Magnetism in Gemstones
An Effective Tool and Method for Gem Identification
© Kirk Feral
Natural Blue Sapphire,
Sri Lanka, Weak, (SI < 20)
Iron is involved in the coloration of synthetic blue Sapphire as it is in natural blue Sapphire, so how do we explain differences in magnetic response? Through the process of inter-valence charge transfer, ions of iron (Fe2+) and titanium (Ti4+) interact with each other to cause blue color in Sapphire. A very low concentration of Fe2+ (too low to be magnetically detectable) is all that is necessary to create vivid blue color through Fe2+-Ti4+ charge transfer.
In most natural Sapphires there is also "surplus" iron (perhaps mostly Fe3+) that can become involved in Fe2+-Fe3+ charge transfer, which also contributes blue color. This extra iron and Fe2+-Fe3+ charge transfer can lead to over-dark blue color and detectable magnetic attraction. The extra iron can be detected with a spectrometer, as shown in the graph below. In synthetic Sapphires, there is no detectable "surplus" iron present, and therefore we see no attraction to a magnet.
Natural vs. Synthetic: Natural Sapphires that are pink, purple or blue can at times be diamagnetic. Therefore gems of these colors cannot reliably be distinguished by magnetic response from synthetic Sapphires. However, natural blue Sapphires most often do show a weak to moderate magnetic response due to iron, and such responses definitively separate them from synthetic blue Sapphires, which are always inert (diamagnetic). We can say that any magnetic attraction rules out synthetic origin for blue Sapphire, but a diamagnetic response does not rule out natural origin.
Vivid Blue Sapphire
S. Madagascar, Weak (SI 22)
Natural vs. Synthetic: One way to distinguish between natural and synthetic transparent Corundum is to look for inclusions. Unlike natural Corundum, synthetic Corundum generally has no inclusions that can be seen with a loupe or gem microscope. A magnetic wand can also provide a useful means of distinction. As we have noted, "fancy color" natural Sapphires with green, yellow, orange, and Padparadscha colors are, as a rule, weakly to moderately magnetic due to iron ions involved in color. Synthetic Sapphires of all colors lack sufficient iron to show any attraction to a magnet. They are always diamagnetic, and any magnetic attraction indicates natural origin.
Natural Padparadscha Sapphire
Brazil, Weak (SI 43)
Synthetic Padparadscha Sapphire
Blue gems from all these low-iron areas can have vivid “cornflower” violet-blue colors and very low or undetectable magnetic susceptibilities. The rich blue color of these gems is derived primarily from Fe2+-Ti4+ charge transfer rather than from ferrous iron (Fe2+) alone or Fe2+-Fe3+ charge transfer. Darker examples with higher iron and greater magnetic susceptibility can also be found in these regions. However, a diamagnetic (repel) response during floatation shown by a natural blue Sapphire of moderate to strong color points toward an origin of Sri Lanka, Burma, Tanzania or southern Madagascar. A weak response from any dark blue Sapphire also points toward an origin of one of these low-iron regions.
Photo taken at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History
Vivid Blue Sapphire
The most desirable blue colors are associated with low-iron metamorphic Sapphires, which are mined primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Tanzania, and southern Madagascar, with an obscure deposit in Baffin Island, Canada. More than a century ago, metamorphic Sapphires were also actively mined in the now-depleted mines of Kashmir in the Himalayas, where Sapphires set the "gold" standard for vivid blue color.
Sapphire and Ruby
Corundum is the species name for both Sapphire and Ruby. It is allochromatic, and colorless when pure. The difference in the two Corundum varieties lies in the metal impurities that color them. Iron (Fe2+ and Fe3+) and titanium (Ti4+) are the key metals involved in the color of blue Sapphire, while chromium (Cr3+) is the primary coloring agent in Ruby. The complete story of color is very complex, involving a number of trace elements, inter-valence charge transfer and even color centers (J. L. Emmett et al., 2003, Beryllium Diffusion of Ruby and Sapphire). As we look at magnetism in Corundum, we will reference only the primary causes of color.
Inclusions: Star Sapphire gems, as well as star Rubies, are translucent to nearly opaque. Most derive asterism from dense needle-like inclusions of Rutile. Pure Rutile needles are diamagnetic and do not affect the magnetic responses of Corundum. However in the case of Black Star Sapphire, needles of Hematite are responsible for the asterism. In this instance, the iron content of the Hematite results in a strong magnetic response. Black Star Sapphires are the most magnetic of all gem Sapphires, with susceptibilities as high as SI 143.
