Ruby – the ‘king of gemstones’

Jewel Citizen takes a look at this mythical blood-red stone

(photo courtesy of Woolley and Wallis)


Ruby is by far the most expensive of all the coloured gemstones – exceeded only in price per carat weight by rare blue, green, and pink diamonds – and has been coveted for millennia.

The stone of kings, and the king of stones

Ruby is a stone of legend. When we think of desire, romance, passion, anger, and fury we tend to associate the emotions generated with the colour red. Roses are red; we see red when we’re angry; the vital lifeblood coursing through our veins is red – the very colour of a ruby. Perhaps that’s why since ancient times this red mineral has been so highly revered – in ancient Sanskrit the ruby was called ratnaraj which translates as ‘king of precious stones’.

It is mentioned several times in the Bible – for example in the the Book of Proverbs where Job claims, “The price of wisdom is above rubies.”, and in Exodus where the ruby is noted as one of the stones visible in the high priest’s breastplate. Pliny the Elder mentions ruby in his ‘Natural History’ in which he refers to its hardness and density.

Burmese legends

A Burmese legend claims that about two thousand years ago a great dragon laid three eggs. From the first egg hatched the future King of Bagan, from the second an Emperor of China, and from the third came the gems and rubies of the Mogok Valley.

There was a such a strong belief in the stone’s metaphysical properties that a ruby was sometimes inserted into a warrior’s flesh so that it would protect him from harm when in combat.


The Glenlyon Brooch in the British Museum which dates from circa 1500 – 1530. This examples contains garnets, however rubies would also have been used in jewellery of this period.


Medieval European myths.

We can trace the etymology of the modern name ruby to the old French word rubi, back through Medieval Latin and rubinus lapis meaning ‘red stone’, to the Latin word rubeus meaning ‘red’. The belief in the supernatural powers of ruby that had persisted from ancient times continued through the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern Era. Henry VIII’s Spanish first wife Catherine of Aragon’s ruby ring allegedly lost its brilliance and colour as the Tudor monarch was preparing to reject her in favour of Anne Boleyn.

In another such example, the German author, Wolfgangus Gabelschoverus, writing in the year 1600, said whilst travelling with his wife: “I observed by the way that a very fine Ruby (which she had given me) lost repeatedly and each time almost completely its splendid colour and assumed a blackish hue.” After his wife died the stone apparently reverted to its original colour.

Rubies were used as widely as talismans, and for protection. They were thought to bestow the wearer with good health, success in love, and good fortune. Brooches were worn that contained magical inscriptions and gemstones to protect their owners. The Glenlyon Brooch in the photo above is inscribed with the names of the three wise men who visited the infant Christ, and their names would have been recited as a charm.

So what exactly is a ruby?

Ruby has the same chemical composition as sapphire – they are both the mineral corundum – but ruby owes its red colour to the inclusion of chromium oxide and occasionally to iron. It’s generally accepted that there needs to be 2% or more chromium present for a stone to be called a ruby, and even then it’s not an exact science. Iron can further modify the red colour, the effect of which can be seen for example in darker red Thai rubies.

Whilst corundum comes in many colours only red examples are termed ruby – all other shades are sapphire. That’s why sapphire comes not only in shades of blue, but also in fancy colours e.g. green, white, yellow, purple, and pink. Having said that, there’s some debate amongst gem dealers as to where the line crosses over between pink sapphires and rubies.



The photo above shows a Sri Lankan pink sapphire on the left, a ruby in the middle, and a pair of Mozambique rubies on the right. The difference in colour between the pink sapphire and the ruby in the middle is so slight that it’s difficult to see with an untrained eye.


Before modern gemological testing methods were invented rubies were often confused with other red stones, notably spinels and garnets. The Black Prince’s Ruby, a gift from the King of Castile to the Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1367, and now set into the Imperial State Crown, was thought to have been a ruby for centuries but is actually now recognised as a red spinel.

The Timur Ruby (also in the Crown Jewels) is another such imposter and was only discovered to be a spinel in 1851.

Why are some rubies more desirable than others?

