Where Do the Most Beautiful Rubies in the World Come From?
What makes them so beautiful? And other ruby sources you need to know
Let’s continue with what has at times been called “a gem of barbaric splendor”!
Previously in Part 2, we talked about the stone which has been regarded as the Greatest Ruby Imposter throughout history - the Balas Ruby, also known as the spinel, another beautiful high-end stone that also comes in a red color and has for centuries misled people, including royals, into believing it was a ruby.
And that a lot of Crown Jewels around the world - including the ones of England lying here in the Tower of London but also the Russian Imperial Crown and many old pieces of Mughal emperors and Maharajas - in fact had been set with large, fine red spinels that most likely came from the historic Kuh-i-Lal mines in “Badakhshan”, today’s Tajikistan.
In other words, it turned out that many of the world’s famous “rubies” were in fact spinels...
But today we’re going back to the actual “King of Gems”, the ruby, and its occurrences.
It’s easiest to divide ruby's sources of origin into:
- The old or early ruby sources; and
- Ruby’s modern sources.
1. Let’s start with the old ruby sources.
We can actually group them together as “the Oriental Ruby”.
Historically, ruby (and red spinel) have been found in four old mining areas: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka (the old Ceylon), on the Thai-Cambodian border (ruby only, no red spinel) and, the most renowned of them all: Burma (today’s Myanmar) and then in particular, those from the area in and around “Mogok”. Mogok is a provincial town, west of Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city.
I'll focus mainly on the Burmese and Thai rubies.
The finest rubies in history have been found in Mogok since 600 AD.
And today it is still being recognized 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 it’s known rather as The Valley of Rubies though...
The only way is up
According to the ancient tale (which I’d heard of in Bangkok but which I found a great write-up on in this book by Richard W. Hughes (Secrets of the Gem Trade)), somewhere 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 lying on the ground 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 obviously) to their nests high on the hills surrounding the valley, allowing the men to retrieve the precious stones...
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 finding those types of gemstones in the finest of qualities, is considerably high when they come from Burma.
There is something magical in their soil.
However, keep in mind that origin is never a 100% guarantee for the best quality.
The vast majority of stones coming out of any mine still consists of lower quality gemstones. Fine quality stones remain the exception.
That’s what makes them so special.
Burmese rubies were brought to the attention of Europeans by the explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century.
800 years later, they still are so rare that they always cause a stir in the auction room. Especially when it concerns pieces over 2 to 5 carats and which are untreated (know that 95% of rubies are heat-treated, which is a totally acceptable treatment in the market, btw).
So, in other words, a fine quality ruby in those sizes and conditions are beyond rare.
When a client asks “find me a fine Burmese ruby, 5+ carats, good color, pretty clean, no treatment”, you may have to make a trip around the world and still NOT be able to find one.
The best description I ever found 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.
Below follow some of the most exquisite pieces sold at auction in the last decade or so:
Graff's seeing red
Now, the above 8.62 carat piece has a remarkable story attached to it. It was sold at Christie’s in 2006 for more than $3.6 million. To Mr Graff. The London luxury jeweller.
Graff reset the Burmese stone into this ring:
And renamed it the Graff Ruby.
As you would.
He sold the piece to a Greek financier.And then…
He bought it back again in 2014 for $8.6 million! More than double. And the ring is surely sold again by now.
It shows you how connoisseurs hunt for exquisite pieces like that and also gives a good indication of this stone's utmost rarity.
I mean, if experts go back and buy something twice, at that price, it makes you realize just how special the type of stone is.
Here you see another picture of that fiery red stone on a model, so you get a better idea of the size and color.
Now this is a sight you’ll probably never experience… a ruby of that quality and size on the hand of a woman sitting next to you while having dinner in your local restaurant.
Other ladies in red
There’s this funny anecdote on the Patiala Ruby Choker:
In the 1920s, Cartier approached the Maharaja of Patiala (a city in the North of India) in hopes of selling the flamboyant Raj their own jewelry.
Unimpressed as he was by the quality of the stones in Cartier’s inventory, the Maharajah instead commissioned Cartier to make several iconic pieces for him… but with his own stones only.
Now, before getting to what makes Burmese rubies so superior, a bit of politics that ultimately also helped in putting the Burmese ruby forever on the map again.
