Diamonds have not always been the king of gems. Until the 19th century, that honor belonged to ruby, the red member of the vast corundum family. No other gem was worth as much.
Want proof? Florentine goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) wrote that rubies sold for eight times the price of diamonds - a ratio that held for centuries. And world traveler and trade Marco Polo wrote that when he visited Sri Lanka in 1290 he saw a 9-inch ruby "as thick as a man’s arm" for which an entire city had been offered in trade.
Keep in mind that at this time in history, diamond and ruby were equally rare. Today diamond is far more plentiful, yet it is more valuable.
Nevertheless, ruby still commands top dollar, especially gems certified to be of Burmese origin by a reputable lab such as the American Gem Trade Association’s lab in New York City. Since around 1200 A.D., the Mogok Stone Tract in upper Burma (now Myanmar) has provided the world’s finest and most expensive rubies. Indeed, England invaded and annexed upper Burma in 1885 to stop a French company from mining there. Now you can see why the Mogok mystique is so powerful and proven origin from that region entitles a ruby to a hefty premium.
But don't go overboard on origin. Burmese origin only means something if a gem is beautiful. Should it lack the Marlboro-box red for which this ruby is famous or be heavily included or an eyesore in terms of cut, who cares where it came from?
Further, just because a ruby is from Burma doesn’t mean it’s from Mogok. Mong Hsu (pronounced shoo) is a very large ruby-producing area whose stones are rarely as beautiful as Mogok’s. To make them attractive, these fissure-ridden stones are heated and filled with a glass-like substance to hide these imperfections and boost transparency. So if you buy a ruby, insist on a report from a recognized lab. If fracture-filled, the report will tell you and you can decide accordingly if the stone is worth purchasing.
For those of you to whom color rather than origin matters most, you’ll be glad to know that Madagascar is producing beautiful, reasonably priced material. Here, too, you’ll want a lab report to assure you that the stone is natural (there are several superb synthetics on the market today). If, as is usually the case, the stone has been heated to improve color, make sure the report says the stone is free of chemical additives. If it says there are such substances in the stone, that’s short-hand for "buyer beware."
Ruby is July's birthstone.
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