G emstones have long been treasured by populations throughout history, prized signifiers of wealth, luck, health, power, and status, inspiring myths, curses and even containing spiritual power. The geographic origins and history of gemstones often contain rich and complex stories, as captivating as the objects themselves. Remarkable rubies, brilliant emeralds, astounding sapphires, and intriguing jadeite – here we look at the story of each, and the fascinating historical and cultural history these stones carry.
Thanks to its peculiar mineral composition, the ruby is one of the rarest and most costly gemstones. While both rubies and sapphires are composed of the mineral, corundum, in the ruby, chromium replaces the common aluminium, colouring the crystal structure that distinct red hue, a highly desired shade associated with life, blood and power.
The ruby’s lore and geographic origins are steeped in Asia where it has been heralded as one of the rarest and most precious stones. Texts from China’s North Silk Road, dating back to as early as 200 BCE indicate the significance of rubies as sources of protection, adorning Chinese warrior armor and even being implanted beneath the skin of Burmese warriors.
For centuries since 600 AD, the Mogok mines in Myanmar were the world’s primary source for incredible rubies, particularly the exceedingly rare ‘pigeon’s blood’ ruby, an intense shade of red. The Burmese mines are also a remarkable trove for other semi-precious stones including amethyst, garnet, lapis lazuli and moonstone. Today, the finest and most exotic rubies lie in Thailand, the epicenter of ruby trading, as well as Cambodia and Kashmir, their quality determined first and foremost by its colour, then by its clarity and carat weight, and finally by its geographic origin.
Gemstones are surprising and stunning optical spectacles, capable of shifting in colour and iridescence based on one’s mood. Of all gemstones, the mighty ruby maintains the best fluorescent, vividly changing colour under different lights.
When looking at sapphire, it’s difficult to resist being transfixed by the brilliant depth of celestial colour, and it is equally plain to see why ancient civilisations believed in its metaphysical healing properties. Known throughout history as a stone of wisdom and nobility, the sapphire’s sheer strength and symbolism have held it in high esteem, with notable mentions in one of the most sacred texts – the Bible.
In Biblical representations of sapphires, the gemstone represents the Lord’s divine nature and is often described as lining the path of his feet. It was sapphire that was inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and remained unbreakable, smashing the hammer that tried to strike it.
While the beautiful blue and violet hued sapphires from Kashmir and Myanmar tend to fetch the highest prices, the array of colours, from the stunning pink and purple varieties found in Sri Lanka, to the lime and earthy green tones famously mined in the US state of Montana, make the sapphire renowned for its diversity in colour and geographical origin. When it comes to value, the shade and depth of colour contribute heavily, followed by clarity, cut and size.
In recent times, sapphires have become known for their practical uses, due in large part to their unique hardness -- sapphires and their sister, the ruby, are only second to the diamond in terms of durability. Being exceptionally resistant to scratching and abrasion, as well as having an extremely high melting temperature, they have become an ideal material for many applications, from smartphones to the window in barcode scanners.
Like the aforementioned gemstones, emeralds enjoy a rich role in history and in turn contain an enchanting history all its own. The most valuable variety of the mineral beryl, emeralds have been cherished by Egyptian royalty, Incan kings, the dynastic rulers of the Mughal Empire and the ancient Greeks.
Perhaps no civilisation loved this gem more than the early Egyptians, who associated the colour green with fertile land and eternal life. While gem experts today may regard Egyptian emeralds of the 15th and 20th century in a different light, these stones were coveted in antiquity far and wide across the Mediterranean, India, and the Near East.
In truth, many of the emeralds excavated during antiquity turned out to be green beryl, or if they were true emeralds, tended to be generally inferior in colour and clarity. Emeralds are notoriously fragile with a tendency to have multiple inclusions and surface-breaking fissures, which not only make the cutting process challenging but also create immense demand for eye-clean stones or lacking visible inclusions.
Mining in Egypt waned as discoveries in Colombia became apparent. Colombian emeralds were held in high esteem throughout Central and South Americas, by ancient indigenous cultures from the Incas and the Toltecs to the Mayans. While Colombia remains the world’s greatest source of emeralds, Zambia has risen to become the world’s second largest producer, marked by consistent quality and quantity.
In Asia, the significance of the jade tradition significance is evident to the present day. For centuries, the charismatic allure of jade has inspired mythologies, aesthetics, and art for imperials dynasties, most notably in China where the ancient relationship between the gem and history are intrinsically linked.
While the term ‘jade’ is often used interchangeably, nephrite and jadeite are deserving of their own distinctions, having different mineral compositions and colours. In fact, only trained experts with considerable experience would be able to distinguish the difference between the two minerals, which is why the two terms have become nearly synonymous over the years despite their significant scientific and physical differences.
While French mineralogist Alexis Damour was credited with having discovered in 1863 that jade actually describes two distinct minerals, Chinese craftsmen had long before recognised and understood the distinction without formally determining this through chemistry and science.
If jade has been cherished for a millennia, jadeite remains its highest form factor, unsurpassed in colour and aesthetics. Unlike other gemstones, jadeite doesn’t merely sparkle or glitter; it glows. In Asia, specifically, its appeal has never waned, but it is also interesting to note its high value in Central America, among the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, and in New Zealand within indigenous societies.
Despite China’s long-recorded love affair with the gem, jadeite is native to Myanmar, where it was introduced to Imperial China in the late 1700s. Still to this day, Myanmar remains the only place on earth capable of producing high quality jadeite, unrivaled by any other locale despite it being sourced in Guatemala, Russia, Turkey, California, Mexico, Japan and New Zealand.
While these opulent gems easily set record prices for their craftsmanship, rarity and innate beauty, it is their otherworldly properties that remain their most priceless aspect yet.