In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, whereby the Burmese army moved into the North, Mogok area that had 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 partially reopened again in 1990, there was another new Burma-type ruby discovered in “Mong Hsu”, halfway between Mogok and the Thai border, so there was suddenly even more ruby from Burma at that time.
Only thing was that the new source had a bluish/purplish mask, much of which could (and still can) be removed by heat treatment though.
Mong Hsu produced up to 90% of rubies under 2 carats for the world market until 2013.
After that, its production dropped significantly (see Richard Hughes article in the sources below).
Now, during that closure of Burma, between 1960-1990, where did the world market get its rubies from?
That’s when the Thai ruby entered the stage.
And for decades, it was Thailand who supplied the world with rubies.
But when in the 1990s, the Burmese ruby re-emerged again, it won back territory pretty quickly (perhaps because there was sufficient material on the market that could be compared and the differences might have been striking when put together…).
And it became clear that the Burma stone - with a similar clarity and cut - was far superior to the Thai ruby.
Because of its lack of iron.
The Thai rubies come from the Chanthaburi-Trat mining district which is iron-rich.
And so during 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.
I don’t like that.
Many people don't like that so much.
Let’s contrast that with the Burma ruby:
The Burmese ruby mining districts are made of pure white “metamorphic” marbles which are iron-poor.
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, so also in the sun with natural UV light!
I remember my gemology teacher (and gem mentor ) in Bangkok who gave the example of a lady at a garden party wearing Burmese ruby earrings. He’d said, when you enter that garden party and she stands across the room or garden from you, you can 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 gray and brown hints.
But chromium can also cause that exceptional fluorescence which adds some more magic to the intensity of the red color.
As Mr Wise states in his book, it basically “supercharges” the saturation of the stone.
Besides that fluorescence wonder, there is more legendary hype around the specific color red associated with Burmese ruby called “pigeon’s blood” - a red with a hint of blue - which actually gives the stone a pinkish secondary hue.
Unfortunately, that 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.
For the gem connoisseurs or gem lovers out there, it’s in any case always best to judge each stone individually - irrespective of origin - and when it concerns a ruby of good color (see Part 1 and Part 2), clarity and cut, it should be regarded as a fine quality ruby.
As a side-note, but I think you’re getting the feeling by now… to find rubies in such a good quality is quite similar to Odysseus’ quest.
In addition to the rubies from Burma, there are other rubies of similar appearance to Burmese rubies found elsewhere, including Vietnam, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
And also on the African continent, rubies can be found equal to anything from Burma. But more on that below.
It’s better to call those chaps “Burma-type rubies”.
These stones have small internal differences compared to the Burmese ruby but those should not matter that much to the gem collector as again, it’s always the beauty - not the origin - that’s the key issue when judging a stone’s appearance.
Having said that, after all that love and worship most people feel vis-à-vis fine Burmese ruby, not all consumers may prefer the Burmese ruby over, for instance, the Thai ruby.
In fact, Thai stones tend to have a purer red hue. And some ruby lovers who grew up between the 1960s-1990s with the Thai ruby, may still prefer it to this day.
Each to their own.
But it is the Burma-type ruby that has been described as a gem of barbaric splendor.
With no other gemstone achieving the level of saturation of the Burma-type stone.
I’m not going into heat treatments here, but just so you know that about 95% of rubies have been heat-treated and almost 100% of Mong Hsu rubies have been heated (the latter because they come with a bluish component which heating can remove completely).
Ruby was one of the first gems to be treated. 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 color, clarity and at times the crystal stability of the ruby. All gem labs accept it. In fact, without it there might not be sufficient gem material to satisfy the demand in the market.
The downside of these treatments however, is that consumers’ expectations 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 seeing a totally natural stone which might be more subdued.
Yet rubies - especially the fine quality Burmese ones from 2 ct upwards - have always been extremely rare.
I hope the above auction examples gave you a feeling of exactly how special these fine quality rubies are...
and will make you appreciate the intrinsic value and exquisiteness when you do encounter a totally natural ruby.
To make matters worse, the Mogok mines are virtually depleted and don’t produce much, sending their price even more sky-high.
This brings me to the 'young' ruby sources out there.
2. Rubies from modern sources
Let’s call this group the ‘African rubies’.
