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The Australian movie The Sapphires was released here on August 9, after making it’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it received a resounding ten-minute standing ovation. The film is set in 1968, and the plot involves four sisters from a remote Aboriginal mission who are given the opportunity to go to Vietnam as entertainers to the troops – billed as The Sapphires. It’s based on a true story, with the screenwriter’s mum and auntie serving as the inspiration, as they performed as part of a quartet during the war. The “original Sapphires” are thrilled by the film’s portrayal of them, and the movie is making the Indigenous community they work in proud of their achievements.

The Sapphires has received mostly warm reviews from critics, and became the highest-earning Australian film on its opening weekend. I can see why it’s winning the hearts of audiences, because it’s charmingly unpolished, and is one of those feel-good movies where you end up laughing, crying, singing and tapping your feet. Serious topics such as racial prejudice are touched on (in fact are essential to the plot), but they don’t overshadow what is basically a light-hearted comedy-drama. Chris O’Dowd is hilarious, Jessica Mauboy’s singing fantastic, and Deborah Mailman is, as always, luminously charismatic.

If you are a fan of these warm-hearted underdogs-put-on-a-show stories and also love soul music, I urge you to check this movie out when it comes to your own part of the world. It’s being compared to Dreamgirls, but I can’t actually see they have much in common – the movie is probably closer to The Commitments. Of course what I spent most of the movie doing (in between laughing, crying, singing, tapping my feet, and trying to make sure no major popcorn disasters took place) was wondering how Sapphire could work as a name.

The name Sapphire is after the gemstone, which comes from the Greek meaning “blue stone”. However, the Greeks were most likely referring to lapis lazuli. Sapphires can actually come in a range of colours, but never red – red sapphires are called rubies.

In ancient Persia, sapphires were said to be a manifestation of heaven, and there is a tradition that the original Ten Commandments given to Moses by God were written on sapphire (although the Bible itself merely says that God could be seen standing on something that looked like a pavement of “clear sapphire”). In the Middle Ages, sapphires were said to have healing properties, and they have long been popular as royal jewels. Sapphires are favourites amongst the British royal family for their personal jewellery, as well as the Crown Jewels; Princess Anne and Princess Diana both had sapphire engagement rings, and Diana’s was inherited by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Sapphires have been mined in Australia for over a century, and commercially for more than fifty years. Australia was once the leading source of gem-quality sapphires, but we were overtaken by Madagascar; even today, many sapphires sold as coming from Asia are actually from Australia. Many Australian sapphire mines are in central Queensland, and indeed there is a mining town in that state named Sapphire, although the best are said to be found in the New England region of New South Wales. You can also have a go fossicking for your own sapphires – in New South Wales, you don’t even need a license to do so.

Sapphire has been used as an uncommon personal name for centuries, and got a boost in popularity around the early twentieth century, when other gemstone names such as Ruby and Emerald became fashionable. Not surprisingly, records show that most Australians named Sapphire came from New England or central Queensland, so here it seems to have local significance connected to the mining trade.

If you look online for opinions on the name Sapphire, you are almost certain to find the phrase “stripper name” attached to it. Granted, there are strippers with the stage name Sapphire – then again, there are strippers named Ruby, Lola, Angie, Madison, Abby, Victoria, Lucy, Alicia, Katie, Sarah, Rebecca, Elizabeth and basically any vaguely “girly” contemporary name you can think of. There are strippers using my own name, and nobody has ever assumed I simply must be a stripper with a sexy name like Anna, or shoved money down my bra and asked me to dance around a pole.

In fact, when Ruby became fashionable a few years ago, some of the most common complaints about it was that it sounded “trashy”, “stripperish”, and “too sexy”. Well, guess what? Ruby is now one of the most popular name for girls, being in the Top 10 of every state, and #1 in several states; it’s also been used as a baby name by several celebrities. It seems more like a cute little girl name that a sexy one, and the chances of all those thousands of young Rubys growing up to become strippers is statistically improbable.

If you love Ruby, but worry it’s too popular, you might might want to consider this beautiful gemstone name. Whether you have an attachment to Indigenous culture, Australian film, soul music, the gemstone trade, fossicking, sapphire mining areas, the Sapphire Coast in southern New South Wales, or simply love these deep blue jewels, Sapphire makes a lovely and unusual choice. Some may like Saffy as a nickname.

NOTE: Information on stripper’s names from Australian businesses online.

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