The Star Of Bombay

Origin of name

Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s comments on the misnomer “Star of India”

The “Star of Bombay” is a remarkable and splendid star sapphire owned by the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, which as the eminent Space Scientist and futurologist Sir Arthur C. Clarke said, had by some distressing impertinence been referred to as the “Star of Bombay” instead of being called the “Star of Ceylon,” or the “Star of Sri Lanka”, names reflecting the actual country of origin of the rare and enormous gemstone. The 563-carat “Star of India” sapphire, which is the largest and most famous star sapphire in the world is also of Sri Lankan origin, and it is in respect of this stone that Sir Arthur C. Clarke, made his comments in his epilogue to Rolof Beny’s Island Ceylon, “and by some distressing impertinence the splendid star sapphire which is one of the glories of the American Museum of Natural History’s gem collection is called the Star of India – not as it should be – the Star of Ceylon.” Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was Sir Arthur’s adopted country, which he visited in 1956 and was so enchanted by the beauty of the island nation, that he decided to stay put and adopt it as his own country.

Star of Bombay

©Smithsonian Institution

Sri Lanka famous for its star sapphires since ancient times

It is rather unfortunate that two of the world’s most renowned Star Sapphires of Sri Lankan origin, had been given names that do not actually reflect the country of origin, and thus denied recognition the country so richly deserves. It is a well known fact that Sri Lanka produces the best star sapphires in the world, besides a variety of other gemstones such as sapphires, rubies, beryls, catseyes, garnets, aquamarines etc. Sri Lanka had been famous for its gemstones since the time of King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. Likewise India had been famous for the production of diamonds since very ancient times dating back to more than a thousand years before Christ. In fact in the history of humanity, India is the first country in the world that produced diamonds, and remained the only country in the world that produced diamonds up to the early 18th century. The most significant fact is that it was the ancient Indians who first appreciated the hardness of diamonds; that diamonds could last for ever; and that diamonds could be cut and polished only by using other diamonds. In fact the Mughal Emperors developed the technology of engraving diamonds, and several of their diamonds were engraved with the names of the emperors. Today engraving of diamonds is done using laser technology.

Star of Bombay,Blue Star Sapphire

©Smithsonian Institution

The importance of correcting the misnomers “Star of India” and “Star of Bombay”

Credit should be given to a country where credit is deserved. Thus it is high time that whoever who owns the “Star of India” sapphire and the “Star of Bombay” sapphire, re-consider renaming these renowned Star Sapphires, to reflect the actual country of origin, thus redressing a historical injustice committed on the country of origin, and eliminating the distorted picture painted by these misleading names. This is all the more important since India in its long and very ancient history had never produced a star sapphire of significance that could compare with the enormous star sapphires produced in Sri Lanka.

How the misnomers might have arisen ?

Let us now consider how the distorted name “Star of Bombay” might have arisen. One possible way that this could have happened is that the stone cut and polished in Sri Lanka, by the traditional gem-cutters of the Island, might have been exported to the Bombay market by one of the leading exporters of gemstones operating in Colombo at that time. The stone was then purchased in Bombay by one of the western gemstone dealers. A second possibility was that the gemstone was originally sold by a Sri Lankan dealer to one of the maharajahs of India, which after remaining in his possession for sometime might have changed hands eventually ending up with a gemstone dealer based in Bombay, who sold it to a western buyer. Yet another possibility was that the gemstone might have been legally exported from Sri Lanka, but still recognized in the west as coming from India, because during the colonial period the two countries were administered as a single country by the British East India Company.

Star Of Bombay

Characteristics of the gemstone

A high quality Sri Lankan star sapphire

The “Star of Bombay” sapphire is a 182-carat, cabochon-cut, dome-shaped violet-blue sapphire of Sri Lankan origin, forming a very distinct six-rayed star extending down to the girdle of the stone, when exposed to a direct source of light either natural or artificial. In spite of the presence of silk in the stone caused by rutile fibres, the stone has good translucency, with a rich violet blue color. The rutile fibres are not only the cause of the milkiness of the stone, but also responsible for its asterism.

Asterism in Sapphires

The star effect known as asterism is caused by minute rutile fibres (titanium oxide) forming aggregates or bundles that are arranged in a three-fold pattern at an angle of 60?to one another. Light entering the stone through its polished dome-shaped face is reflected forming three intersecting lines, each emanating from a bundle, resulting in the six-rayed star in the centre of the stone. A characteristic feature of the star is that the rays appear to glide along the surface of the stone, as it is rotated sideways between two fingers, when the source of light is directed towards the stone.

