T he ancient king of gems is once again enjoying a sensational rise to power thanks to today’s cult of connoisseurship. The ruby has become the most sought-after coloured gemstone at a time when colour dominates the world of jewels and rarity drives the market.
What makes the ruby so exceptional is not only the limited supply of unheated specimens, but also the stone’s associations with regal splendour and its blazing colour: that of passion, and of luck in Asia.
This spring particularly, after vibrant colour raged at Paris Couture, and as a contemporary classicism shapes high jewellery collections, the majestic ruby is again ready to radiate.
For centuries, the most desirable rubies of extraordinary hue have come from the heritage mines of Mogok, in Myanmar, the main source of rubies in the world. Enveloped in myth and mystique, legend imbued the ruby with supernatural properties, linked to peace, power, leadership and invincibility: Burmese warriors wore them into battle, sometimes embedded in the skin.
The biggest stones were the prerogative of the ruler, yet rubies were traded along the Silk Road, and later by merchant-adventurers such as Tavernier and Edwin Streeter, to take their place in noble collections, including those of Catherine the Great, Empress Josephine, Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie.
In the 20th century, the ruby was a statement of seductive femininity, and a badge of honour for socialites such as Mona Bismarck and the Duchess of Windsor, and Hollywood royalty Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of Burmese rubies, Parisian master jewellers lavished their designs with the stones. The ruby was, by all accounts, Jacques Arpels’s favourite gem. And it is the favourite too of David Bennett, Sotheby’s worldwide chairman, jewellery. He has sold the most important rubies of modern times, namely the Roxburghe necklace in 2009, the Graff ruby in November 2014, which at 8.62 carats fetched nearly $1m per carat, and then the following year, the superlative 25.59-carat Sunrise ruby, which set a world record of just over $30m.
Instability in Myanmar, coupled with Western sanctions, meant that rubies from the area were inaccessible and unavailable for a period, and until recently, Thailand and Cambodia were the main sources. The lifting of sanctions, together with the discovery of rubies of fine quality and colour in Mozambique, has rekindled the age-old desire for these jewels. Today, Bennett reaffirms his belief that “a top-quality, unheated gem ruby of more than 10 carats is the holy grail of coloured stones”.
It’s clear that the almost indescribable, emotive beauty of the perfect ruby colour generates a primitive, visceral response.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of the Financial Times’s How to Spend It