Historic Sapphire of Catherine the Great

Figure 1: The historic ‘Sapphire of Catherine the Great’ of 331 ct Photo: L. Phan, SSEF

At SSEF, an impressive number of sapphires of exceptional size and quality have been tested in the past few decades. In the last few weeks, however, we had the pleasure to add to this eclectic (data) collection the famous sapphire of Catherine the Great, a historic gem from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) of exceptional quality and beauty (Figure 1).

Based on the provided documentation, this sapphire is of historic provenance and once belonged to Catherine the Great (Figure 2), empress of the Russian Empire from 1762 to her death in 1796 (see Les Joyaux des Tsars by M. Greece). This sapphire of 331 ct (originally 337 ct) was closely related to the history and fate of the Russian Empire and was finally sold in 1914 to a private collector. It later became part of the Harry Winston ‘Court of Jewels’ collection which toured the United States from 1949 to 1953, and is depicted on an iconic photograph, on which Harry Winston is seen holding the ‘Sapphire of Catherine the Great’ in his hand together with other impressive gems, including the Hope diamond (see Harry Winston, the ultimate Jeweler by Krashes and Winston, 1984, page 27).

Meticulous microscopic examination and detailed analyses confirmed its Sri Lankan origin, highlighted by the presence of tiny metamict zircon inclusions (Figure 3), which are characteristic for this gem source. Since historic times, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is known and appreciated as a source of exceptional gems, especially blue sapphires. Found in the gravels of the lush green plains and valleys of this tropical island, these gems were already traded throughout ancient cultures in Southeast Asia, Persia, and even to the Roman Empire and medieval Europe along maritime trade routes and the famed Silk Road (see also Marco Polo’s ‘Livres des Merveilles du Monde’). Up to today, this small island in the Indian Ocean has produced and still is producing some of the largest gem-quality sapphires known in the trade, such as the ‘Star of India’ (583 ct), ‘Giant of the Orient’ (486 ct), the ‘Logan Blue Sapphire’ (423 ct), the ‘Blue Belle of Asia’ (392 ct), and the described ‘Sapphire of Catherine the Great’(331 ct).

Figure 2: Portrait of Catherine the Great Empress of Russia (1729 1796), after Alexander Roslin and Fedor Rokotov, together with her sapphire. Photos: Christie’s and SSEF
Figure 3: Raman spectrum of a metamict zircon inclusion in the sapphire of Catherine the Great recorded at SSEF. Figure: M.S. Krzemnicki, SSEF