When it comes to sapphires, is Mozambique the new star?

Sapphire is like caviar: its origin is an important part of its market value.

Until a month ago, anyone interested in buying a large ruby ​​knew for sure that Myanmar, formerly called Burma, produces the most valuable gem. For eight centuries, a deep red shade gemstone known as “pigeon’s blood” found in the legendary Mogok mines reigned supreme, attracting much higher prices than rubies from Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam or East African countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya.

Then in June, Estrella de Fora, 55.22 carats, mined in Mozambique, Sold for $34.8 million at Sotheby’s in New York – what the auction house described as “a world auction record for a sapphire and any other colored gemstone.”

The stone, whose Portuguese name means star fora, was actually one of three exceptional sapphires that have been auctioned in the past two months.

One of them, from Myanmar, was the world’s highest-priced ruby, but sold in May for far less than its estimate. (The industry continues to use the Burmese term to refer to rubies from the country.)

The other – roughly equal in size to the Estrela and also from Mozambique – is gold at one-tenth the price of the Estrela, but the amount is in line with previous sales from the country.

However, the Estrela de Fura auction was cause for celebration at Fura Gems, the first owner of the sapphire. “This is a new chapter for Mozambican sapphires,” said Devidas Shetty, CEO and founder of the company, in a post-sale phone interview from its Dubai headquarters. “It is time to put the Mozambican sapphire in the place it deserves.”

The sale—at a surprisingly pricey, seemingly one-off—caused a lot of eyebrows in the jewelry industry. However, there is general agreement that no matter what price is reached, the public will pay more for rubies from the East African country.

One question remains: When it comes to sapphires, is Mozambique the new Burma?

Fura is a privately owned company that mines emeralds, rubies, and sapphires through subsidiaries in Colombia, Mozambique, and Australia. It was founded in 2017 by Mr. Shetty, the former Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Directors of London-based Gemfields, another global gemstone mining company.

In July 2022, Fura reported the discovery of a 101-carat rough stone from the Montepuez mine in northeastern Mozambique; Sapphires were first discovered in the country in 2009, and now it is generally considered by the industry as the world’s most produced source of sapphires of all varieties.

Fura Gems does not release its results, but Mr Shetty said the mine produced nearly 10 million carats of rubies in 2022, and that “our production target is gem-quality stones between 0.25 to 40 carats, so finding a rough 101-carat cut is It was a very rare event.”

The Montepuez region produces two types of sapphires, said Vincent Pardew, a field gemologist familiar with Mozambican sapphires: “Iron-rich gems in dark colors and usually clean and large, up to 40 carats, while the rest of the deposits, including the Fura’s region, It produces stones that are usually smaller in size with more inclusions, and are pink to red with a brighter, fluorescent hue.”

“This second variety is comparable in color to a Burmese ruby ​​based on its lower iron content, but it is very rare for a stone of this type to be so well clear at weights over 10 carats,” he said.

The Fura stone was sent to Bangkok, the global center for gem cutting, polishing, heating and trading since the 1970s, to be cut by François Garraud, the Paris gem dealer who does the cutting and distribution operations there.

“We were very concerned about cutting because the raw materials had huge potential,” said Mr. Garrod, as well as significant challenges. “But for a 55-carat stone, we achieved great symmetry and balance.”

Shortly after Estrela de Fura began a world tour in April to generate interest in its sale, two other important sapphires came up for auction at Christie’s in Geneva: a 25.59 carat. Sunrise Rubya Burmese gem in the center of a platinum and diamond ring by Cartier, 54.95 carats Africa starMozambican stone in a diamond pendant designed by Harry Winston. Both were highlights of Austrian billionaire Heidi Horten’s jewelry collection.

On May 10, the Sunrise Ruby sold for 11 million Swiss francs ($12.25 million), selling for 13,055,000 with fees, less than its pre-sale estimate of 14 million Swiss francs—and less than half of the 28.25 million Swiss francs that Mrs. Horton paid for it in 2015.

Star of Africa was sold two days later for 2.7 million Swiss francs, including fees. Its price per carat – 50,000 Swiss francs – exceeded auction estimates, but without reaching extraordinary heights.

While the cost of rubies varies widely, depending on factors such as quality and size, Mozambican rubies have traditionally been a cheaper alternative to Burmese rubies, selling at a fraction of Burmese prices even when the stones are of similar size and quality. “For the same quality, you would pay 10 times more for a ruby ​​from Burma than from Mozambique,” ​​said Laurent Decque, director of the Paris-based Gems agency Imagem, in 2021.

There has been much debate in jewelry circles about the current price of the Burmese ruby ​​in the wake of the Sunrise Ruby’s poor performance at the Horten auction. But Max Fawcett, head of jewelery at Christie’s Geneva, wrote in an email: “When the Sunrise Ruby watch was sold at auction in 2015, its initial estimate was 11 million francs.” “It was because of two bidders at the time that the price rose to its highest level at that time.”