Black Star Sapphire
Thailand, Strong, (SI 143)
Iron (Fe3+) and color processes involving Fe3+ impart yellow color, and Fe3+ plays an important role in the colors of green, yellow, orange, brown and Padparadscha (pinkish orange) Sapphire. Orange and Padparadscha colors are also partly due to chromium (Cr3+ and sometimes Cr4+). Almost all Sapphires of these colors show some degree of magnetic attraction (only one yellow Sapphire from Sri Lanka was found to be diamagnetic). Yellow, green and brown Sapphires tend to have the highest magnetic susceptibilities, presumably due to greater concentration of iron in the form of Fe3+. The yellow Sapphire from Sri Lanka pictured below (center) has a susceptibility of SI 117, and the brown Sapphire from Thailand has a magnetic susceptibility of SI 130, the highest of any transparent Sapphire tested in this study. For comparison, the most magnetic blue Sapphire tested is a dark blue gem from northern Madagascar with a susceptibility of SI 99.
Thailand, Moderate (SI 130)
Blue Sapphires from other locations most often have geologic origins that are igneous (volcanic) rather than metamorphic. These higher-iron gems often show darker “ink” blue colors with gray or black undertones due to significant Fe2+-Fe3+ charge transfer in addition to Fe2+-Ti4+ charge transfer. Dark blue Sapphires from these regions tend to have significantly higher iron content (up to ten times the concentration of low-iron Sapphires) and consequently show greater magnetic susceptibility. Responses to a magnetic wand are often Moderate.
Such gems are found in Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Laos, China, Nigeria, Rwanda, Mozambique, northern Madagascar, Colombia, Brazil and Montana. (For more detail on Sapphire origins, see the article "Inside Sapphires" by C.P. Smith). Of course, pale blue and vivid blue gems with lower iron content can also be found in any of these regions. However, as long as the gems are not extremely pale, all blue Sapphires from these areas will likely contain sufficient iron to show some attraction to a neodymium magnet.
Dark Blue Sapphire
Australia, Moderate (SI 61)
Dark Blue Sapphire
Northern Madagascar, Moderate (SI 99)
Heat Treatment: Although it has not yet been studied, high heat treatment of natural Sapphire of any color to enhance color and clarity can theoretically lead to a change in magnetic susceptibility as the valence state of the iron ions is changed from Fe3+ to Fe2+. As Fe3+ iron in blue Sapphire transforms to Fe2+ iron, the amount of charge transfer apparently increases between Fe2+ iron and titanium (Ti4+), and Fe2+-Fe3+ charge transfer may decrease, resulting in brighter and more intense blue color. The dissolution of Rutile needles (titanium oxide) within blue Sapphire during heat treatment may also result in more Ti4+ ions becoming available for charge transfer with Fe2+.
The total amount of Fe2+ iron directly involved in Fe2+-Ti4+ charge transfer remains small and magnetically undetectable. Pictured below, the light blue unheated Sapphire on the left is more magnetic than the darker blue heated Sapphire on the right, indicating that magnetic susceptibility is not necessarily linked to intensity of color. Research on individual Sapphires before and after heat treatment is needed to understand the effects of heat on magnetism, and whether or not any changes in magnetic susceptibility can be detected with a magnet.
Unheated Blue Sapphire
Southern Madagascar, Weak (SI 39)
Heated Blue Sapphire
Sri Lanka, Diamagnetic
Natural vs. Synthetic: A handheld magnet cannot be used to definitively distinguish natural Ruby from synthetic Ruby, as both can be weakly magnetic. But as with Sapphire, natural Ruby is generally more magnetic (Weak to Moderate, SI <20-113) because it contains a small amount of detectable iron (Fe3+) in addition to chromium (Cr3+). Any Ruby that is moderately magnetic is almost certainly natural. An inert response points towards synthetic origin. However, some Rubies from low-iron regions such as Burma and Tanzania might also possibly be inert (diamagnetic). In our limited study, we did not find any natural Rubies that were not attracted to a magnet.
