Talking about the King of Gemstones
“Drops of frozen wine from Eden’s vats,” is how Ralph Waldo Emerson described rubies. He was not alone in being captivated by the deep-red gems. Rubies have been mined since antiquity. They were mentioned in the Bible, as a comparison against the value of wisdom. Records from the ancient Silk Road show the movement of rubies from East to West in 200BC. The Roman scholar Pliny wrote in 1AD on the hardness and density of the ruby.
Ancient Hindus called them ratnaraj or “king of the gemstones,” believing that offering a ruby to the deity Krishna would ensure their rebirth as emperors. Burmese warriors believed that wearing a ruby would protect them during battle, but only if the rubies were inserted in their flesh, making it part of them. In medieval Europe, men and women wore rubies as talismans for good health, wealth, and success in love. Generations of royal families have prized the rich, red stone, and to this day the ruby remains one of Earth’s most regal and glamorous gems.
But what makes a ruby? The colour? Red is an intrinsic part of ruby, because while diamonds and sapphires may be blue, pink, yellow or orange, a ruby is always red. But not all red stones are rubies; spinels and garnets are red too and fine examples of either can approach the value of an average ruby. What makes a ruby a ruby is the specific equation of corundum (aluminium oxide), which gives the ruby is structure, and chromium, which gives the ruby its colour.
Pure corundum is colourless. The presence of other minerals gives it hues, and if the corundum is clear, it can be polished into a gemstone, otherwise the opaque corundum (known as emery) is used as a polishing material. Add any element – iron, titanium, copper or magnesium – to clear corundum and you get sapphires. If, and only if, the rarer chromium is present will you get rubies.
In a remote area of Mozambique, at the Montepuez ruby concession, miners in 2014 uncovered an extraordinary pair of matching ruby stones. Each of the rough gems was nearly the size of a cherry, and their combined weight was an impressive 45 carats. Experts estimated their total value as being in the tens of millions of dollars. In June 2015, Thailand’s Veerasak Gems purchased the set for an undisclosed amount, christening the two rubies the “Eyes of the Dragon” for their spellbinding colour. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery,” says Ian Harebottle, CEO of Gemfields, the London-based mining firm that sold the pair and own the Montepuez deposit.
“It is as rare as locating a vintage Ferrari; you won’t likely find another model again, and you won’t likely see a set of rubies like this again.” These standouts are a true exception in the world of gems; Harebottle estimates that less than 2 percent of the rough stones excavated from Montepuez qualify as premium-quality specimens. A high-quality, sizable ruby is more actually elusive than a fine diamond, sapphire, or emerald. Gemologists hold this to be true, and so, it seems, do collectors, as evidenced by recent record-breaking prices at auction, monopolised mainly by Burmese rubies.
The description Burmese ruby does not always denote origin. Burma, or Myanmar as it is now officially known, has produced the world’s finest rubies for centuries, with the Mogok Valley in the country’s Mandalay region and newer mining areas like Mong Hsu responsible for 90 per cent of the world’s fine rubies. The very finest specimens from Burma – a deep, dark red with a slight hint of blue – are described as ‘pigeon blood’. So fine are Burmese rubies that the term refers not only to a ruby from Burma, but any fine example of the gem.
“Tradition means a lot in this industry, and the Burma rubies are the standard for which all other rubies were judged,” Russell Shor, senior industry analyst for the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). While there are ruby deposits in nearby Thailand, they are not known to produce the same level of colour, quality, and size as the Myanmar mines. Rubies are mined elsewhere in the world, in India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Japan, Brazil, Tanzania, Madagascar and Macedonia, which produce the only naturally occurring rubies in Europe. Few, however, produce rubies of the quality – in colour, clarity, cut and carat weight – that Myanmar does.
That is changing.
The Montepuez mining concession in Mozambique started producing high-quality stones a few years ago and some of the rubies are said to rival their Burmese counterparts. This is quite important, as Burmese rubies are far from plentiful in part due to international sanctions on Myanmar because of the country’s repressive military regime and human-rights violations.