Chemical composition of sapphires

The “Star of Bombay” sapphire being a sapphire, belongs to the group of minerals known as corundum, which is a crystalline form of aluminum oxide. Pure corundum is colorless or white, but the presence of trace quantities of transition elements like chromium, vanadium, iron, nickel etc. can cause different colors in corundum. All colors of corundum except the red variety are known as sapphires. The red variety of corundum is known as ruby. In the case of the “Star of Bombay” the violet-blue color is caused by the presence of some titanium and iron atoms that is responsible for the blue color and some vanadium atoms causing the tinge of violet.

difficulties encountered in cutting star sapphires

Cutting of a star sapphire is the most difficult out of all gemstones, in spite of the fact that the cabochon-cut is the simplest of all cuts without any facets. The main reason for this difficulty is to decide on the correct side or orientation of the stone that will bring out the maximum star effect, with a centrally placed star, when eventually cut and polished as a dome-shaped face. This requires a wealth of experience in the cutting of star sapphires, and Sri Lanka was one country that had experienced gemstone cutters whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation, who could undertake such a task. Thus the “Star of Bombay” sapphire was in all probability cut and polished in Sri Lanka, before the stone was exported out of the country.

History of the “Star of Bombay” sapphire

The “Star of Bombay” sapphire set in a ring is gifted by Douglas Fairbanks to Mary Pickford

The “Star of Bombay” sapphire was acquired by the New York based jewelry company Trabert & Hoeffer Inc. of Park Avenue, and set in a platinum ring which was subsequently sold to Douglas Fairbanks Snr. one of the greatest and most popular actors of the silent screen, who gifted the ring to his wife actress Mary Pickford, one of the most popular heroines of the silent screen who was also known as America’s sweetheart, whom she married in the year 1920. Star sapphires appeared to be great favorites among movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Besides the “Star of Bombay” we come across at least two other instances where star sapphires were used in engagement rings in marriages involving popular movie stars of the period. In the first case Douglas Fairbanks Jr. proposed to actress Joan Crawford with an engagement ring set with a 70-carat star sapphire, and the next instance was when actor William Powel proposed to Jean Harlow with a ring set with a large star sapphire.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

Douglas Fairbanks was born as Douglas Elton Ulmann on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado, to Hezekiah Charles Ulmann, a New York Attorney, and Ella Adelaide Marsh. Ulmann abandoned the family when Douglas was just five years old. Douglas and his brother Robert were then brought up by their mother, and Douglas adopted the surname Fairbanks, derived from his mother’s first husband John Fairbanks who died some years after their marriage.

Douglas Fairbanks showed a tendency towards acting at a very early age in life, and began acting at an early age, doing amateur theatre on the Denver stage, encouraged by his mother. He had his education at East Denver High School, which he left during his senior year. After this he probably attended Colorado School of Mines and then Harvard University for a short period, but his inclination was more towards pursuing a career in acting. His breakthrough came when professional actor-manager Frederick Warde who had spotted his talents offered him a position if he would leave school and reach New York. Fairbanks accepted the offer and moved to New York with his family, and joined Frederick Warde’s company for the Broadway season 1899-1900. After a stint with Warde’s company, Fairbanks leave the troupe, and then takes up a series of jobs in New York, not connected with acting, such as positions in the law office, brokerage firms etc. However in the period 1905-07 he returns to Broadway, after signing a contract with theatrical producer William Brady.

In 1907, he met and married Anna Beth Sully, and again left the theatre looking for more secure employment, at the insistence of his father-in law. After about an year he returns to the theatre again. In 1909, his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born. In 1915, the family moved to Hollywood, where he signed a contract with Triangle Pictures, and acted in his first film “The Lamb” which was well received by the audiences. After this followed a succession of romantic comedies, and by 1918 Fairbanks had already become Hollywood’s most popular actor. In November 1915, Fairbanks meets actress Mary Pickford at a party given by comedy star Elsie Janis, and they start an affair despite the fact that both of them were already married. His mother Ella Fairbanks died in 1916. In 1917, Fairbanks meets Charlie Chaplin for the first time, and this marks the beginning of a long lasting friendship, that would eventually lead to close personal and business ties. In 1917, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford contributed to the war effort by traveling across the United States by train, selling war bonds. In 1918, Anna Beth Sully won a divorce suit filed against her husband Fairbanks, and gains custody of their only son.

Fairbanks greatest achievement was in 1919, when he together with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith founded the United Artists Corporation, which created their own distributorships, and gave them complete artistic control over their movies and also the profits generated. In March 1920, Mary Pickford obtained a divorce from her actor husband Owen Moore, and by the end of that month Fairbanks and Mary were married. The news of the marriage was well received by the cinema-going public, who went wild over the news that their popular hero was getting married to America’s sweetheart. The marriage went down in history as Hollywood’s first celebrity marriage. Immediately after the marriage the couple went on a honeymoon trip to Europe, and were overwhelmed by the large crowds that thronged the streets of cities like London and Paris to welcome and greet them.

