Origin of name
The enormous 337.10 carat “Catherine the Great’s Blue Sapphire” gets its name from the one time owner of this gemstone, Catherine the Great (1762-96), one of the two greatest rulers of the Romanov dynasty, that ruled Russia for more than 300 years from 1613 to 1917. Catherine the Great, was a German born princess who became a Romanov only by right of marriage to a Romanov, Peter III, whom she later ousted and installed herself as the Empress of Russia. It is believed that the gemstone was presented to Catherine the Great, during her reign between 1762 and 1796, by a unidentified admirer.
Characteristics of the gemstone
Color, cut and carat weight of the sapphire
“Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” is a 337.10-carat, faceted, oval-cut, deep-blue sapphire, described as a magnificent stone due to its perfect color, cut and clarity. The value of the stone in 1951 which was estimated at around $ 250,000 seem to verify the credentials of the stone in respect of its color, cut and clarity.
The source of “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire”
The source and date of discovery of the gemstone are unknown, but a study of the table of sapphires listing the famous faceted blue sapphires of the world greater than 100 carats in weight shows that out of 30 sapphires listed 17 are of Sri Lankan origin and only 2 sapphires are of Burmese origin. The same list shows that out of the 13 blue sapphires that are more than 300 carats in weight 8 are of Sri Lankan origin, and only 2 are of Burmese origin. Thus the probability of a blue sapphire greater than 300 carats originating in Sri Lanka is far greater than its probability of originating from Burma. Thus “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” is in all probability a sapphire of Sri Lankan origin. Please click here for the table of blue sapphires greater than 100 carats in weight.
The same table shows that “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” is the 11th largest blue sapphire in the world.
Some chemical and physical properties of blue sapphires
The gemstone being a sapphire belongs to the group of minerals known as corundum which is a crystalline form of aluminum oxide. The blue color is caused by some aluminum atoms in the crystal lattice of aluminum oxide being displaced by titanium and iron atoms. Corundum has a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale. The excellent toughness and durability of corundum make it a suitable stone for setting in jewelry either alone or in combination with diamonds. If “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” is a Sri Lankan blue sapphire it should have a strong orange-red fluorescence in ultra-violet light of long wave length. Blue sapphires from other parts of the world are generally inert to ultra-violet light. But, it should be remembered that some Sri Lankan blue sapphires are also inert to ultra-violet light. Thus, while the presence of an orange-red fluorescence in ultra-violet light may possibly indicate that the blue sapphire is of Sri Lankan origin, the absence of fluorescence will not necessarily exclude the possibility that the blue sapphire may be of Sri Lankan origin.
Early history of “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire”
Could the unidentified admirer who presented the enormous blue sapphire to Catherine, be one of her many lovers ?
“Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” is believed to have been gifted to the great empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, during her reign between 1762-1796 by an unidentified admirer. It is a well known fact that Catherine the Great took many lovers during her lifetime out of whom the names of twelve lovers are well documented. Her third lover Gregory Orlov, with whose help she plotted the coup that ousted her husband Peter III, was her lover for 14 years from 1758 to 1772. This relationship represents the longest relationship she had with a man during her life time. However in 1772, Catherine lost interest in Count Orlov, and took a new lover by the name of Alexander Vassichikov. The break in relationship offended Count Orlov, who then purchased a 189.62-carat large D-color diamond of Indian origin for a sum of 400,000 rubles from Amsterdam, which Catherine had earlier desired to purchase and own but failed, not being able to agree on a reasonable price. Count Orlov gifted the valuable diamond to Catherine the Great, hoping to re-kindle his former relationship. Catherine accepted the gift and got it set on the Imperial Scepter, but Orlov failed to regain her affections. Instead Catherine bestowed him with many gifts, including a marble palace in St. Petersburg. Given the fact that one of her former lovers Count Orlov spent a sum of 400,000 rubles, which was a staggering amount at that time, to purchase a gift for her, in order to win her affections, it is quite possible that the so called “unidentified admirer” who presented the enormous sapphire to Catherine, which subsequently came to be known as “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire,” might also have been one of her many lovers.