Some luxury retailers, such as Tiffany & Co. in 2000, barred rubies altogether from their stores because they deemed it too difficult to determine the stones’ country of origin. Trade restrictions have eased somewhat recently, yet the demand for rubies still remains higher than the supply.
With new ruby deposits are being unearthed globally (Montepuez was discovered in 2009), many top jewellers are now selecting stones for their beauty and uniqueness, placing less importance on established places of origin. In July 2015, Cartier debuted the Garance necklace, whose highlights are two cushion-shaped Mozambique rubies, 5.27 and 5.02 carats, set amid smaller Burmese rubies and diamonds. Other jewellers, among them Van Cleef & Arpels, Viren Bhagat, and Bulgari (all known for their exceptional use of coloured gemstones) have also recently sourced Mozambique rubies for their designs.
The influx of stones from Mozambique means more options not only for jewellers but also for collectors, who likely will compare them to their counterparts from Myanmar. While Shor has observed similar characteristics between the countries’ rubies, collectors may need some convincing. After all, the gem world as a whole still attaches a certain cachet to the country of origin, believing that a stone’s heritage adds value.
Thailand’s rubies, for example, tend to have trace elements of iron that give them their deep red tone with a clean, open crystal structure a slightly brown-ish tinge. Burmese rubies, on the other hand, show trace elements of vanadium that create a pinkish-red hue and a crystal structure with slightly more silt and a higher luminance. Montepuez is yielding rubies with both of these types of characteristics, and Gemfields believes that top-quality rubies overall, including examples gathered thus far from his company’s Mozambique mine, are still undervalued.
Undervalued, maybe, but not unappreciated. The world record for a coloured gem is held by a ruby, the pigeon blood Sunrise Ruby by Cartier, sold by Sotheby’s Geneva in May 2015 for $30.33 million (RM133 million). Named after the poem of the same name by 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, the 25.9 carat ruby is the most expensive ruby and most expensive gemstone other than a diamond ever sold.
Other notable rubies that have created headlines over the year include:
- The Richard Burton Ruby Ring, by Van Cleef & Arpels commissioned by the actor for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor’s 1968 Christmas present. The 8.24 carat ruby – described as perfect – sold for US$4.23 million (RM18.6 million) in 2011.
- The Fai Dee Red Emperor ruby-and-diamond necklace, with 60 rubies weighing a total of 104.51 carats designed by James W. Currens, sold for US$9.9 million (RM43.6 million) in April 2014 at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction.
- The Graff Ruby, a ring by British jeweller Laurence Graff with a cushioncut Burmese ruby that sold in November 2014 for US$8.6 million (RM37.9 million) by Sotheby’s Geneva, more than US$1 million a carat.
- The largest mined ruby is the world is the Liberty Bell Ruby, at 8,500 carats, that was sculptured into a miniature form of the Liberty Bell. Set with fifty diamonds, the opaque ruby was stolen from a jewellery store in Delaware, USA in 2011.
- The Carmen Lucia Ruby, a 23.1 carat Burmese ruby from Mogok considered one of the finest rubies ever seen. It is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C, USA.
- A ruby ring designed by Etcetera with a star ruby (a natural six-point asterism, where the stone is cut into a cabochon to properly display the effect), sold for US$3.35 million (RM14.77 million) in May 2012 by Christie’s.
- The Camellia brooch ‘Claudine’, sold at a Christie’s Geneva auction in May 2012 for US$4.3 million (RM18.6 million). Mounted in silver and gold, the flower-shaped brooch is entirely pavé-set with rubies weighing a total of 173.09 carats.
“The price of wisdom is beyond rubies,” it is written in The Book of Job. From Biblical times to the modern, the deep red of the finest rubies has always captured the human imagination. Wisdom might be worth more, but a fine ruby is worth more than most other things.