Sapphires were first reported in the Sapphire gemfields by John Archibald Richardson in the 1870s.
By 1890 commercial mining had begun in Retreat Creek in the present town of Sapphire. It was hard work in an isolated spot in harsh conditions with a lack of water.
Mines were dug by hand using picks and shovels in open pits or trenches. The early miners also dug square sided shafts, which they climbed with their backs braced against the walls. In the earlier days the main buyers were Germans, Russians and other European nationals.
After 1935 the sapphire fields went into a decline until the 1960s, when a new phase began with tourists as recreational mining and fossicking became popular.
By 1970 an increasing price for rough sapphires led to large-scale mechanised mining, which resulted in huge amounts of sapphires produced by a large number of miners, and purchased by buyers from Thailand. During this period Australia produced more than 80 per cent of the world’s sapphires.
High production continued until the early 1980s, when an increase in output from Asia and Africa led to a massive downturn in the Australian sapphire market – which continues today. An active tourist industry was established in the early ‘80s and separate areas were set aside for fossicking, hand mining and large-scale machinery mining.
What is a sapphire?
Sapphire is the gem variety of the mineral corundum and is one of the most prized gems in the world. The chemical formula is AI2O3 and sapphires are found in all colours. They have a hardness of 9 on Moh’s scale which is second only to diamond and makes it eminently suitable for jewellery use. A six sided crystal is called a “dog’s tooth”.
Legend and lore
Sapphires have been collected, worn and traded since early Roman Empire times and are known as the Gem of the Soul. Sapphire is the birth stone for September, and the 45th anniversary stone.
Early virtues attributed to sapphires included protecting the wearer from danger in epidemics and giving them honour and good will. They were also said to protect the wearer from envy and attract divine favour as well as being known as the gem of devoted love.
The colour of sapphires
Sapphires occur in all colours, although the red ones are called rubies. Metallic elements occurring as impurities in the crystal lattice cause the colour seen in sapphire.
On the Sapphire gemfields the general colours are blue, green and yellow. These three colours can also be found together as multi-coloured gems known as parti-colour sapphires.
Another type of sapphire found here is the star sapphire – which is commonly bronze or black in colour and shows a star-like sheen in certain lighting. Although blue sapphire is the best-known colour, it is the yellow sapphire – in particular the rich golden yellows – that fetch the highest prices. Many of the parti-colour sapphires are also highly valued.