Rare Rubies: Where Do The Oldest and Best Rubies Come From? (Part 1)
Ruby, the King of Gems, what makes it so beautiful and where do the finest rubies come from? It’s easiest to divide ruby sources of origin into the old or early ruby sources and its young or modern sources. In this article, I'll dive into the old ruby sources which can be grouped together as the "oriental rubies". For some of the best modern ruby sources (the "African rubies"), check out the second part of this article here.
Oriental Rubies: Historic Beauty and High Tales
Historically, ruby (often found together with red spinel) has been found in four old mining areas:
- Sri Lanka (the old Ceylon)
- The Thai-Cambodian border (ruby only, no red spinel there)
- Burma (today’s Myanmar)
Burma is the most renowned source of them all and then in particular, rubies from the area in and around “Mogok”, a provincial town west of Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city.
In this post, I'll focus mainly on the Burmese and Thai rubies.
Made in Mogok...
The finest rubies in history have been found in Mogok since 600 AD. And today it is still being recognised as the supreme source of fine rubies, how incredible is that?!
The valley in which the town Mogok is situated has been known since old times as the legendary “Valley of the Serpents” - today though it’s rather known as The Valley of Rubies...
The only way is up
According to an ancient tale (which I’d heard of during my time in Bangkok and which I found a great write-up on in the book Secrets of the Gem Trade by Richard W. Wise), once upon a time in the mystic East was a nearly bottomless valley covered with sparkling gems...
But these gems were guarded by poisonous serpents. Merchants, on the lookout for these stones, threw sticky carcasses of skinned sheep into the valley. The gems then got stuck to the meat and big eagles flying above the valley would swoop down, grab the meat with their claws and bring it back (with the gems stuck to the meat...) to their nests high on the hills surrounding the valley, allowing the men to retrieve the precious stones from there...
Whether you believe in tales like this one or not, they for sure add to the mysterious beauty of rubies.
In fact, among the stones found in or near this valley are not only the ruby but also sapphires, spinels and commercial quantities of moonstone, garnet and peridot, all of which often have been considered as belonging to the world’s finest specimen.
Or rather, I should say, the chance of encountering those gemstones in the finest quality, is considerably high when they come from Burma. There is something magical in Burma's soil. Keep on reading to find out...
Fun Fact: Do keep in mind that although most gem dealers and gemologists rave about rubies from Burma, origin is never a 100% guarantee for the best quality! The vast majority of stones coming out of any mine - including from reputable mines like Mogok - still consists of lower quality gemstones. Fine quality stones remain the exception. That’s what makes them so special.
Back to Burma...
Burmese rubies were brought to the attention of Europeans by the explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century. And 800 years later, they still are so rare that they always cause a stir in the auction room. Especially when it concerns pieces of over 2 to 5 carats. And rubies which are untreated on top of that. When you know that 95% of rubies in the world are heat-treated, a totally acceptable treatment in the market, you understand why an exquisite, untreated ruby is incredibly hard to find, if at all.
When a client asks “find me a fine Burmese ruby, 5+ carats, good colour, pretty clean, no treatment”... you may have to make a trip around the world and still NOT be able to find one in the quality you're looking for...
The best description I ever found on ruby's overall rarity is from the famed gemologist-author-researcher-adventurer Mr Richard Hughes:
"Ruby is among the rarest of all the major precious stones, with only a handful of sources producing facet qualities in quantity. We must first realize that the perfect ruby does not exist. Get it out of your head. There are no tens. So rare is this lass that even an eight is worthy of down-on-your-knees idol worship".
Just so you know.
Before getting into what makes Burmese rubies so superior, first a bit of politics that ultimately also helped in putting the Burmese ruby on the global map forever.
In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma whereby the Burmese army moved into the North, the Mogok area, that had previously been controlled by the Shan tribe for hundreds of years, and banned independent mining. That resulted in an approximate 30 year period of isolation (until approx. 1990) of Burma from the rest of the world. This meant that suddenly also the world’s supply of rubies stopped!
Interestingly, when the Mogok Stone Tract did partially reopen again in 1990, there was another new Burma-type ruby discovered in “Mong Hsu”, halfway between Mogok and the Thai border.
So suddenly, in the 1990s, there was even more Burmese ruby on the market than ever before. The only thing with this new source was that the rubies had a bluish, purplish mask, much of which could (and still can) be removed by heat treatment. It is Mong Hsu that produced up to 90% of rubies under 2 carats for the world market until 2013. After that, its production dropped significantly.
But during that closure of Burma, between 1960-1990, where did the world market get its rubies from? Enter the Thai ruby. For decades, it was Thailand who supplied the world with rubies.
Besides the discovery of the Mong Hsu rubies, another interesting phenomenon occurred in the 1990s: when the Burmese ruby re-emerged on the market, it won back fame and popularity pretty quickly. How was that possible?