As with all gemstones there are many reasons why one stone will be more desirable than another including origin, colour, clarity, cut, and size. Pigeon’s blood red is considered the best colour – a deep crimson, and Burmese mines have traditionally yielded the most outstanding examples, due in part to their low iron content which gives them a stronger fluorescence, and traces of vanadium which impart a pinkish-red hue. Rubies also come from mines in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Thailand, Afghanistan, and more recently from parts of Africa including Mozambique.

Extraordinarily large sums are paid for the best rubies. Sotheby’s in Geneva set a world record in May 2015 when they sold the 25.59 carat Burmese ‘Sunrise Ruby’ and diamond ring for CHF 28,250,000 (approximately $30,000,000). The existence of a stone of this size and one displaying the vividly saturated colour known as ‘pigeon’s blood red’ is thought to be quite miraculous.


Source: “Carmen Lúcia Ruby” by greyloch – under Creative Commons license

The 23.1 carat Carmen Lúcia Ruby in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, which was found in Mogok, Burma’s ‘Valley of Rubies’, in the 1930s


Mozambique – a 21st century source of rubies

The resource-rich country of Mozambique is a relatively new source of rubies, and with the Montepuez discovery in 2009 comes the world’s largest ruby deposit. The Montepuez Ruby Mine, in which London-based coloured-gemstone mining company Gemfields has a 75% stake, now accounts for approximately half the world’s supply.

Gemstone dealers and jewellers are rightly excited by the new source of material because many Mozambique rubies rival those found in Burma, although however some still prefer the ‘pedigree’ of Burmese material. Marcus McCallum, a gemstone dealer based in London’s Hatton Garden, said his personal preferences favour “the quality of the stone rather than being all about its ‘birth certificate’ – a beautiful ruby is a beautiful ruby, end of.”

Leading jewellers such as Bulgari, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels have begun to use Mozambique rubies in their creations, suggesting that it really is all about the intrinsic quality of the stone and not necessarily the origin.


Fabulous jewellery coming soon to auction

Jewel Citizen picks 4 opulent brooches

Summer is here – the air is warm, the sky is blue, and here at Jewel Citizen I’m getting all of a flutter about a number of jewellery auctions that’ll soon be taking place in the UK.

This coming week, on the 11th of July, it’s Sworder’s ‘Jewellery and Silver’ sale, shortly followed by Lawrences ‘Jewellery’ sale on the 13th of July, so no doubt I’ll have a busy viewing schedule. And a quick trip up to Knightsbridge, London is a must to see the jewellery being offered at Bonham’s on the 19th.

An event I really can’t wait to view and attend is Woolley and Wallis’s ‘Jewellery and Watches’ sale, which is happening on the 20th of July. It’s always a treat to receive one of their beautifully-illustrated catalogues, and I was delighted there was one waiting for me at home when I got back from a recent trip abroad. The jewellery to be offered is predominately antique, estate, and vintage, and at the more affordable end of the market than many of the pieces to be found in their ‘Fine Jewellery’ sales. Having said that I’m seeing many exquisite things in this catalogue and am sure the event will be a great success.

Confession time – I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about brooches at the moment! A few years ago they were something you’d only really see on older women; I’d even go as far as to say that a lot of top quality inherited pieces found themselves unloved, unworn, and gathering dust. A friend of mine inherited her grandma’s jewels and left them in a bank vault for years. With tastes changing I’m sure a lot of you now feel very differently about the ultimate item of versatile jewellery.

So naturally I’m drawn to some of the vintage brooches in Woolley and Wallis’s upcoming sale. I’ve picked out just 4 of my favourites because it’d be hard to do justice to all the jewellery in such a short article.

The first one is a 19th century Egyptian-influenced scarab brooch pendant, shown above, comprising of a deer-headed mythical creature clutching two feathers, its wings with enamel decoration, and suspending three articulated scarabs. Estimate GBP 2,500 – 3,500. Such a dramatic piece, I’d feel like Cleopatra if I wore it.

