second part of the name “Asia” refers to the general region where the gemstone was discovered.
Characteristics of the gemstone
Color, cut, clarity and carat weight of the sapphire
The “Blue Belle of Asia” is a 400-carat enormous blue sapphire, with a peacock blue color and excellent clarity. The peacock blue color, commonly referred to as cornflower blue color is considered to be the most desirable color in blue sapphires, and has become the benchmark for quality in blue sapphires. This highly prized color is usually found in the elusive Kashmir sapphires, which are considered to be the best quality blue sapphires in the world. However, even in Sri Lanka, blue sapphires having this highly sought after color, had been unearthed occasionally in different regions of the country. One such region was Rakwana, in the Ratnapura district, which produced blue sapphires that were the exact look-alike of Kashmir sapphires, that even several foreign gem-testing laboratories initially certified as Kashmir sapphires.
The translucency of the stone was very good, and its clarity said to be excellent. However, the exact cut of the gemstone is not known. But, given the fact that blue sapphires are usually cut as cushion-shaped stones, it is quite possible that the cut employed for the gemstone might have been a cushion-cut.
The “Blue Belle of Asia” is the 6th largest faceted blue sapphire in the world
The “Blue Belle of Asia” is the 6th largest faceted blue sapphire in the world, according to the list of famous faceted blue sapphires greater than 100 carats in weight. Please click here for the list. In this list 17 out of 30 sapphires are of Sri Lankan origin and only 2 are of Burmese origin, providing statistical proof that Sri Lanka is the main source of large sapphires in the world.
In the list of blue sapphires, excluding blue star sapphires, “Blue Belle of Asia” occupies the 4th position
If we exclude the blue star sapphires from the list, and consider only the blue sapphires, the “Blue Belle of Asia” occupies the 4th position on this list. Please click here for the list of blue sapphires greater than 100 carats in weight, excluding the blue star sapphires. A significant feature in this list is that the first seven sapphires excluding the “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” are of Sri Lankan origin. But, statistical evidence suggests that even the “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” might be of Sri Lankan origin. Thus it appears that all seven largest blue sapphires in the world (excluding star sapphires) are of Sri Lankan origin.
Chemical composition of blue sapphires
Blue sapphires are the blue variety of the mineral corundum which is crystalline aluminum oxide, in which the blue color is caused by the displacement of some of the aluminum atoms in the crystal lattice by iron and titanium atoms.
Sapphires crystallize in the trigonal crystal system forming elongate hexagonal prisms. Usually blue sapphires do not show fluorescence, in ultra-violet light.
Physical and optical properties of sapphires
Sapphires have a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, and as such they are tough and durable, and suitable for setting in jewelry either alone or in combination with diamonds. The specific gravity of sapphires vary from 3.99 to 4.02.
The refractive index varies between 1.761 to 1.769 and the birefringence is low, between 0.008 and 0.009. The dispersion which is 0.018 is also low. Pleochroism in sapphires is strong. Pleochroism is an optical phenomenon in which a colored gem or crystal appear to have different colors when observed at different angles under a petrographic microscope. For blue sapphires the colors are violet-blue to lighter greenish-blue.
Special features of blue sapphires originating in Sri Lanka
One of the distinguishing features of most of the blue sapphires originating in Sri Lanka is their low iron content, which is directly related to their color and their ability to fluoresce in ultra-violet light. The low iron content gives a lighter but brighter blue color to most of the Sri Lankan blue sapphires. While in an aesthetic sense the color may appear to be pleasing, the increase in translucency and clarity of the stones may be counterproductive as inclusions in the stone become more apparent. In the high iron content darker blue shades of sapphires whose clarity is low, the inclusions may not be quite apparent.
The low iron content in the Sri Lankan blue sapphires causes them to fluoresce in long wave length ultra-violet light giving a red or orange fluorescence. Sapphires originating from most other areas of the world are inert to ultra-violet light due to their high iron content. (Sri Lankan rubies too show a strong orange-red fluorescence in long wave length ultra-violet light caused by chromium in the absence of iron.) Thus the presence of fluorescence in a blue sapphire might indicate that the gemstone is of Sri Lankan origin.
