Rubies are an ancient gemstone and like any good ancient tale, this one is fraught with curious superstitions and beliefs in the pursuit of wealth, power and acclaim. Come along as we sift through superstitions of an intriguing past and learn more about the King of Gems!
Rubies are formed by the mineral corundum and coloured by chromium. All other colours of corundum minerals are called sapphires. Therefore, colour is of utmost importance for the value of this gem and are revered for their stunning red colour and are named for this. The name “Ruby” is derived from the latin word “rubeus” meaning “red”. The most desirable shade of ruby red is called "Pigeon Blood Red". Rubies come in a variety of shades from lighter pink and purplish reds to vibrant deep crimson.
Unfortunately, the addition of chromium can also cause cracks and fissures in these gems, meaning that few crystals grow large enough for use in fine jewellery adding to their rarity and value. It is also exceedingly rare to encounter a flawless ruby, and these gems often contain inclusions referred to as “silk” which, just like the inclusion of jardin in emeralds, can increase the value of a ruby. However, transparency is still an important characteristic for a ruby and opaque rubies are less valuable. High quality rubies command the highest per-carat price of any coloured gemstone (excluding fancy coloured diamonds) because of their rarity.
One of the most beautiful chemical properties of rubies is the fluorescence caused by the chromium in the stones chemical composition. This creates the effect of glowing, like a hot ember, from within the stone. Although we know now that this beautiful effect is simple chemistry. It is this quality that gave rise to the ancient theory that gemstones are alive and sentient.
A Rich History
Originally a favourite gem across Asia, rubies have been desired the world over for millennia. Royalty, aristocracy, religious leaders, and the gentry alike all went out of their way to acquire rubies to include in family treasure troves, heirloom pieces and even battle armour. In Sanskrit the word for ruby, “ratnaraj” means “king of precious stones” and, in many ancient cultures, rubies represented the strongest of human emotions both positive and negative; love, passion, fury and anger.
The earliest record of rubies suggest they were discovered in the Mogok region (the valley of rubies) of Myanmar (formerly Burma) as early as 2500 BC. Some records suggest that rubies have been traded on China’s North Silk Road as early as 200 BC. Early cultures treasured rubies because they believed that the gems held the power of life, as symbolised by their blood red colour.
Rubies were prized very highly and ancient people believed that the virtue of these stones surpassed that of all other gemstones. So much so, that they were often valued greater than diamonds and widely believed to hold supernatural power. In many cultures Rubies were frequently engraved or carved in the images of deities to signify love, life, death, fertility, honour, victory and to ward off evil.
Emperors, Kings and Rulers across the world wore rubies as a symbol of their wealth and as a talisman for preservation and protection from enemies.
Until the 1800’s, when ruby was formally recognised as a variety of corundum, most red stones like red spinel, tourmaline, and garnet were often mistaken for rubies. One famous example of this is the Black Prince’s Ruby in the Imperial State Crown in Britain’s Crown Jewels, which has been identified as a stunning example of red spinel.
Legend and Folklore
The ruby has enthralled the hearts and minds of people all over the world.
Many cultures, both eastern and western, believed that wearing a ruby on one’s person granted wisdom, health, wealth and success in love. Warriors across the globe believed that wearing a ruby in battle granted perseverance and preservation from the horrors of war. Burmese warriors took this a step further still and inserted rubies under their skin to ensure invincibility in battle.
The Chinese folklore often tells of the practice of burying a ruby under the foundations of a new building for good fortune for those residing there. Hindus were said to believe that offering rubies to the god Krishna, would mean reincarnation as an emperor. Greek sailors wore ruby amulets to protect themselves from drowning while in many ancient oriental cultures, rubies were carried as good luck tokens, believing that the ruby warned of evil when it showed a blackish shadow or spot and that the evil had passed when the spot cleared. Medieval Europeans often also had household “ruby” amulets, sometimes made from coloured glass or other red stones to ward off evil.
The clergy in medieval times took this a step further when they started practising lithotherapy - the practice of using gemstones to treat physical and mental ailments. Ruby was believed to be particularly powerful to cure disease and grievous injury when applied as an ointment or ingested. People who disagreed or questioned this practice were excommunicated and often tried as traitors to king and country. It was also said that if you place a ruby in water then it would bring the water to the boil, and if the gem was hidden in a wrapping, it would shine through and reveal its presence.
Alternate uses for Rubies
Well, yes actually. While the above may seem like far fetched superstitions, in reality rubies, like diamonds, have a number of alternate uses to jewellery. Rubies were frequently used in lasers because of their ability to concentrate light to a very high intensity. Due to the ruby’s intense colour the beam of light issued was also easy to see. In recent decades, rubies have been replaced in laser technology with more affordable synthetic rubies or alternatives.
Watch making is another industry that utilises rubies for more than just adornment. Because of their hardness and strength, rubies are often used as ball bearings in watches. Unlike metal bearings, rubies, real or synthetic, do not require oiling and are not affected by temperature changes, offering more stability and significantly reducing friction and wear on the moving parts. This in turn reduces the need for tampering with the mechanism and makes for a timepiece with a longer lifespan.
Rubies are fascinating gemstones with a rich and intriguing history. They are a rare and beautiful stone and it is easy to see why the human obsession with the Ruby has endured throughout the ages.