Moderate, (SI 55)
Natural Dark Red Ruby
Thailand, Moderate, (SI 113)
Sri Lanka, Moderate (SI 117)
Fancy Color Sapphire
Color Variations: Natural Sapphires are found in a variety of colors other than blue, and these are often referred to in the trade as "fancy" Sapphires. Pink Sapphire is colored primarily by chromium, as is Ruby, but the concentration of chromium is lower in pink Sapphire. Chromium in pink Sapphire is not magnetically detectable. Purple Sapphire is colored by chromium along with iron and titanium (pink + blue = purple). Color Change Sapphire changes from purple to pink depending on the light source. Color Change Sapphire may contain trace amounts of vanadium in addition to chromium, iron and titanium. As more iron replaces chromium to create purple color in pink Sapphire, magnetic susceptibility increases.
Pink and purple are the least magnetic of all Sapphire colors, with magnetic responses ranging from Inert to Weak. Examples of Sapphires that show Diamagnetic responses (no magnetic attraction) have been encountered among these 2 colors, as well as among some blue Sapphires. As we would expect, colorless Sapphires also show no magnetic attraction.
In our study of approximately 50 Sapphires and 50 Rubies, we found that both Sapphires and Rubies show magnetic responses that range from Inert (Diamagnetic) to Moderate, with low magnetic susceptibilities from < 0 to 104 SI X 10(-6). As a comparison, Spessartine Garnet is on average 100 times more magnetic than Sapphire and Ruby. The Sapphires used for this study come from diverse geographic origins, and include both heated and unheated gems.
Sri Lanka, Weak (SI 56)
Unknown Origin, Moderate (SI 65)
Concentration of Iron: Iron (Fe3+) not only raises the magnetic susceptibility in natural Ruby, it also it also modifies the pure red color imparted by chromium. As we noted with high-iron Sapphires, Rubies with higher iron content (approx. 0.5%-1% iron oxide Fe2O3) and higher magnetic susceptibility generally have gray or black undertones, resulting in darker or more subdued colors. The resulting appearance can closely resemble red Garnet, as illustrated by the dark Thai Ruby pictured below (left). This gem has the highest magnetic susceptibility (113 SI) of any Ruby tested in our study.
Rubies that have more vivid and purer red colors (as the Burma Ruby pictured below right) have higher chromium content and less magnetic susceptibility than darker Rubies. Burma Rubies can have very low iron content (< 0.1% iron oxide Fe2O3).
We can see stronger chromium absorption spectra in vivid red gems when we use a hand-held spectroscope or a spectrometer. As with Sapphire, Rubies formed in metamorphic low-iron regions such as Mogok in Burma or Winza in Tanzania tend to show the purer red colors, while Rubies from igneous high-iron regions such as Thailand tend to show dark grayish-red colors and greater magnetism.
High chromium content also causes some natural Rubies, and all synthetic Rubies, to fluoresce bright red under long wave ultraviolet light. The fluorescence may also be visible to some degree in daylight. Synthetic Rubies fluoresce more brightly than most natural Rubies since they contain more chromium (approx. 2% chromium oxide Cr2O3) than most natural Rubies, and no significant iron to quench fluorescence.
Our investigations of natural Ruby found that the degree of fluorescence corresponds inversely to the measured degree of magnetic susceptibility. In other words, the more magnetic a natural Ruby is, the less fluorescent it is. This is because iron suppresses or masks the fluorescence produced by chromium, as noted by Basil Anderson while working with the spectroscope over 60 years ago. The low-iron Burma Ruby picutred below is weakly magnetic and shows strong red fluorescence under long wave UV light.
Natural Vivid Red Ruby
Burma, Weak, (SI 48)
Treatment with high heat can improve the clarity of Ruby by dissolving Rutile "silk". Extended heating at high temperatures can also enhance color by actually removing blue color, but heat has no direct effect on red color (Kurt Nassau, 1981). Because chromium rather than iron is the predominant metallic chromophore in Ruby, heat treatments likely have little or no effect on magnetic response or magnetic susceptibility, as the valence state of chromium (Cr3+) is not changed. Only the valence state of the small amount of iron changes.
This concludes our discussion of Sapphire and Ruby. To read our in-depth 3-page report on magnetism in Tourmalines, go to Tourmalines.
© Kirk Feral 2014, All Rights Reserved. These materials may be duplicated for educational purposes only. No part of this website may be duplicated or distributed for profit, for commercial purposes, or for posting to another website, without the expressed written consent of the copyright holder.
