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The Lure of Rubies

Ruby - red, the color of blood and passion has a rich lore and history. This birthstone for July has admirers deep into antiquity. But what is a ruby? Like sapphire, ruby is a member of the corundum gem family - in fact only color separates ruby from sapphire. Ruby is a pink to blood-red colored gemstone. The red color is caused mainly by the presence of the element chromium. Its name comes from ruber, Latin for red. Other varieties of gem-quality corundum are called sapphires. The ruby is considered one of the four precious stones, together with sapphire, emerald, and diamond.

The price of rubies is primarily determined by color. The brightest and most valuable red called pigeon blood-red, commands a large premium over other rubies of similar quality. After color follows clarity: similar to diamonds, a clear stone will command a premium, but a ruby without any needle-like rutile inclusions may indicate that the stone has been treated, or that it may be synthetic. Currently the market is flooded with fissure-filled rubies of inferior quality which are fused with lead glass to improve clarity. This treatment can create an attractive gemstone as long as the treatment is disclosed to the buyer and the buyer is not charged the premium price of a natural ruby. Buyer beware. Cut and carat weight are also an important factor in determining the price. Generally, gemstone-quality corundum in all shades of red, including pink, are called rubies, however, in the United States, a minimum color saturation must be met to be called a ruby, otherwise the stone will be called a pink sapphire. This distinction between rubies and pink sapphires is relatively new, having arisen sometime in the 20th century. If a distinction is made, the line separating a ruby from a pink sapphire is not clear and is highly debated. As a result of the difficulty and subjectiveness of such distinctions, trade organizations such as the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICGA) have adopted the broader definition for ruby which encompasses its lighter shades, including pink. The Mogok Valley in Upper Myanmar (Burma) was for centuries the world’s main source for rubies. That region has produced some of the finest rubies ever mined. Most rubies come from Burma and Thailand. Ruby has been highly prized for hundreds if not thousands of years, particularly in Asia where it was used to ornament armor, scabbards, and harnesses of noblemen in India and China. Rubies were laid beneath the foundation of buildings to secure good fortune to the structure. Ruby as an amulet was believed to protect one from witchcraft, plague, pestilence and famine. The water in which a ruby had been washed was administered in medicines that were intended to cure disorders of the blood. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. has one of the world’s largest and finest ruby gemstones. The 23.1 carats Burmese ruby, set in a platinum ring with diamonds, was donated by businessman and philanthropist Peter Buck in memory of his late wife Carmen Lúcia. This gemstone displays a richly saturated red color combined with an exceptional transparency. The finely proportioned cut provides vivid red reflections. The stone was mined from the Mogok region of Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1930s.  On December 13-14, 2011 Elizabeth Taylor’s complete jewelery collection was auctioned by Christie’s. Several ruby-set pieces were included in the sale, notably a ring set with an 8.24 ct gem that broke the ‘price-per-carat’ record for rubies ($512,925 per carat, i.e. over $4.2 million in total), and a necklace that sold for over $3.7 million. 

In earlier times, and to some extent even today, blood red ruby was confused with red spinel (sometimes called balas ruby). The so-called Black Prince’s Ruby in the British Crown Jewels is actually a huge red spinel, and fine quality spinel can easily approach the cost of a fine ruby, but ruby remains the King of Gems. Copyrighted Cherie Fehrman 2017. All rights reserved.