Common inclusions in Sri Lankan sapphires are zircon haloes, dark prisms of rutile, hexagonal prisms of apatite, and spinel octahedra.
History of the “Blue Belle of Asia”
The source of the “Blue Belle of Asia”
The “Blue Belle of Asia” was discovered in the paddy fields of Pelmadulla in the year 1926. Pelmadulla is a township in the Ratnapura district of Sri Lanka, situated almost in the centre of the district. It lies on the Ratnapura-Balangoda-Bandarawela A-4 road, and the road to Embilipitiya-Hambantota-Kataragama, branches off at Pelmadulla. The district of Ratnapura had been famous for its gem mines since very ancient times. Besides the villages surrounding Ratnapura and Pelmadulla towns, other areas that had become famous for their gem mines include the villages surrounding Kuruvita, Opanayake, Rakwana, Kahawatte and Eheliyagoda townships, all in Ratnapura district. One of the villages in Pelmadulla where gem mining is highly concentrated is the village of Ganegama.
The gem mines in the Ratnapura district are all secondary alluvial deposits that were formed millions of years ago, by the erosion of the gem-bearing igneous and metamorphic rocks in the surrounding mountainous region, which were subsequently washed down hills and deposited in the valleys and river basins below. One of the Main rivers in Sri Lanka, the Kalu Ganga flows through the Ratnapura district. This river originates in the Adam’s Peak mountain range, also situated in the district, and gem-bearing gravel carried by this river had been deposited in the surrounding river basin. The gem-bearing gravel had been covered over the years by sand, silt and clay deposits, and today most of the mines in these areas lie in the middle of rice (paddy) fields. The “Blue Belle of Asia” was discovered in a mine situated in one such paddy field.
Traditional gem-mining operations in Sri Lanka.
To access the gem-bearing gravel vertical pits varying in depth from about 10 to 50 feet are hand dug by teams of mine workers, pumping out any water that may collect at the bottom of the pit. As the pit deepens the sides are reinforced by wooden logs to prevent caving in of the pits. When the gem-bearing gravel is reached, they are dug out, placed in baskets and hauled up the deep pit to the surface. The gravel known as “illam” is placed in conical-shaped wicker baskets, immersed in water and swirled around several times to remove the mud, clay and sand, which rises to the top. The heavier stones settle at the bottom of the basket. The process is repeated several times until the heavier stones are thoroughly washed free of all the mud and clay. The stones are then sorted out by experienced sorters to separate the potentially valuable rough gemstones.
When the gem-bearing gravel at the bottom of the pit is exhausted, tunnels are dug horizontally in several directions, and more gem bearing gravel is brought out. This extends the period of productivity of the mine, thus eliminating the need to dig additional vertical shafts in the immediate vicinity. When the gem-bearing deposits have been exhausted, the miners re-fill the shafts as far as possible, both horizontal as well as vertical shafts, and close up the mine fully, returning the area back to rice cultivation, so that the damage done to the environment is minimal. But unfortunately not all miners resort to environmental friendly mining, and there are large numbers of abandoned gem-mining pits in many parts of the country, that have become ideal breeding places of mosquitoes resulting in the outbreak of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and chikun-gunya, all mosquito-borne diseases.
Cutting of the “Blue Belle of Asia”
After its discovery in 1926, the “Blue Belle of Asia” rough stone would have been cut by one of the traditional gem-cutters of the Island Nation, which can boast of a gem-cutting and polishing industry as old as the gem-mining industry in the country. Around this time, the gem-cutting industry was mainly in the hands of Moor craftsmen who had acquired the skills from their ancestors after being passed down faithfully from generation to generation. The processed “Blue Belle of Asia” weighed 400 carats and the reputed gem dealer who owned it, also probably a Moor gem dealer, whose ancestors had been dominating the gem trade in the country from time immemorial, sold the renowned gemstone to Lord Nuffield of Britain.
