Ah, rubies. The July birthstone, pinnacle of the color red. We actually get the word ruby from the Latin ruber, meaning red. I think, however, that ancient Sanskrit captures the essence of rubies far better. They were deemed ratnaraj - the king of precious stones.
Looking at the deep, warm glow of a ruby, it becomes immediately clear why they rank so highly amongst the myriad gems of the world. Rubies invoke thoughts of love and passion. In some cultures, they convey power and wealth, and were said to grace the foreheads of dragons. They were even considered to be an aphrodisiac. That one actually makes something resembling sense. Exactly how happy might you be to receive a ruby, hmm?
We continue to see them in the jewels of many a monarch, ancient and contemporary. The Queen of England, for example, has a tiara made of 96 rubies and a ridiculous number of diamonds.
So prized were rubies by royalty, in fact, that they actually make a few screw-ups in their hunt for the stones. Hilariously, the British Crown Jewels have two of the largest 'rubies’ known, the Black Prince’s Ruby and the Timur Ruby. Oh wait, just kidding. They’re actually spinels. Oops.
So how do rubies get that gorgeous red hue? The mineral itself is called corundum and, believe it or not, pure corundum (aluminum oxide) is a colorless gem. During formation, however, little trace elements sneak their way into corundum’s crystal lattice, allowing for a rainbow of choices. Iron and titanium turn it blue. Yes, you read that right. Sapphires, and the fancy colored sapphires with other trace elements, are actually ruby’s sisters. For ruby, it is chromium that imparts that vibrant red. This element fluoresces in ultraviolet light, so high quality rubies actually do glow just a little beneath the sun. A perfect summer gem.
The finest colored rubies are called pigeon-blood red and traditionally the crème de la crème come from Mogok, Myanmar (formerly Burma). Beautiful rubies come from a host of other countries though, so don't fret. These include, but are not limited to, Madagascar, Thailand, Cambodia, Mozambique, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Often, the best rubies are found housed in marble, formed beneath the crushing weight of mountains that slowly metamorphosed the limestone into the famous building material. Don't go eyeballing your marble countertops, though, you won't find a ruby there.
Given how amazing rubies are, it is unsurprising that there has been a number of famous specimens. The Carmen Lúcia Ruby is the largest in the US National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian and definitely worth a trip to see when the world is safe again. While you're there, check out the Delong Star Ruby, which is over 100 cts and has beautiful asterism. One of the world’s most well-known suites is the Elizabeth Taylor ruby necklace and earrings, given to her on a lovely sunny day in Cote d'Azur by Richard Burton, but it is her ruby ring that has the funnier story. That Burton used as a Christmas stocking stuffer. Talk about being on the ‘nice list’, that's definitely waaaaay better than coal.
Illustration by Eduardo Recife