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History & Usage of Rubies

Antiquity

The History Of Rubies In Antiquity

antique pearl ruby earrings
A pair of antique pearl and ruby earrings set in gold.

The entire history of rubies is one rich in mystery, passion, and splendor. The precious gemstone is mentioned eight times in the Bible and as one of the twelve precious stones created by God, has been coveted by royalty, explorers, warriors, and collectors, and have long been considered a source of power, acting as a talisman of wisdom and health for the wearer. Today, rubies command the highest price per carat of any colored gemstone.

Ancient Cultures & Rubies

As early as 2500 B.C., rubies were first discovered in the Mogok region of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. At the mining site at Mogok, Stone Age tools have been discovered, serving as links to the antiquity of the location. As stones were mined in ancient times, the largest of the rubies were to be taken directly to the ruler of Burma, becoming his property.

terra cotta miners
A depiction of miners shown in an antique terra cotta piece of art.

In the ancient Sanskrit language, ruby is called ratnaraj, the “king of precious stones.” Early cultures treasured rubies for their deep red hue mimicking the redness of blood, and believed that rubies held the power of life and represented the strongest of emotions at both sides of the spectrum: love and fury, ardor and rage.

In many ancient Asian cultures, the ruby was a stone that worked almost as a good luck token, warning the wearer of evil when it showed a blackish spot, and indicating that evil had passed when the spot cleared. The Chinese would present dear friends with a ruby as a sign of sincerest friendship

pliny the elder natural history
The title page of “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder.

In the first century AD, Roman scholar Pliny wrote about rubies in his classic tome Natural History, remarking on their hardness and density. In his writings, he describes the color of a ruby as being a “gentle fire” with a brilliant luster .

Hindus divided rubies into four castes, much like the social caste system, based on beauty and flawlessness of the stone. Rubies considered to be of inferior quality were not allowed to intermingle with a superior stone because it was believed the sub-par ruby would contaminate the better one, diminishing its powers of strength and protection. A true Oriental ruby was called a Brahmin, and those in possession of a Brahmin were believed to always be shrouded in perfect safety.

natural ruby gemstone
A natural ruby gemstone with deep red hue that could often be confused for garnet or red spinel in antiquity.

Ancients prized the ruby gemstone so highly, believing its virtue surpassed all other stones, that it was given a value greater than that of a diamond. But historically, it was often a confusing task to accurately identify a ruby as suitable instruments, like a microscope or spectroscope, didn’t come along until much later. So ancient “rubies” are sometimes discovered to be garnet or red spinel.

Charles William King, the British Victorian writer and collector of gems, spent much of his life in Italy during the mid-1800s learning of engraved gems and gemstones, and is seen as an authority from the period. In one of his seminal pieces The Natural History, Ancient and Modern, of Precious Stones and Gems, and of The Precious Metals from 1865, he writes:

“True rubies, and of good colour, uncut but with their natural surface rudely polished, occur both inserted into pieces of antique jewelry, and set in rings dating from the earliest times.”

The appeal of rubies was widespread and since the era didn’t have the methods to alter or treat the stone, authentic and natural rubies were quite a special find. As history progressed, rubies continued to hold a very special allure, and we explore that next in Rubies in The Middle Ages.

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