A less spectacular but equally beautiful piece is the Regency gold and turquoise dove brooch shown below. Since ancient times doves have symbolised love and peace, and appear in the symbolism of Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. Turquoise is a stone often worn for luck. The bird carries in its beak a forget-me-not flower, and to the reverse is a glazed compartment containing hair. Estimate GBP 400 – 600. I’d attach this brooch to my hat, or perhaps to a sash – anywhere but the classic lapel! The possibilities are endless…

Lizards and salamanders were popular motifs in late Victorian jewellery and this particular example is a 10cm long multi-gem brooch, pavé-set all over in silver and gold with opals and diamonds, the head set with a circular-cut demantoid garnet, and ruby eyes.

Dating to the reign of George III is my final choice – an amethyst and diamond pendant brooch in gold and silver. With an estimate of GBP 600 – 800 it’d look fantastic securing a silk scarf, attached to an evening purse, or even against a hat.

To view these brooches and many other pieces of jewellery visit

(photos courtesy of Woolley and Wallis)

Masterpiece London 2017

Some of my favourite jewels from this year’s show

Earlier this week I was thrilled to have been in London for Masterpiece, one of the world’s most exclusive art and antiques fairs. An annual event since 2010, the fair is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in a specially constructed marquee with the facade of a red-brick Georgian building. The sleek and modern interior accommodates approximately 150 exhibitors, Scott’s Seafood & Champagne Bar, and fine dining restaurants such as The Ivy Chelsea Brasserie, and Le Caprice.

It’s estimated that over a billion pound’s worth of fine art, antiques, jewellery, and antiquities are offered at the fair, giving it the feel of a luxurious museum where everything is for sale.

As I walked through the red carpeted entrance there were no doubts in my mind that soon I’d be gazing upon the crème de la crème of jewels.

Wartski, the London dealer specialising in Russian works of art and particularly those of Carl Fabergé, never fails to disappoint with its selection of period jewellery.

The photo below shows a brooch in the form of a cicada c1900 by Frédéric Boucheron, the delicately-executed wings with plique-à-jour enamel work.

A multi-gem pendant brooch by Gustave Baugrand drew my attention for its bold 19th century Egyptian-revival design. Centred with a rock crystal panel and enamelled portrait of a goddess and set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the lower border set with carved emerald scarabs. Paris, c1865.

One of my favourite pieces with Wartski this year was an enamelled pansy plaque-de-cou by René Lalique, seen on the righthand side of the photo below. I imagine that this exquisite piece would have formed the central part of a choker-style necklace and perhaps been held in place by ribbon.

After a rejuvenating glass of champagne it was time to move on to Symbolic and Chase. Their exhibition area is darker, which gives it something of a nightclub ambience, with artfully-lit cabinets containing many important pieces of jewellery.

I simply adore pearl necklaces and soon found one to covet – the natural-coloured double-row pearl and diamond necklace in the photo below.

Many visitors to Symbolic and Chase were drawn to an emerald, pearl, and diamond sautoir incorporating an historic 114 carat vivid yellow diamond, by JAR, Paris. The yellow diamond is currently the largest certified old-cut cushion-shaped fancy vivid yellow diamond known in the world. It was formerly in the collection of Countess Rosario Zouboff, and auctioned by Christie’s in 1962.

In summary, many of pieces of jewellery offered at Masterpiece this year rivalled those held in the collections of leading museums around the world. Masterpiece really is an event not to miss.

What do sapphires and chameleons have in common?

Jewel Citizen looks at rare colour-change sapphires

Here’s a little ‘corundum conundrum’ for you – can a gemstone change from one colour to another? Well, yes and no.

Some gemstones, particularly the sapphire variety of the mineral corundum, sometimes show a remarkable shift in colour. Rare and exceptional specimens display a full change of colour. There’s no alchemy in this process, it’s just the presence of trace element impurities such as vanadium or chromium, in combination with a change in lighting conditions that causes this illusion. Nature’s conjuring trick can visually transform a blue sapphire to a purple or pinkish-purple one, or a purple example to pinkish-red. Who wouldn’t be captivated when their classic blue Princess Diana style sapphire ring scintillates a rich shade of purple by candlelight? Such sapphires are however the exception rather than the norm, and something very special for the enlightened few.













