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‘There is a shade of red for every woman’
… Audrey Hepburn

Colour reflects emotion, and there is no greater colour for stoking passion than red.

It is therefore of no surprise that ruby has long been the gemstone that symbolises love, devotion and desire; it is a protector against evil and a bringer of good fortune. Looking at the colour red immediately excites the human imagination.

However, it was only 200 years ago that we developed ways of distinguishing and classifying minerals. Other red gemstones, such as rubellites, garnets and particularly spinels, were also revered for their shades of red. In fact, spinel is the gemstone that made ruby famous – the Black Prince’s Ruby that is set in the front of the Imperial State Crown and the Timur Ruby in the Royal Collection are both very large spinels.

Ruby and sapphire are both gemstone varieties of the corundum family. When the stone is red, it is called a Ruby; when the main hue deviates to a more pinky colour, it is called a pink sapphire – a demarcation that continues to be very subjective. Rubies are extremely rare, far rarer than white diamonds. Their rarity has long been recognised: ancient Sanskrit texts refer to ruby as Ratnaraj, meaning King of Precious Stones.

‘It is therefore of no surprise that ruby has long been the gemstone that symbolises love, devotion and desire.’

Rubies found in the ancient mines of Burma (Myanmar) were traded along the Silk Road, a 5,000-mile journey from East to West along which winding camel caravans carried exotic produce such as spices, silks and gemstones. Rubies from this region were created through the tectonic plate movement more than 50 million years ago that formed the Himalayan mountain range; but this is a young deposit compared to the deposits found in Mozambique, which are over 500 million years old. We think of Burmese rubies being the “historic ruby”, but we have bestowed this title only because we discovered these deposits first, over 800 years ago. The rubies discovered in Mozambique have only been mined very recently, and yet are much older “historic” rubies.

Stories and fables about ruby were recounted along the Silk Road. Traders uttered that ruby was found hidden in the Valley of Serpents, a valley full of snakes in the middle of an inaccessible mountain range. The only way hunters were able to collect the rubies was to throw raw bits of meat into the valley for the gems to stick to the meat; vultures would then swoop down to retrieve the meat studded with rubies, to then be shot by the hunters, who would steal the stones. The vibrancy and radiancy of these small red crystals fostered the belief that if they were dropped in a bucket of cold water, the water would start to boil. So convinced were they of the ruby’s talismanic properties that the Burmese revered their rubies; they supposed that if the stones were inserted into their bodies, they would be protected from being wounded or killed, and they would place a ruby in each of the four corners of their dwellings for further protection – a tradition that continues today.

‘The vibrancy and radiancy of these small red crystals fostered the belief that if they were dropped in a bucket of cold water, the water would start to boil.’

These fables helped fuel the mystique and desirability of this red gem so that rubies were considered to be gifts of the gods. Indeed, the desire to own a ruby has lured kings and queens, Maharajahs and Hollywood royalty, amongst many others, to be bedecked in the gem.

 The magnificent Van Cleef & Arpels ruby, Rubis Flamboyant, weighing 25.76 carats. An ‘exceptional’ stone, says Joanna Hardy. Part of the Treasure of Rubies collection (2019) © Van Cleef & Arpels

Rubies that have large chromium content in their makeup really do omit a “fire” when cut. This fire is a fluorescence from light interacting with the gem that makes it seem electric. For me, there are two exceptional stones that I have seen which have this quality: the 8.62-carat Graff Ruby and the Van Cleef & Arpels’ ruby weighing over 25 carats. Both stones are magnificent in their equal distribution of their red colour. Rubies can come in a wide variety of reds, and a stone will look different under different light sources. When viewing a ruby, view it in daylight as well as in artificial light. Even daylight conditions are different in different parts of the world, as the sunlight is more intense in some countries than others. Being happy with your ruby’s colour is the most important consideration.

When we look at jewels that have been given as gifts to loved ones, rubies are nearly always chosen when the relationship is at its most intense. Wallis Simpson, before becoming the Duchess of Windsor, was smothered in rubies by the future King of England, whose love for the American divorcée resulted in his abdication. In the early years of their affair, the pair spent the summer sailing the Mediterranean in a luxury yacht and the media were quick to spot that “Mrs. Simpson was literally smothered in rubies”, according to society chronicler Chips Channon. During the same year, 1936, Simpson was given a ruby bracelet inscribed with the words “Hold Tight”, a warning to her that there were going to be a few rocky months ahead during royal and societal negotiations.

 Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth Taylor: rubies signalled the passion of their relationships (from Ruby: The King of Gems, by Joanna Hardy, published by Thames & Hudson, 2017)

Another woman who knew her jewels and the art of intoxicating her loved ones was Elizabeth Taylor. Husband Richard Burton hid a stunning ruby and diamond ring at the bottom of her Christmas stocking in 1968, but it was her third husband, Mike Todd, who, after three months of marriage in 1957, presented her with a fabulous ruby and diamond Cartier necklace with matching earrings and a bracelet while she was swimming laps in the pool. The necklace could be transformed into a tiara, but the salesperson had failed to mention that feature to Todd – we would definitely have seen Taylor wearing the jewel as a tiara if she had known!

“Since there was no mirror around, I had to look into the water. The jewellery was glorious, rippling red on blue like a painting. I shrieked with joy, put my arms around Mike’s neck and pulled him into the pool after me… It was a perfect summer’s day and a day of perfect love.” Elizabeth Taylor

A “ruby” reaction that, quite frankly, doesn’t get much better than that.

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