July’s birthstone, the fiery ruby, is named from the Latin word “ruber” meaning red. Exceeded only by the diamond in hardness, it’s a form of the mineral corundum, and therefore the sister gem of sapphires. While most corundums are blue, only the red kind earn the title of ruby, rarest of gems. Their vivid color comes from trace amounts of chromium – but that’s a mediocre explanation for a stone that has inspired centuries of fascination.
Photo: The “Carmen Lucia Ruby” is one of the finest and largest rubies known to man, at just over 23 carats (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)
Perhaps the most brilliant of gemstones, its luminous color spawned legends of gods and kings who lit their palaces with enormous rubies. Above all, rubies symbolize passion, and they were once the most popular wedding gem. They are believed to promote good circulation, stop bleeding, protect the heart and promote vitality; warn against trouble by darkening in color; and win the wearer devoted love.
Most rubies come from South & East Asia. In these regions, it is widely believed that sapphires are “unripe” rubies, and if planted underground, they will turn red. Strangely enough, large deposits of rubies have been discovered under Greenland’s receding ice shelf – as if the fiery gemstone itself is melting the glacier from beneath!
GIA (Gemological Institute of America) – Fascinating & authoritative mini-site about the rarest precious gem
Despite their durability, nearly all rubies are given brief heat treatments to enhance their quality, since they contain many small inclusions. On rare occasions, these imperfections align in such a way that they create spectacular light effects within the gem.
If you are the privileged owner of a piece of ruby jewelry, count yourself lucky – they’re not only a rare and striking treasure, but easy to care for. As with all precious gems, avoid sharp blows and store in a safe place away from extremes. Remember that rubies can scratch other softer gems. Clean ruby jewelry periodically with gentle soapy water to keep it at its brilliant best.
Recently, growing controversy over lead-filled rubies has taken center stage among consumers. In this form of enhancement, superheated lead-based filler is forced into a ruby’s internal crevices, cooling to a glass-like substance that boosts clarity above and beyond the ordinary heat polishing. The result is a much more fragile state than the usually durable red corundum. This can prove disastrous when information about this kind of treatment is not properly disclosed, and the owner (or bench jeweler) unwittingly subjects the gem to routine maintenance that can cause it to shatter.
A trained jewelry can determine whether your ruby has been enhanced by fracture-filling. These will require much more delicate handling, similar to many softer gemstones. Because fracture-filled rubies are natural rubies, they are sold as genuine stones and even set in estate jewelery, but often the documentation about their treatment gets lost along the way. When buying a ruby it’s important to ask about its condition, and if possible have it examined or appraised by a GIA qualified jeweler. Ideally, this is the best source to buy a precious gem, because a certified retailer will have the expertise and credentials to ensure the finest quality for the price and 100% disclosure backed by the highest industry standards.