This Ceylonese sapphire changes from blue to violet…

and then to pinkish-purple

Those lucky enough to own one of these chameleon gems remark that it’s like owning two different jewels at the same time. Each stone is unique and possesses its own character. Personally I adore them and keep a weather eye out for new listings at auctions and for designers brave enough to use them in their collections. I covet them as unashamedly as a fashionista who longs for an Hermes Birkin bag.

Paradoxically a gem’s rarity can keep it relatively unknown, an example of this illustrated by the response from some jewellers I’ve spoken to who’ve never seen a colour-change sapphire. “Do you mean Alexandrite?” one once replied, citing the better-known green to red colour-changing stone first discovered in Russia in the early 19th century and popularised by leading jewellers including Tiffany. No actually I didn’t, but while on the subject of Alexandrite I’ll be posting soon about this amazing stone.

But let’s turn back to sapphires. Rarity and a lack of knowledge play a part in this more cautionary tale: I remember a few years ago being told by a friend about how a provincial auction house once listed a Belle Epoque ring with a bluish-purple stone as ‘an early twentieth century ring with large amethyst-type stone’. The guide price was in the low hundreds. My friend had seen the ring and said that the colour seemed different depending on the lighting. He thought little of it at the time. The ring ended up selling for a good few thousand pounds, and in my mind there’s no doubt that someone thought it actually contained a rare colour-change sapphire. It caused a stir for five minutes or so – antique dealers seem love it when an auction house ‘misses’ something and apparently the rumours were flying around the sale-room after the gavel fell. So assuming a large rare sapphire was mis-sold as an ‘amethyst-type stone’ the sale price was probably a fraction of its true value. Sadly without a full gemological report to confirm variety, origin, and any treatment to the stone it was never destined to realise its true value.

In the photos at the top of the article you can see a 15ct Art Deco sapphire ring under different lighting conditions: it appears blue or violet in daylight (candescent light), yet the same stone exhibits a remarkable change of colour to pinkish-purple in incandescent (in this case lamp) light. This is a colour-change sapphire in the true sense of the word.

A shift in colour, such as a subtle change from one shade of blue to another, is seen much more often than the rare and sought-after phenomenon of full colour change. When you’ve worn a colour-change stone it’s really hard to get excited about something that merely shifts colour to a slight degree.

Connoisseurs and collectors of these stones value them according to the degree of colour change above all other criteria, rating the change as weak, moderate or strong.

Many excellent examples of colour-change sapphires on the market come from mines in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) where they are still found to this day, although stones are also mined in Thailand and in parts of Africa. It is rare to find examples weighing in excess of 5 carats, and even more difficult to find larger examples that haven’t been heated to improve their colour.

A 1930s colour-change sapphire sautoir with an exceptionally large and impressive 76.11 carat stone was sold by Sotheby’s in Geneva in their Magnificent Jewels Sale in November 2011.

Something once considered a rarity reserved for gemstone collectors, these gems are now regularly achieving astounding sums at auction. In the November 2015 Magnificent Jewels Sale at Christie’s in Geneva, a 16.81 carat unheated colour-change Ceylon (Sri Lanka) sapphire ring realised CHF 389,000 ($388,485).

The Natural Sapphire Company has a great selection of sapphires in a variety of colours including some spectacular colour-change examples ranging from under a carat up to a little over 16 carats (as of June 2017). The great thing is that many of the sapphires come with full gemological reports from laboratories such as the GIA.











The photos above show a 5.08 carat violet to purple colour-change cushion-cut sapphire from The Natural Sapphire Company. The stone is unheated and untreated. It comes with a GIA certificate. This stone and a full inventory of sapphires, rubies, and jewellery can be viewed on the website  (photo courtesy of The Natural Sapphire Company)

It seems like the secret of these amazing stones might finally be coming out. Jewel Citizen will be closely monitoring top jewellery auctions and designer trends for further developments.