x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Millennium Sapphire: the gem that lost 5kg

The Millennium Sapphire was a whopping 17.9kg when it was unearthed by miners in Madagascar.

DUBAI // The Millennium Sapphire is spectacularly large – but it was even bigger when it was found by a miner in central Madagascar.

The three craftsmen who worked on it with diamond-tipped drills for two years removed 5.6 kilograms of the 17.9kg stone, most of that vanishing into dust during the carving and polishing process.

The design – by Italian artist Alessio Boschi – was conceived as a tribute to human genius and includes 134 subjects. The Arab astrolabe, an instrument used to determine prayer times and the direction to Mecca in the early centuries of Islam, appears alongside the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China and Gutenberg’s printing press.

People featured include Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Mozart and Louis Pasteur.

If a buyer cannot be found in the UAE, it could be used  as the centrepiece of an exhibition that would tour the world.

The show would tell the stories of some of the great people whose likenesses are carved on the stone.

“To produce that type of a show properly would cost tens of millions of dollars,” said Daniel Mckinney, who represents the consortium that owns the sapphire. “If we toured this around the world we’d have endless themes, it would be a very interactive, educational type of thing.”

Before the carvers started cutting into the precious sapphire they practised by producing each of the 134 design elements on pieces of lapis lazuli. These carvings, which are larger than those on the sapphire, will be included in the sale.

“We had to develop prototypes for them to practise on before we would let them touch the sapphire,” said Mr Mckinney. “As a result we created a whole menagerie of lapis lazuli figurines from their practice sessions, and these would be part of any world museum tour.”

The rough sapphire was bought from the miner who found it and shipped to Thailand. Mr Mckinney formed a consortium that acquired it in 1998. The consortium then commissioned Boschi. The work was completed in 2000.

The US$180 million (Dh661.1m) asking price may seem a lot, but calculated on a per-carat basis – $2,926 per carat – it is a bargain.

The Star of Kashmir, a 19.88-carat sapphire on a ring, fetched almost $3.5m at auction at Christie’s Geneva last month, which equates to $175,202 a carat – a record.

csimpson@thenational.ae