Ruby is a variety of a mineral called corundum, and the name ruby is applied to red, purplish-red, brownish-red and deep pinkish-red corundum stones. If the stones are any other colour - including pink - they are referred to as sapphires. Ruby is a tough and valuable stone that is found primarily in Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Vietnam. It's found in other locations too - like Madagascar, Australia and USA - but not in the same quantities.
Historically ruby has remained a very important stone, though pretty much all red stones were considered rubies in days past - this included spinel and garnet. In fact, the 'Black Prince's Ruby', set in the UK's imperial state crown, is actually a spinel. It wasn't until 1783 that it was realised that ruby and spinel were chemically distinct. Today, we have a relatively easy way of telling the two stones apart with the use of a piece of kit called a polariscope. Ruby and spinel handle the light that passes through them differently, and these differences can be seen using the polariscope.
There are many treatments that may be applied to modern rubies, with the obvious one being heat treatment, something which the vast majority of commercial rubies nowadays are subject to. However, heating rubies to improve their colour is a treatment that's been applied for centuries, it is not a new invention. It's wise to assume that any ruby you are buying is heat treated, unless you have a laboratory report stating otherwise.
Now let's get into the important stuff! Famous antique ruby jewels.
Antique & Vintage Ruby Rings
Ruby's are popular stones in rings because they are tough. Diamond has a hardness of 10 on the MOHs scale, and ruby has a hardness of 9. So when it comes to everyday wear, they are the next best thing. Fine rubies, of course, can be just as expensive as diamonds. For example, the 23.10 carat Carmen Lúcia Ruby, mined in Burma in the 1930s - and now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC - was likely (we say likely the price as never formally disclosed), purchased for upwards of $20 million in 2004.
Carmen Lúcia Ruby
The next ring to mention is not antique, but it is vintage! And of course it had to belong the biggest jewellery fanatic of them all: Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor's husband, Richard Burton, gave her a Burmese ruby ring in 1968, in her Christmas stocking. The ruby was set in a gold band and surrounded by a cluster of diamonds, and the piece was a Van Cleef & Arpels creation. The 8.24 carat ruby was, according to Taylor, the most perfect coloured stone she'd ever seen. And in fact this stone had not been heat treated and is a very valuable stone indeed. The ring was auctioned off at Christie's in 2011, reaching a staggering $4,226,500.
Elizabeth Taylor and her ruby diamond cluster ring.
Antique Ruby Pendant Necklaces
On to another Elizabeth now, but this one is not a Taylor. Queen Elizabeth II owns a plethora of fine antique ruby jewellery - a perk of being a queen. But our favourite pieces of ruby jewellery in her collection of antiques are undoubtedly her ruby pendant necklaces.
The necklace show below is known as the Baring Necklace, and it was commissioned by the Queen in the 1960s when it became clear that the Queen Mother wasn't going to give up the antique ruby necklaces in the royal collection very easily!
And below the Queen Mother in the early 1970s, stepping out in the Crown Ruby Necklace, a piece of jewellery that Prince Albert had made for Queen Victoria. Originally set with opals, the necklace was altered by Queen Consort Alexandra at the beginning of the 20th century, who replaced the opals with fine rubies.
Antique Ruby Bangles
Rubies look particularly pleasing set in gold wristwear, whether that's in geometric Art Deco bracelets or a colourful Edwardian bangle. Snake jewellery was popular during the Victorian era, and there was definite trend for using rubies as the snake's eyes. The example below was sold by Christie's in 2003 for $6500. Gold, blue enamel, white diamonds and red rubies - the perfect piece!