The Sunset Sapphires: Padparasha

Sunset by Harry Winston, padparadscha sapphire and diamond ring.

Sunset by Harry Winston, padparadscha sapphire and diamond ring.

On this final day of September it is only fitting to talk about one of the rarer and most sought after sapphire colors: the padparascha. 
Padparadscha is a color of sapphire that is commonly portrayed as a mixture of orange and pink colors. It has been referred to as a marriage between the color of sunset and that of a lotus blossom.  Padparadscha sapphires are considered among the most beautiful and valuable of the corundum gems. Prices for padparadschas vary greatly according to size, quality, and presence of treatments. At the top end, they may reach as much as US$50,000 per carat or more.
However the history of what actually defines a sapphire as a padparascha has changed over time and the question of just what qualifies a sapphire as a “padparadscha” is a matter of hot debate, even among experts.

Location: The original locality for padparadscha was Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and many purists today believe the term should be restricted only to stones from Ceylon. However, fine stones have also been found in Vietnam’s Quy Chau district, Tanzania’s Tunduru district, and Madagascar. Stones from each of these areas are often heat-treated and this is done at fairly low temperatures (1200°C and below) and such heat treatment is not always detectable.  Because of this diverse group of localities and the ease of treatments, many have come to rely on color as the defining characteristic of the padparascha sapphire, but here too we find debate and inconsistencies.


The Color Debate: The term padparadscha is actually a corruption of the Sanskrit/Singhalese padmaraga (padma = lotus; raga = color), a color similar to the lotus flower (Nelumbo Nucifera ‘Speciosa’). The padparadscha was born about twenty centuries ago, it is obvious
that over a period of about eighteen centuries men have built an idea of the padparadscha that has
varied considerably according to interests, periods and places. For instance, a number of the Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera [Nelumbium Speciosum indica] ) varieties and their respective colors have changed or ceased to exist over the years, leading to variations in what may constitute a "lotus color".

In the Western world, padparadscha has been defined as a Sri Lankan sapphire of delicate pinkish orange color; however, the delicate description of the padparadscha is not the norm in texts from the stones countries of origins. In fact, virtually all of the ancient texts that we have refer to the padparadscha as a type of ruby with the color of fire or sunset: a red-orange. In an early definition from the Indian subcontinent, dating from about 1200–1300 AD, the padparascha is described as:

That which spreads its rays like the sun, is glossy, soft to the touch (komala?), resembling the fire, like molten gold and not worn off is paümaraya [padmaraga]. - Sarma, 1984, Thakkura Pheru’s Rayanaparikkha – A Medieval Prakit text on Gemmology

Other definitions of also include references to vermilion and saffron coloring.  This paints an image of a much brighter and vibrant stone than the pastel versions that are prized today.
The jump from the vivid yellow-red coloring definition to that of the modern day criteria is linked to and  article by the GIA’s Robert Crowningshield published in 1983. Crowningshield provided an excellent summary of the origin of the term and what many considered to be ideal examples. Unfortunately, however, the GIA Library at the time did not include many Indian or Arab lapidaries.  The final definition was completely devoid of any early references to rich colors in the definition that he himself cited, but did not accept.
Crowningshield concluded by laying what we now know as the foundation for the color criteria of the padparascha:

It is clear that the term padparadscha was applied initially to fancy sapphires of a range of colors in stones found in what is now Sri Lanka. If the term is to have merit today, it will have to be limited to those colors historically attributed to padparadscha and found as typical colors in Sri Lanka. It is the GIA’s opinion that this color range should be limited to light to medium tones of pinkish orange to orange-pink hues. Lacking delicacy, the dark brownish orange or even medium brownish orange tones of corundum from East Africa would not qualify under this definition. Deep orangy red sapphires, likewise, would not qualify as fitting the term padparadscha.
Robert Crowningshield, 1983

On June 16–18 2005, members of the Laboratory Manual Harmonisation Committee (LMHC) met in Milan, Italy to consider a standardized definition of padparadscha which stands today: 

Padparadscha sapphire is a variety of corundum from any geographical origin whose colour is a subtle mixture of pinkish orange to orangey pink with pastel tones and low to medium saturations when viewed in standard daylight.
The name 'padparadscha sapphire' shall not be applied in the following cases:
If the stone has any colour modifier other than pink or orange.
If the stone has major uneven colour distribution when viewed with the unaided eye and the table up +/- 30°.
The presence of yellow or orange epigenetic material in fissure(s) affecting the overall colour of the stone.
If the stone has been treated as described in Information Sheets #2 and #3.
If the stone has been treated by irradiation.
If the stone has been dyed, coated, painted, varnished or sputtered.

In 2005, this 20.84-carat padparadscha sapphire fetched US$18,000 per carat at auction. Photo © 2005 Christie’s Images Ltd.

In 2005, this 20.84-carat padparadscha sapphire fetched US$18,000 per carat at auction. Photo © 2005 Christie’s Images Ltd.

So within these criteria where would more intense padparadscha stones exist? Questions like this are often put to the test when stunning stones like that this one from Christie's auction house are presented to the public. As is pointed out by Richard Hughes author of Ruby & Sapphire the stone would clearly fall outside the Western guidelines of what is considered a padparadscha, but would it fall outside the guidelines of the country that first defined the stone? Should there be a gradient for tones within the category? 

Questions to Ponder: Richard Hughes is a proponent of such a grading system and I have to say I am inclined to agree with him. Yes, I believe that there should be standards of color; but as he points out, there are tone and saturation variations within blue, yellow, purple, pink etc., but they are still what they are. A pale blue sapphire is still a blue sapphire, so why should a darker padparascha not be simply a more saturated darker toned padparascha. I know that this may open up a debate about the defining of colors based on the gemologist's eye, but that is nothing new to the industry. One only need look to the debates that form around a ruby and a pink sapphire call! I am also troubled by the blatant disregard for the historical and ethnographic exclusion of definitions. Is it fair that padparascha is defined by outsiders without regard for the past? 

Sri Lankan padparadscha sapphire crystal,  8 by 5 cm; Collection: Paul Ruppenthal Photo: Studio Hartmann From Gem & Crystal Treasures by Peter Bancroft

Sri Lankan padparadscha sapphire crystal,  8 by 5 cm; Collection: Paul Ruppenthal
Photo: Studio Hartmann From Gem & Crystal Treasures by Peter Bancroft

Just to make matters more confusing here is a recent description of the stone from Sri Lanka:
The term pathmaraga is a Singhalese term applied to a very special colour variety of corundum, so named after the lotus flower as its colour is sometimes akin to a variety of this flower…. The colour combination produces the rare and beautiful colour of a sunset red at its best as seen across a tropical sky.… The colour of pathmaraga is apparently a combination of yellow, pink and red, with mildly conspicuous flashes of orange.
Gunaratne and Dissanayake, 1995

Regardless of the definition the padpardscha is a beautiful stone and the gem industry will always argue because we exist in a world that is dictated by our eyes. Is there a perfect color? With the implementation of new color grading technology it is possible that we may narrow our scope further, though I secretly hope that we might actually expand it. I personally have a favorite, but I ultimately leave it to you (the consumer) since you are the ones that drive the market. Just as with any other stones, some may prefer the pastel, while others the darker. The choice is yours to make, even as the experts argue among themselves. 

Kathleen Marino MA, GG, NAJA, AJP

Special consideration: Richard Hughes author of Ruby & Sapphire; Franck Notari author of THE PADPARADSCHA SAPPHIRE from The University of Nantes