Beryllium Diffused Ruby, Weak (SI 74)
Glass-filled Ruby, Weak (SI 26)
Macro-inclusions that are magnetic are rarely encountered in transparent Sapphire. The anomalous green Sapphire pictured below has unusually high magnetic susceptibility (SI 191) due to black platelet inclusions in the lower right portion of the gem. A pinpoint wand reveals that the strong magnetic response is restricted to the area of the inclusions. We can speculate that the inclusions may be Hematite.
Yellowish Green Sapphire with Magnetic Inclusions
Sri Lanka, Strong, (SI 191)
White Star Sapphire
Sri Lanka, Diamagnetic
Natural Color-Change Sapphire
Tanzania, Weak (SI 40)
Synthetic Color-Change Sapphire
Synthetic Blue Sapphire
Diamagnetic (no attraction)
Country of Origin: In our study, we encountered diamagnetic blue Sapphires from Sri Lanka, Burma, Tanzania and Baffin Island, Canada. These all share similar conditions of geologic formation (metamorphic compression within a host rock of marble, schist or gneiss) that create low-iron Sapphire. The magnetic responses of blue Sapphires can therefore give us clues about their geographic origins.
Concentration of Iron: In natural untreated Sapphires that come from the same geographic origin, gems generally show increased color intensity as the concentration of iron increases. This correlates with increased magnetic susceptibility from lighter to darker stones, as demonstrated by the unheated Sapphires from Sri Lanka pictured below. The light blue gem is diamagnetic and the dark blue gem is weakly magnetic. Due to low iron content, we occasionally run into natural blue Sapphires that, like synthetic blue Sapphires, show no attraction to a magnet.
The Light Blue Sapphire is Diamagnetic &
The Dark Blue Sapphire is Weak (SI < 20)
Natural Sapphire Contains Extra Iron
Vivid Blue Sapphire
Sri Lanka, Diamagnetic
Synthetic Star Ruby
Diamagnetic (SI < 0)
Weak (SI 17)
Synthetic Ruby is colored solely by chromium (Cr3+), and is therefore inert or very weakly magnetic (Inert to Weak, SI 0-17). When we see any magnetic attraction in a synthetic Ruby, we are detecting chromium rather than iron. Natural and synthetic Rubies contain a higher concentration of chromium than most other types of gemstones, but the amount chromium needed to create their vivid red color is still very low. Chromium content in Ruby hovers at the absolute lowest level of magnetic detectability by an N-52 neodymium magnet (approx.0.4% chromium oxide). Synthetic Star Rubies are also encountered, with synthetic rutile used to create asterism.
Weak, (SI < 20)
Fluorescence: Sapphires of any color can fluoresce pink or red under long wave UV light if chromium content is high enough and iron content is low enough that it doesn’t quench fluorescence. Sapphires that fluoresce strongly tend to be lighter in color and less magnetic than darker Sapphires with low or no fluorescence and higher iron content, but there is no consistent correlation between fluorescence, tone of color, and magnetic susceptibility. The primary determinant of fluorescence in Sapphire appears to be the concentration of chromium (which is not magnetically detectable). Some diamagnetic Sapphires show no fluorescence, while some moderately magnetic Sapphires can fluoresce strongly due to higher chromium content.
Chromium is found in relatively high concentrations in pink, purple and Padparadshca Sapphires, and these are the colors that fluoresce most consistently and intensely. But chromium can also cause fluorescence in Sapphire when the concentration of chromium is too low to create gem color or significantly modify gem color. We find that blue, yellow and even colorless Sapphire can fluoresce strongly due to chromium. Green is the least fluorescent color among Sapphires due to its high iron and low chromium content. Magnetic susceptibilities among fluorescent Sapphires vary, but stronger fluorescence is often associated with lower magnetic susceptibilites.
Colorless Sapphire, Diamagnetic
Daylight & UV Fluorescence
Treatments: Unfortunately, a magnetic wand does not provide a means to distinguish between treated and untreated Ruby. Natural Rubies that are beryllium diffused or glass-filled have a similar magnetic susceptibility range as untreated natural Ruby. The Beryllium-diffused gem below (left) is a Sapphire from Songea, Tanzania that has been diffused to alter the color to bright orange-red. The glass-filled Ruby on the right was created by
filling the crevices in low-quality Ruby with lead glass that has a high refractive index similar to Ruby. Both of these gems show weak magnetic responses, as do untreated Rubies.
Natural Ruby, Weak (SI 39)
Daylight and UV Fluorescence
Blue Sapphire, Weak, SI <20
Daylight & UV Fluorescence