Midnight Star Sapphire

Origin of name

What inspired the name midnight ?

The Midnight Star Sapphire

©AMNH New York City

The Midnight Star Sapphire is a large deep purple-violet sapphire of Sri Lankan origin, belonging to the American Museum of Natural History, New York. It is not known exactly what property of the stone inspired the term “midnight” to refer to this deep purple-violet stone. Perhaps it is the deep purple color that appears somewhat black that might have inspired the term. The term “midnight” had been used to refer to black star sapphires as well as Mogok blue sapphires. This explains the confusion that has been caused in respect of the color of this sapphire, which many websites have referred to as a black star sapphire. The Mogok sapphires from Burma, are referred to as “midnight blue sapphires” to refer to the blue of the finest Mogok stones, whose color intensity is greater than intense blue or vivid blue colors, somewhat reminiscent of the midnight sky on a moon-lit night. Some have compared this blue color to the color of the sky after sun set, when dusk is about to set in.


Is the “Midnight Star” a sapphire or a ruby ?

The color of the “Midnight Star” is a deep purple-violet according to the publication “Ruby & Sapphire” written by Richard Hughes, who is undoubtedly an authority on the subject. The color of the gemstone as appearing in photographs agrees well with this description. If we accept this as the true color of the gemstone, then the stone should necessarily be classified as a sapphire and not a ruby.

However, some websites have referred to the stone as the “Midnight Star Ruby” implying that the stone is a ruby, and described its color as purplish-red. But, a careful examination of a photograph of the stone reveals that purple or violet color of the stone is undoubtedly the predominant color of the stone even though the stone may possess a slight pinkish or reddish overtone. It is the dominant color of the stone that decides its class. Thus the characterization of the stone as a ruby appears to be misleading. The different color tones of rubies originating from the main source countries might set the records straight.

Burma (Myanmar) rubies – “pigeon blood color” – benchmark for top quality rubies. Red color caused by chromium.

Thailand rubies – Dark red caused by chromium, with a brownish to purplish overtone, caused by iron.

Sri Lanka rubies – Lighter red and pinkish colors caused by chromium.

Cambodia rubies – Dark red caused by chromium with a brownish to purplish overtone, caused by iron.

The different color notations used in color grading of rubies according to the Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand (GIT) are dark red, deep red, vivid red, strong red, pinkish red and purplish red.

The Sri Lankan rubies which are lighter red in color may fall under the fifth category pinkish red. The Midnight Star is a Sri Lankan stone and does not show the characteristic color tone of Ceylon rubies. Therefore the Midnight Star is definitely not a ruby. Moreover the pinkish red star rubies of Sri Lanka usually have a well defined star, as for example, the Rosser Reeves Star Ruby. To get a perfect star in a red ruby is usually very rare. The best stars are found only in pinkish-red rubies. This explains why Sri Lankan star rubies have the best stars. The fact that the star in the “Midnight Star” is not well defined also gives an indication that the stone may not be a Sri Lankan star ruby.

Thus the “Midnight Star” is without any doubt a violet or purple star sapphire, and not a star ruby.


Characteristics of the gemstone

The largest violet star sapphire in the world

The “Midnight Star Sapphire” is a 116.75-carat, deep purple-violet star sapphire of Sri Lankan origin, cut en cabochon as all star sapphires with the dome shaped surface at an angle of 90 degrees to the c-axis. The star that appears when the stone is exposed to a direct source of light such as direct sunlight or light emanating from a torch or flash light, is six-rayed, but the rays are short, even though they are quite clear and distinct. The cloudiness that appears on the stone is known as silk, caused by minute rutile fibers, which are also responsible for the star effect known as asterism. Star sapphires of purple-violet color are quite rare, and a stone of this enormous size is even rarer. Thus the “Midnight Star Sapphire” is perhaps the largest star sapphire of its kind in the world.


Cause of the violet color

Sapphires belong to the group of minerals known as corundum which is crystalline aluminum oxide. Pure corundum is colorless. The presence of a few atoms of a transition element in the crystal structure, that displaces some of the aluminum atoms causes color in corundum crystals. In the case of the “Midnight Star Sapphire” the deep purple violet color is caused by vanadium atoms. The slightly pinkish or reddish overtone may be caused by the presence of a few atoms of chromium, together with the vanadium atoms.