Viscount Nuffield, William Richard Morris
The “Blue Belle of Asia” was reportedly sold to a British collector by the name of Lord Nuffield in 1937. This is an obvious reference to Viscount Nuffield, William Richard Morris, the “Henry Ford” of England, who revolutionized the automobile industry in England, much as Henry Ford had done in the United States. William Morris founded Morris Motors Ltd. in 1919 which produced the popular Morris series of cars such as the Morris Oxford, and the versatile small car the Morris Minor, which became popular around the world like the German made Volkswagen Beetle. Morris later acquired Wolseley Motors in 1927, and Riley Ltd. in 1938. He later merged with the Austin Motor Company in 1952, and formed the British Motor Corporation, which subsequently became the third largest automobile company in the world.
Among the titles Morris received were Baronet in 1929, Baron in 1934 and finally Viscount Nuffield in 1938. Nuffield had no children and his vast fortune was diverted towards philanthropic activities,and among the beneficiaries were the Nuffield foundation, the Nuffield Trust, Nuffield College, Oxford, the Nuffield Institute for medical Research and the University of Oxford.
The fate of the “Blue Belle of Asia” after his death is not known.
An update on the Blue Belle of Asia
The “Blue Belle of Asia” has now resurfaced 77 years after it was sold to Viscount Nuffield in 1937, by its owners, the reputed gem and jewelry dealers of Sri Lanka, O.L.M. Macan Markar & Co. Ltd, who had one of the most spectacular collections of top-quality Ceylon gems including sapphires and rubies, and among whose clients were several members of the British Royal family including HM King Edward VII and HM King George V.
Lord Nuffield married Elizabeth Anstey on April 9, 1903. They had no children and Lord Nuffield disbursed a large part of his fortune to a multitude of charitable causes, such as funding the expansion of Sea Cadet Corps, funding the Nuffield Building at the Birmingham University to house a cyclotron, issuing over 1,700 iron lung machines made in his factory to hospitals in Britain and the British Empire, founding of the Nuffield Foundation, the Nuffield Trust for Research and Policy Studies in Health Services, Nuffield College, Oxford, the Nuffield Institute for Medical Reasearch etc. He also bequeathed his former Oxfordshire home, Nuffield Place, and its contents to Nuffield College, Oxford as a museum. Subsequently, Nuffield College gifted the house and part of his estate to the National Trust.
It is not known how the “Blue Belle of Asia” fell into private hands. The renowned sapphire was either disposed by Lord Nuffield himself before his death or the sapphire was part of his estate bequeathed to a charitable trust or instituion created by him, which subsequently sold the sapphire and converted into much needed cash for the trust or institution. It is also not known whether it was Lord Nuffield himself or the anonymous private collector who acquired the sapphire, who was responsible for setting the sapphire as the centerpiece of the spectacular diamond necklace.
At the time the Blogpage on the Blue Belle of Asia was written by us on April 16, 2008, information on the renowned sapphire was very scarce. The exact shape/cut of the enormous sapphire was not known. We however, predicted based on the usual shape/cut employed for blue sapphires, that the shape/cut of the “Blue Belle of Asia” too was most probably a cushion shape/cut. With the resurfacing of the sapphire our prediction has now been proved to be very accurate.
We also predicted correctly that the sapphire was most probably owned by a Moor gem dealer, who got the rough diamond cut by Moor craftsmen, who acquired the skills from their Arab ancestors who settled down in Sri Lanka between the 5th to 8th centuries A.D. Moors are the descendants of Arab settlers during this period in Sri Lanka. According to new information that has surfaced after the reappearance of the “Blue Belle of Asia” the renowned sapphire was owned and sold by a reputed gem dealer in Sri Lanka, Messrs. O.L.M. Macan Markar & Co. Ltd. who are Moors by ethnicity.
The characteristics of the “Blue Belle of Asia” can now be updated as follows :-
The “Blue Belle of Asia” is a 392.52-carat, enormous cushion-cut blue sapphire, with a peacock blue color and excellent translucency and clarity.
1) Ruby & Sapphire – Richard Hughes
2) Website of the National Gem & Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka.
3) www rootsweb.com – lkawgw/sapphire.htm
4) GEO347K GEM NOTES – Corundum – Department of Geological Sciences, University of Texas, Austin.
5) Gems and the Environment -Case Study -Sri Lanka -University of Vermont