Fairbanks had completed 29 films by year 1920. He then experimented with the new adventurous costume drama and made the film “The Mark of Zorro” which turned out to be an instant success, and made him a superstar overnight. After the success of “The mark of Zorro” more impressive costume movies followed. In 1927, Fairbanks founded the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was elected its first president. He also hosted the first Academy Awards presentation ceremony. In the year 1929, he made his last silent film “The Iron Mask.” The first “talkie” produced by Fairbanks and Mary in which they played the lead roles was Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. However this film and other sound films that followed were poorly received by the public. The last movie in which Fairbanks acted was in the British production “The Private Life of Don Juan” made in 1934, after which he retired from acting.

In the year 1933, Fairbanks and Pickford separated after he started an affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, and by 1936 they were divorced. Fairbanks married Ashley in March 1936. He continued to be involved in the industry through his interests in the United Artists. But, his health began to decline rapidly partly blamed on his heavy chain-smoking habit. In December 1939, at the age of 56, Fairbanks had a heart attack in his sleep and died a day later at his home in California. His sudden demise was deeply mourned by colleagues and millions of fans around the world, and he was greatly honored for his contribution to the film industry and Hollywood.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford who was variously known as “America’s sweetheart,” “little Mary” and the “girl with the curls” and attained international fame and celebrity status as a silent movie star, was born on April 8, 1892, in Toronto, Canada, as Gladys Marie Smith. After her father’s death in 1897, she became a child actress at the age of five, and thus became the chief source of income for the family. At the age of 14, Gladys Marie Smith joined David Belasco’s troupe, and acted in a supporting role in the Broadway play The Warrens of Virginia. It was David Belasco who insisted that Gladys Smith assume the stage name Mary Pickford. In April 1909, at the age of 17, Mary joined the Biograph Company under director D. W. Griffith, and played miscellaneous roles in their different productions both bit parts as well as leading roles, appearing in almost 51 films in that year. Mary soon became popular with the film-going audiences, and gained the nick name “the girl with the golden curls.” From then onwards her progress and popularity in the industry was phenomenal. Some of the outstanding films in which Mary played lead roles were “In the Bishop’s Carriage,” and “Caprice” produced in 1913, “Heart’s Adrift,” and “Tess of the Storm Country” produced in 1914, “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “The Little Princess,” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” produced in 1917, “Stella Maris” and “M’Liss” produced in 1918, “Daddy Long Legs,” “The Hoodlum,” and “Heart of Hills” produced in 1919. By the year 1916, Mary Pickford had achieved mega stardom status like Charlie Chaplin, and was perhaps the most recognized woman in the world.

Mary Pickford was married three times. Her first marriage that lasted from 1911 to 1920 was to actor Owen Moore. Her second marriage to actor Douglas Fairbanks lasted from 1920 to 1936, and her third marriage to Charles Buddy Rodgers in 1937 was the most successful and lasted until her death in 1979.

Mary Pickford, together with her second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin were responsible for raising millions of dollars in war bonds to help the United States during World War I, by traveling across the United States by train. She together with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith founded the film company United Artists Corporation, which allowed Mary with artistic and financial control over her film projects. After the formation of the new company, Mary made several financially successful and memorable films such as “Pollyanna” in 1920, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” in 1921, “Tess of the Storm Country” in 1922, “Little Annie Rooney” in 1925 and “Sparrows” in 1926. Her last silent film was “My Best Girl” in 1927. With the arrival of sound Mary went on to make several sound films, including “Coquette” in 1929, which was a success and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. However Mary chose to retire from the screen in 1934, but continued to produce films for United Artists. In fact she and Charlie Chaplin remained partners of the company until the year 1955. In the year 1976, Mary Pickford was given a Special Academy Award for life time achievement. She died of cerebral hemorrhage on May 29th, 1979, at the age of 87.

Mary Pickford bequeaths the “Star of Bombay” to the Smithsonian Institution

The “Star of Bombay” sapphire that was given as a gift to Mary Pickford by her husband Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920s, remained with her all along until she bequeathed the gemstone to the Smithsonian Institution, probably before her death in 1979. Today, the “Star of Bombay” sapphire is displayed in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals of the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History, in Washington D.C.

Related :-

Star of Artaban

Star of Asia 

Star of India

Black Star of Queensland

References :-

1) Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History website.

2) Ruby and Sapphire – Richard W. Hughes

3) Douglas Fairbanks Museum website Douglas Fairbanks.Org.

4) Mary Pickford –

External Links :-


Douglas Fairbanks Museum website

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