There may have been an issue with the sapphire’s origins in Myanmar. Jewelry houses including Tiffany & Co., Cartier and Harry Winston no longer buy Burmese stones, regardless of their age, to avoid business ties with a country where the military, known as the Tatmadaw, oppresses citizens, especially ethnic minorities. And in 2021, the US Treasury placed several entities related to the Myanmar Ministry of Mining List of Specially Designated Nationalspreventing American companies from trading with them, effectively banning Burmese gems in the country.

Horten’s family history may also have been a factor: she was the widow of Helmut Horten, a shop magnate whose connection to the Nazi era was well known. “Some commercial buyers boycotted this particular auction,” Alisa Moussaieff, owner and chairman of Moussaieff Jewelers in London, wrote in an email. (Never bid on gems).

However, Christie’s reported sales totaling $202 million, making Horton’s auction the most successful jewelry auction in history, far surpassing The result is 137.2 million dollars When the Elizabeth Taylor Collection was sold in 2011.

Against this backdrop, Estrela de Fura was auctioned off on June 8th. Its previous sale estimate was $30 million, although no Mozambican ruby ​​has ever sold at auction for that price.

The sale catalog noted that Sotheby’s had secured the sale: an anonymous person placed a so-called irrevocable bid so that Fura, as the seller, would guarantee the minimum sale price, regardless of the outcome of the auction.

Bidding for Estrela started at $24 million, and while no one in the room was seen to bid, it increased to $29 million, in increments of $1 million, as the auctioneer announced to the silent crowd that he had bids “with him.” A phone bidder offered $30 million, and the auctioneer dropped the gavel.

In less than two minutes, Estrela de Fura sold for a total of $34.8 million (including fees), bringing the price of the Mozambican ruby ​​to $630,000 per carat, an amount that exceeded previous market prices by a factor of nearly 10.

“We jumped for joy,” Mr. Shetty said. “I am delighted that the jewels of Mozambique will now enter a whole new category.”

Sotheby’s later identified the winning bidder as a “private collector from the Middle East”. Fora said last month that she did not know the identity of the person.

Some in the gem trade had viewed Estrela’s sale skeptically, questioning the odd bid and exorbitant price achieved under the usual cloak of auction house secrecy.

“In Bangkok, everyone is smiling about this auction,” Federico Barlucher, a Swiss gem dealer and collector, said in a phone interview from the city. “Not a single dealer made an offer in this sale.”

He added, “We may never know if Fura bought back its stone, or if a behind-the-scenes deal was made with a third party,” to buy the stone for Fura. “But the sale raises many obvious questions, such as why were there no other bidders and why would a wealthy buyer pay $3.48 million in auction fees when he could have bought directly from Fura?”

Asked about the auction, Mr. Shetty said he had no information about its operation other than a post-sale news release from Sotheby’s. A Sotheby’s spokesperson also referred to the release and, asked about a third party sale, said, “We have no comment on this.”

As for the stone itself, industry figures are divided on whether Estrela de Fura will be a game-changer for sapphires in general. “It looks like a very high-quality Burma ruby, and its clarity is beyond exceptional for a stone over 10 carats,” said Jeffrey Bergman, an American gem dealer based in Bangkok, who viewed the stone on a tour in Geneva. But other merchants who saw the stone called it “dark” and “milky”.

“Estrela is unique because there is no other stone of its size and color on the market,” said Harish Lakhi, CEO of Royal Gem Source, an agency based in Bangkok. He examined rough stone in Bangkok last fall and cut stone in Geneva in May.

Adding to the questions, data was released by two of the five laboratories that Sotheby’s and Fora hired to evaluate the gemstones in the auction catalogue.

In the catalog, all five listed Mozambique as the stone’s origin, but the full report from two of them — GemResearch Swisslab (GRS) of Meggen, Switzerland, and Bellerophon GemLab in Bangkok and Paris — said there were inclusions in the stone that are not normally found in the Montepuez region of Mozambique. GRS CEO Adolphe Peretti noted in an interview posted on his company’s website on May 26, two weeks before the Estrela auction, that the sapphire contains inclusions of the mineral zircon “unseen in Mozambican stones.”

Mr. Pardew, a field gemologist, has not examined the stone, but agrees that its general shape and inclusions were not common for Mozambican stones. “The unusually round appearance of the material, and the presence of inclusions of silk and very fine zircons, usually indicate a Malagasy origin, particularly from the regions of Zahamena and Andilamena,” he said, referring to the northern regions of the island.

Mr. Shetty dismissed the idea, noting that all five labs had identified Estrella’s origin as Mozambican. “As is often the case with high-profile sales of this kind,” he said, “there are unsubstantiated theories as to the origin of the stone which are not based in fact or fact.”

Whether the controversy over Estrela ends with Mozambican gems routinely outperforming Burmese rubies in price and desirability remains uncertain.

But surely, for some, the excitement over the record-breaking auction didn’t diminish their respect for the reputation built over centuries. “I consider this an excellent opportunity to purchase pigeon’s blood ruby,” wrote Ms. Moussaieff. “If he appears.”