Cause of Star effect

Asterism or the star effect of the sapphire is caused by the presence of bundles of minute rutile fibers that are arranged in a three-fold pattern, each reflecting light entering through the dome-shaped face to produce a distinct luminous line. Thus three lines are produced which intersect with one another to form the six-rayed star. But, it appears that in the “Midnight Star Sapphire” at least one of the intersecting lines is shorter than the other two, so that some of the rays of the star are shorter.


The “Midnight Star Sapphire” was probably cut and polished in Sri lanka

Successful cutting of a star sapphire requires a lot of experience. In the first place a cutter should be able to examine a rough stone and predict that when the stone is cut and polished it would produce a perfect star effect. Having decided that a rough corundum is a suitable candidate for transforming into a star sapphire, the cutter should examine the stone carefully, and decide on which side of the stone should eventually become the dome-shaped face, in order to bring out the best possible star effect. A slight mistake might result in a failed star, a star with some of the rays missing, or a star not centrally placed and displaced to a side. Thus only a cutter who has had long years of experience in cutting star-sapphires can successfully undertake the cutting of a star sapphire. Sri Lanka is a country that can boast of having experienced traditional gemstone cutters and polishers whose knowledge had been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times. Thus the Midnight Star Sapphire, being a stone that is more than 100 years old would have most probably been cut and polished by the traditional gemstone cutters and polishers of Sri Lanka, before the stone was exported out of the country. Even in ancient times Sri Lanka never exported rough stones, and always processed the rough stones in the country before export, because the profit margin obtained by selling cut and polished stones were much higher than rough stones.


History of the “Midnight Star Sapphire”

The “Midnight Star Sapphire” is part of the J. P. Morgan collection of gems

The “Midnight Star Sapphire” perhaps has a very long history, but recorded history of the stone dates back only to the late 19th century, when the stone was part of the collection of jewels belonging to one of the most successful financiers and industrial organizers in the history of America, J. P. Morgan. The collection also included another famous gemstone, the 563.5-carat “Star of India” aka “Star of Sri Lanka” reputed to be the largest blue star sapphire in the world, which is also of Sri Lankan origin.


The early history of the “Star of India” sapphire

The “Star of India” blue star sapphire was said to have been discovered about 200-300 years ago in Sri Lanka, when the country was either under Dutch colonial rule (1640-1795) or British colonial rule (1795-1948). During this period the gem trade was entirely in the hands of Moors traders (descendants of Arab settlers), except for the mining aspect of the industry, which was in the hands of the local Sinhalese inhabitants. The enormous rough stone after its discovery was probably cut and polished by the traditional Moor gem-cutters working for the rich Moor gem dealers who lived in the cities and had trade outlets in the capital cities of Colombo and Galle. The “Star of India” sapphire was then probably taken to the closest international jewelry market which was the market in Bombay, where it was sold either to an European dealer or one of the agents of an Indian Maharajah. Eventually the descendants of the Maharajah might have disposed of the gemstone in Bombay to an European dealer, probably when they were in distressed financial straits. This also explains the origin of the name “Star of India” when actually the stone originated from the alluvial gem deposits of Sri Lanka.


The “Star of India” sapphire was acquired by George F. Kunz who later sold it to J. P. Morgan.

George Frederick Kunz

George Frederick Kunz

The “Star of India” eventually reaches America, where it was purchased by George F. Kunz, the renowned mineralogist who at the age of 23 was appointed vice-president of the famous New York, City Jeweler, Tiffany & Co. and served as the company’s chief gem and mineral expert. Kunz was also the founder president of the New York Mineralogical Club. George F. Kunz, J. P. Morgan and Archer M. Huntington were all museum benefactors and helped Museums in New York and other cities to build up their gem and mineral collections, and other objects and artifacts. George F. Kunz sold the “Star of India” sapphire to J. P. Morgan who had built up his own gem collection that also included the “Star of Midnight” sapphire.


J. P. Morgan donates his collection to the AMNH, New York, City.

Eventually in the year 1900, J. P. Morgan donated his collection of gems to the American Museum of Natural History of New York City, an Institution which he helped to create. This is how two of the famous star sapphires of the world of Sri Lankan origin, the “Star of India” and the “Midnight Star Sapphire” came to be owned by the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. It is not quite certain how J. P. Morgan came to acquire the “Midnight Star Sapphire”, but it is quite possible that this stone too might might have passed through the hands of George F. Kunz, or at least Morgan must have consulted Kunz, before purchasing it.