Perhaps because suddenly there was sufficient material on the market from different places that could be compared to each other and the differences in quality must have been striking…
It became clear that the Burma stone - with a similar clarity and cut - was far superior to, for instance, the Thai ruby. Why? Because of its lack of iron. The Thai rubies come from the Chanthaburi-Trat mining district which is iron-rich.
And so during that ruby’s formation, more than 150 million years ago, trace amounts of iron became part of that gem’s chemical composition. Iron is what gives the Thai ruby its typical brownish cast and kills the natural UV fluorescence of the ruby crystal. And so the Thai ruby is not only brownish but also barely fluorescent under UV light. Not super attractive I'd say.
Let’s contrast that with the Burma ruby:
The Burmese ruby mining districts are made of pure white “metamorphic” marbles which are iron-poor.
Photo courtesy: GIA
And so the conditions in Burma are ideal for the formation of ruby crystals - aluminum oxide with the trace element of chromium - that are exceptionally vivid red. These stones literally fluoresce strongly under UV light, that means also in the sun with natural UV light!
I remember my gemology teacher (and gem mentor 💎) Mr. Jayesh in Bangkok who gave the example of a lady at a summer garden party wearing Burmese ruby earrings. He’d said, if I'd enter that garden party and even if she'd stand across the garden from me, I'd be able to tell when they are fine rubies from Burma. They are that fluorescent in the sun... and literally glow.
Ruby (and red spinel) has the unusual ability to absorb blue and green parts of light and re-emit that as red fluorescence.
In short: the more chromium a ruby has, the better
- as it not only makes the red stronger in saturation to the exclusion of grey and brown hints.
- but chromium can also cause that exceptional fluorescence which adds some more magic to the intensity of the red colour.
As Mr Wise states in his book, it basically “supercharges” the saturation of this red colored stone. We like, we like.
Besides all that fluorescence wonder, there is more legendary hype around the specific colour red that is associated with the Burmese ruby called:
Pigeon’s Blood - is it a luxury brand?
This term pigeon's blood has become almost sacred and can be heard by gem dealers when they try to indicate the finest colour of ruby red. It is an intense red with a hint of blue - which actually gives the stone a pinkish secondary hue.
Unfortunately, the name "pigeon's blood" has become more like a luxury brand these days and many gem dealers (and consumers!) use that word totally incorrectly, so its value is questionable today. Instead, the word should be used very, very sparingly - only saved for the best of the best specimen - and some argue for the very best of Burma only and so not even for rubies from other locations.
Side-note: For the gem connoisseurs and gem lovers out there, keep in mind that we try to not be swayed by words like 'pigeon's blood' and origin - unless they are stated as such by reputable international gem labs, international gem dealers, gemologists or researchers.
Instead, we try to always judge a stone individually - irrespective of origin and over-used words such as pigeon's blood. And as long as it concerns a ruby of good colour, clarity and cut, it should be regarded as a fine quality ruby, open for your consideration.
In addition to the rubies from Burma, there are other rubies of similar appearance to Burmese rubies but found elsewhere: rubies found in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. And also on the African continent, rubies can be found of equal quality to anything from Burma. But more on that in another post.
It’s better to call all those other chaps “Burma-type rubies”. These stones have some small internal differences compared to the Burmese ruby but they can come very close to the real deal from Burma.
Having said that, after all that love and worship most people feel towards the fine Burmese ruby, not all consumers rave about the Burmese ruby and some may even prefer the Thai ruby! In fact, Thai stones do tend to have a purer red hue. And some ruby lovers who grew up with the Thai ruby between the 1960s-1990s, may still prefer it to this day. Each to their own.
But it is the Burma-ruby and the Burma-type ruby that has been described as a "gem of barbaric splendour", with no other gemstone achieving the level of red colour saturation of the Burma-type stone.
Finally, a short note on heat treatments: just be aware that about 95% of rubies have been heat-treated and almost 100% of Mong Hsu rubies have been heated (because of that bluish component which heating can remove completely). As you can imagine, this adds even more to the rarity of natural, untreated rubies...
Ruby was actually one of the first gems to be treated in old times. With reports on heating taking place in Sri Lanka dating back over 1000 years. It is an accepted treatment in the gem trade and improves the colour, clarity and at times the crystal stability of the ruby. All gem labs accept it.
In fact, without heat treatment there aren't sufficient gem-quality rubies to satisfy the demand in the market! The downside of these heat treatments however, is that consumers’ expectations about rubies have risen to very unrealistic levels as to what Mother Nature can give.
And so, after having seen bright reds in treated stones, people can be a bit disappointed when they actually see a totally natural, untreated stone which might be more subdued in colour.
Yet (and I think you’re getting the picture by now): to find fine-quality, natural and untreated rubies over 2 carat is more similar to Odysseus’ quest.
I hope the above helps you on your gemstone journey and if you need any help in sourcing a special coloured gemstone (like a fiery red ruby) or with creating your own bespoke gemstone ring, set up a complimentary consultation with me by hitting the button below!