Almost at the perfect time it seemed, rubies of fine quality have been discovered elsewhere in the world: namely in East Africa.
Gem hunters, noticing the small production from Burma and other historic areas, turned elsewhere in their quest for the perfect red gem.
And African rubies have started to take up the void left by the Burmese.
Rubies have been found in Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya and Tanzania.
It has been the rubies from Montepuez, northern Mozambique, though that have dominated the Thai market - the world’s major ruby trading centre - since the discovery of the deposit in 2009.
These African pieces are different:
- both from the marble-type rubies from Burma’s Mogok and Mong Hsu which have that strong fluorescent aspect related to their low iron content; and
- from the basalt-related rubies from Thailand/Cambodia which are known for their low fluorescence due to the higher iron content.
The new deposit in Montepuez is an “amphibole-related deposit” (“ambiguous”), meaning they:
- have a higher iron content than those in marble-related deposits; but
- a lower iron content than those from basalt-related deposits.
And so they fill the gap perfectly between the two older, traditional deposits!
It is companies especially like Gemfields - the mining company specialized in fine colored gems, such as ruby but also emerald and amethyst - who have set up a ruby supply chain from its Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique, and has basically ensured a more consistent supply of quality rubies.
Nobody would have guessed maybe 20 years ago that there would even be another ruby mine able to produce rubies of amazing quality and also size (Burmese rubies tend to be quite small) consistently!
Mother Nature generously handed out some more gifts to us.
Today, also with the political shift in Myanmar, some jewelry houses have even stopped their buying of Burmese rubies completely.
Cartier, for example, has chosen an impressive 15.29 carat Mozambique ruby as center piece in their Reine Makéda necklace.
Also for gem collectors this is great news as it provides a greater chance to find a fine quality ruby at a better price than the Burmese ruby…
Again, what matters most is beauty over “pedigree” or origin!
Origin does not give any guarantee whatsoever that automatically every stone from that location will be of magnificent quality.
Only for the finest of stones that rise above the rest, does origin matter (like knowing your best wine comes from a certain region).
Lastly, a short remark on origin determination:
It is very hard and requires experienced gemologists and experts in a lab to be able to distinguish between different origins.
It is done based on inclusions which are found inside a stone.
However, the tricky thing is that inclusions don’t always say everything…
Africa used to be attached to India and Sri Lanka when it was a supercontinent, “Gandwana”, and they broke apart so we now have rubies from, for example, Mozambique and Madagascar, that have similar inclusions to those found in the traditional Asian rubies.
So, what renowned gem labs like Gübelin put on their lab reports when grading stones is language like “gemmological testing revealed characteristics consistent with those of rubies originating from Burma (Myanmar)”.
In addition, in the small print it is stated that the origin determination is “an opinion”.
So you could very well have a ruby which you brought to two different labs who each then gave it two different origins…
That’s totally possible and the tricky (yet colorful) world of gems we live in!
I hope the above helps you on your gemstone piece journey and if you need any help in sourcing a special colored gemstone (like a fiery red ruby...) or with creating your own bespoke gemstone jewelry piece, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more gem stories and insider tips on how to buy your own investment-worthy gemstones, follow me on Instagram @evagemsandjewels.
In the next Gem Tales, I’ll dive into the High and Mighty Blue Sapphire.
I hope till next time!
Now a small Quiz for those who’d love to test their knowledge and thereby enter the Insider Gemstone Club 😉
- The finest rubies in the world have been found in Sri Lanka since 600AD - True | False?
- Thai rubies have a brownish cast - True | False?
- What chemical element in Burma-type rubies creates their highly covetable glow?
- Pigeon’s blood is a term that should better be avoided - True | False?
- Fine rubies from Mozambique can be as splendid as any Burmese stone - True | False?
- Insider gem trade secrets revealed in the book Secrets of the Gem Trade by Richard W. Wise
- Ruby Connoisseurship • Seeing Red by Richard W. Hughes for incredibly informative and highly entertaining stories that read like an adventure book
- My own gem experience in Bangkok and lecture notes of my gemology education there at AIGS (the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok ;))
- The inspiring webinars by famed gemologist Rui Galopim de Carvalho (follow him @portugalgemas)
- Series of Articles on Rubies from Mozambique, by the GIA, March 14, 2014
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