The early history of the “Midnight Star Sapphire”

The early history of the “Midnight Star Sapphire” is also uncertain like that of the “Star of India.” However, the “Star of India” was said to have been discovered about 200-300 years ago. It is not known exactly when the “Midnight Star Sapphire” was discovered in Sri Lanka. But, we are certain that it became part of J. P. Morgan’s collection towards the end of the 19th century. The “Star of India” sapphire after its discovery and processing in Sri Lanka, entered India, where it remained for at least around 200 years possibly in the treasury of a Maharajah, before it found its way to Europe and later America. It is this circuitous route through India, that possibly gave its name “Star of India” instead of “Star of Ceylon” or some other name. However, in the case of the “Midnight Star Sapphire” there is no reference of the stone having entered India, before reaching Europe and America. Thus, on a conservative estimate if we give about 50 years for the stone to reach America through Europe after its discovery in Sri Lanka, the “Midnight Star Sapphire” must have originated in Sri Lanka about 150 years ago, somewhere in the early 19th century. This period corresponds with the period of British colonial rule in Sri Lanka.

After the discovery of the rough “Midnight Star Sapphire” in the alluvial gemstone deposits of the traditional gem mining district of Ratnapura (city of gems), which lies at the base of the Adam’s Peak mountain range in south central Sri Lanka, the gemstone was processed by the traditional gem-cutters of Sri Lanka, who were well versed in the art of cutting star sapphires, and then exported to the London or Paris markets by one of the dealers based in the cities of Galle or Colombo. Galle was the main port city of Sri Lanka during this period.


The “Midnight Star Sapphire” is exhibited in the J. P. Morgan Hall of Gems

The “Midnight Star Sapphire” and the “Star of India” blue star sapphire donated by J. P. Morgan to the AMNH of New York, City, in 1900 are today exhibited in the J. P. Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems of the Museum, and have become prominent exhibits in the collection. Another prominent exhibit in the collection is the 632-carat Patricia emerald, one of the largest gem-quality emeralds preserved in the rough, with its characteristic di-hexagonal or do-decahedral (twelve-sided) natural shape.


The infamous burglary of gems from the AMNH in 1964

The biggest jewel heist in the history of America took place on October 29, 1964, when a collection of 22 important gems exhibited in the J. P. Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, of the AMNH, was stolen by a gang of thieves led by Allan Kuhn, the notorious and wealthy gangster and Jack Murphy, Murph the Surf. Among the famous gemstones included in the haul were the 563-carat “Star of India” the world’s largest blue star sapphire, the 116.75-carat ‘Midnight Star Sapphire” the world’s largest violet sapphire, the 100.32-carat de Long Star Ruby, and the 16.25-carat Eagle diamond. However, within 48 hours of the theft, the police aided by a tip off, was hot on the trail of the thieves, and Allan Kuhn, Jack Murphy and two other accomplices were arrested. A few days later the “Star of India”, the “Midnight Star Sapphire” and some other gems were recovered from a locker in a Miami bus station. The “de Long Star Ruby” was recovered only about an year later, after the payment of $ 25,000 in ransom money, from a designated drop off point, a phone booth in Florida. However, the Eagle diamond was never recovered. Allan Kuhn, Jack Murphy, and their accomplices received a three-year prison sentence for their part in the sensational crime, which subsequently became the subject of a famous Hollywood movie, “Murph the Surf.”


References :-

1) Ruby & Sapphire – Richard Hughes

2) Ceylon, Vol I – Sir James Emerson Tennent, London. (1859)

3) An Historical Relation of Ceylon – Robert Knox.

4) Muslims of Sri Lanka – Avenues to Antiquity- Dr. M. A. M. Shukri (1986)

5) Website of the American Museum of Natural History -New York City.

1 thoughts on “Midnight Star Sapphire

  1. kevin thomas says:

    in your article you called Allen Kuhn a wealty and notorius gangster. My father was Allen’s parole officer when he was a young man. To call Allen a wealthy notoroius gangster is a bit of a stretch. He was a beach boy, he rubbed suntan oil on the backs of rich old women, taught swimming lessons and scuba diving, and lived at the hotel. He was doing small time burglaries for insurance fraud in the miami area, when he and Murph got together and decided to steal the Star of India. He may have seemed wealthy with a boat and a caddilac, but he had no living expenses. So the boat and caddie, were a luxury he could afford. Check the old newspaper clippings and you will find my fathers name, (Val Jean Thomas), listed as NOT believing Allen was involved. My father was wrong, but always believed Allen to be one of the most intelligent and “likely” to be successful parolees. After release, he came back and visitied my father and family many times. He was not a gangster.

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