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.
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.