Other possibilities for the unidentified admirer
Other possibilities are that the unidentified admirer might have been one of the rulers of a neighboring state either in Europe or Asia, who could have presented the blue sapphire to the Empress, with a view of improving diplomatic relations between the two countries. Exchange of gifts during that period had been a routine diplomatic procedure and history records several instances of such exchange. The “Shah Diamond,” an 88.7-carat table-cut yellow diamond, which is a historic gemstone among the collection of the Kremlin Diamond Fund, was actually a gift by Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834) to Czar Nicholas I. The “Shah Diamond” was carried to St. Petersburg by an Iranian delegation led by the son of Abbas Mirza, Hosrov Mirza (Cosrhoes), whose visit was prompted by the murder of the Russian diplomat, Alexander Sergevich Griboedov. The delegation apologized to the Emperor on behalf of Fath Ali Shah for the death of the diplomat, and presented the valuable diamond gift to him, as an expression of the highest regard in which the Emperor was held in Iran, and as an act of remorse, and pacification for the serious international crime committed in Iranian soil. Likewise history also records that the Shah of Iran, Nadir Shah (1736-1747), the mighty conqueror of Iran, who created an empire that rivaled the ancient Iranian empires in extent, sent gifts from his enormous booty which he captured during his Indian campaign, to rulers of neighboring states which included Russia, and Turkey.
Another possibility was that the unidentified admirer came from one of the southern Tartar khanates like Kazan or Astrakhan or the newly subjugated Crimean khanate, whose Muslim subjects were treated with respect by Catherine the Great, and allowed complete freedom of worship of their religion.
The year of discovery of the sapphire
The sapphire was presented to Catherine the Great during her period of rule between 1762-96. If we accept the possibility that the blue sapphire was of Sri Lankan origin and giving a maximum period of 50 years for the stone to have reached Russia after its discovery passing through several intermediaries, the most probable period of origin of the sapphire in Sri Lanka, would be the early eighteenth century. This corresponds with the period of Dutch colonial rule in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka between 1640-1795.
How the sapphire would have reached the west from Sri Lanka ?
The traditional gem mining areas of Sri Lanka in the Ratnapura district, which were situated inland, away from the coastal areas at that time, were not under the domain of the Dutch colonial rulers. The mines were mainly exploited by the Sinhalese inhabitants and the Moors, who were descendents of Arab settlers of the 5th to 8th century A. D.; but, apart from mining all other aspects of the trade such as cutting and polishing, internal and external marketing of the finished gemstones were in the hands of the Moor traders. During this period official exports of any gemstones through the Dutch controlled main port city of Galle, in southern Sri Lanka was only very minimal. Most of the gemstones were either smuggled into India, across the Palk Straits, the narrow and shallow waters between Sri Lanka and India or sold by the Moor traders to Arab merchants whose ships frequented several smaller Indian Ocean ports along the western and northwestern coasts of Sri Lanka. The smuggled gemstones eventually found their way to Bombay, the main gem and jewelry market in the East during that period, where the stones were sold to foreign buyers from the west, and other regions of the world. The gemstones carried by the Arab merchant ships eventually reached various ports in the middle east in the Gulf region, and the Red Sea coasts under Ottoman rule, from where they were taken to commercial centers and capital cities like Istanbul. Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus and disposed of.
Modern History of “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire”
The Sapphire is sold by Czar Nicholas II to finance a hospital train for the Russian army during World War I
After Catherine the Great the sapphire was inherited by a series of Romanov Czars and remained part of the Romanov jewels for almost 150 years until it came into the possession of Czar Nicholas II, the last of the Russian Emperors who ruled from 1895 to 1917, who was finally executed together with his wife and children by the Bolsheviks during the 1917 October Revolution. Czar Nicholas II sold the enormous blue sapphire soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and used the proceeds to finance a hospital train for the Russian Army which fought on the side of the allies that constituted Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan against the Central Powers that constituted Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey.
The Sapphire is purchased by Harry Winston in the late 1940s
Between 1914 and the late 1940s the sapphire changed hands several times until it reached the United States, where it was purchased by the famous New York Jeweler, Harry Winston for an undisclosed sum. “Catherine the Great’s Sapphire” was one of the prominent jewels included in his “Court of Jewels” collection, which toured the United States from 1949 to 1953. The gemstone was later sold by Harry Winston to an anonymous buyer for an undisclosed sum. The present whereabouts of the sapphire are unknown.
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2) GEO347K GEM NOTES -Corundum- Department of Geological Sciences, University of Austin, Texas.
3) Ceylon – Vol I – Sir James Emerson Tennent (1859).
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5) Encyclopaedia Britannica – 2006