Romancing the Stones: Rubies, Sapphires and Emeralds

Romancing the Stones: Rubies, Sapphires and Emeralds


F rom Colombia to Sri Lanka and India to Myanmar, the world’s finest colored gemstones have been brought together for Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels sale on 7 October in Hong Kong. The vibrant colors of gemstones such as rubies, sapphires and emeralds, sometimes referred to as “The Big Three,” have entranced collectors with their beauty through the ages. Often considered together in a similar category of cardinal gems, these stones are emblematic of royalty, nobility, and celebrity, each expressing power and romance in different ways. Read ahead to discover the natural beauty of these rare and lively jewels.


In ancient times rubies were worn by warriors for protection and by rulers to signify their majesty and wealth. Today it remains one of the most sought-after colored gemstones at a time when color dominates the world of jewels and rarity drives the market. Some of the world’s most prized rubies have been collected by the nobility and celebrities alike.

Believed to hold the power of life, rubies owe its red color to the presence of the element chromium. A variety of the mineral corundum, the ruby’s chemical properties are identical to sapphires except in color. The most highly prized is referred to as “pigeon’s blood,” describing a particular quality of vivid bright red and a term originating in Myanmar, which also happens to be the source of some of the finest rubies in the world from as far back as 600 AD. In 2015, Sotheby’s achieved a world record price for the Sunrise Ruby, a cushion-shaped Burmese ruby weighing 25.59 carats, mounted by Cartier.

Less than 10% of all gem-quality rubies are unheated, making them rare and impressive. Darker rubies are more common and are often heated to enhance their shade, but unheated rubies are naturally intense and vibrant. In particular, rubies from Burma react to ultraviolet light which creates a fire and natural glow in the stone in sunlight. This is one of the reasons Burmese rubies are so highly valued.

Because of its hardness on the Mohs scale, rubies are the perfect gemstone to be cut into different shapes and sizes and then crafted into a piece of jewelry. Some rubies have inclusions which can cause the phenomenon of asterism, and these unheated rubies are usually cut en cabochon to show a “star.” Even less often they can be chatoyant, displaying a “cat’s eye” effect.

This cushion-shaped ruby ring weighs 6.41 carats, in a design by Forms, surrounded French-cut diamonds, with the band and gallery decorated with brilliant-cut diamonds. Possessed of the prized “pigeon blood” color the stone's vivid color is from Mogok valley, according to Swiss Foundation for the Research of Gemstones (SSEF) designation, and has no indications of heating nor clarity enhancement; the ruby is a stone of singular rarity and beauty. Its origin is classified as Classic™ Burma, according to the AGL report, and the ruby is highly saturated red – a hue that is evenly distribution throughout, with superb clarity. The gem is an art piece that is both wearable and collectible, coming from an important collection.


Sapphire is the regal sister of ruby. Typically sapphire is blue, but it does occur in a rainbow of colors such as pink, green, yellow, purple and orange. Rich in color, superb in quality and perfect alone or paired with virtually any gem, sapphires have universal appeal. Arguably the most famous such stone may be Kate Middleton's and Princess Diana's engagement ring. Sotheby’s has sold some of the world’s most jaw-dropping sapphires, including highly coveted “royal blue” rarities as well as pinkish-orange varieties known as padparadscha sapphires.

Sapphires were first discovered in Kashmir in the late 19th century, while Myanmar has been producing sapphires for over 1,000 years. Myanmar has several important locations that produce sapphires, the most famous being the Mogok Stone Tract which has a rich history of production dating back several hundred years. Current mining is severely limited, making sapphires from Myanmar rare. Kashmir sapphires have acquired an almost legendary status, due to both their unique color and texture, and their extreme rarity. In the early 1880s sapphires were discovered in a remote valley in the Kashmir region of India, and the mine operated for just five years between 1882 and 1887, resulting from the depletion of the supply. This limited production has resulted in only a small fraction of the world’s total sapphire supply originating from Kashmir. But Sri Lanka has perhaps the longest history of sapphires. Once known as Ratna-Dweepa or “Gem Island,” Sri Lanka was recorded to have these precious stones as far back as the 2nd century and trading history dates

But what exactly is it that makes blue sapphires from Kashmir, Myanmar and Sri Lanka superior to sapphires from any other location? Visually, their color saturation possesses the highest concentration of blue color possible, setting them apart from any other blue gem in the world. They are quite simply, are the highest quality of sapphire one can find on earth.

Other types of rare sapphires of pinkish-orange hue may be called padparadscha, from the Sanskrit word that refers to the color of the sacred lotus blossom. Padparadscha sapphires are majestic and the rarest of the sapphire group.

This extraordinary pendant is set with a cushion-shaped sapphire weighing 118.88 carats, within a surround of pear-shaped diamonds weighing 16.06 carats in total. Originating from Mogok mine in Burma, the gem possesses a homogeneous and richly saturated “royal blue” color with no indications of thermal treatment. “A natural sapphire from Burma of this size and quality is extremely rare and thus can be considered a true treasure of nature,” according to an SSEF Premium appendix letter, which describes the stone’s impressive size, purity, and well-saturated blue color. This clarity is rare for a sapphire of this size. It is also worth noting that the carat weight of 118.88 has digits that are 8 or 18, numbers that have cultural associations with prosperity in Chinese.


Green is a color that brims with promise. It heralds the coming of spring, regeneration and new growth. “The most abundant hue in nature, the human eye sees more green than any other color in the spectrum,” according to Leatrice Eiseman of the Pantone Color Institute. The color, she says, “brings a sense of clarity, renewal and rejuvenation, which is so important in today's complex world.”

Once Cleopatra’s alleged favorite gemstone, the glamorous emerald continues to impress everyone from royals to the red carpet’s best dressed. Beloved for their rich, exotic color, emeralds are a bluish-green variety of the mineral beryl. When chromium, vanadium and iron are present in beryl, emeralds form, and the varying presence of these three elements results in a range of colors. If the stone’s hue is too yellow or blue, it is not an emerald but rather a variety of beryl, which makes highly transparent and vividly saturated green emeralds extremely valuable and coveted.

Colombia is today's largest supplier of emeralds, responsible for more than 60 percent of world production. Other sources include Brazil, Zambia and Zimbabwe, while historically emeralds were also mined in Egypt and India.

Emeralds typically have inclusions of fissures that may be visible to the unaided eye. Stones without eye-visible inclusions are thus rare and highly valuable. Due to the included nature of emeralds, many are treated with oil or polymers to improve their clarity. Such treatment might decrease value, and untreated “no oil” emeralds would be deemed relatively of higher value, as it means that the gemstones naturally have no surface fractures.

In a classic and elegant design, this magnificent emerald and diamond parure comprises a necklace set with graduated step-cut emeralds in total, decorated with pear-shaped and brilliant-cut diamonds, a pair of pendent earrings, emeralds weighing 10.30 carats in total, and two rings en suite, weighing 21.03 carats emeralds weighing 12.49 and 4.04 carats respectively. The emeralds are well matched in color and clarity, ranging from 4.83 to 1.13 carats, Colombian in origin and with no indications of clarity enhancement, attests nine Gübelin reports and five SSEF reports. The color of six emeralds are formally described as "Muzo Green" and commonly known in the trade as "old mine" emeralds.

Jewelry Hong Kong Autumn Auctions

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