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History & Usage of Rubies

The Middle Ages

The History Of Rubies In The Middle Ages

gold ruby diamond mosell necklace
A gold, ruby, and diamond mosell necklace from circa 1600.

During the Middle Ages, rubies were thought to insure victory in all conflicts, including lawsuits and war.  Other properties attributed to rubies included protection from lightning, tempests, worms, sadness, and jealousy.  Rubies signaled peril by turning black, and regained their original color once danger had passed. Sorcerers and magicians used ruby amulets for protection, without which they ran the risk of being attacked by evil spirits.

Rubies & Cultures In The Middle Ages

It is believed through legend that the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan, who ruled the Mongol Empire from 1260-1294, offered an entire city in exchange for a sizeable ruby of exceptional quality. And Marco Polo, famed explorer who often had interactions with Kublai Khan, observed the ruby mining in Ceylon during his travels, often describing how the mines looked and the methods for mining in his writings.

kublai khan china conquest
The Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan depicted during his conquest of China.

French explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was quite familiar with rubies being the leading gem merchant of the 17th century. He made a total of six voyages to India in his lifetime, each visit lasting at least three years in duration. Writing on his observations during this period, Tavernier has detailed remarks about the trade in precious stones as existed at court, with rubies being the most prized, extravagant, and lengthiest to bargain for, with some negotiations often stretching on for months.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier Nicolas de Largilliere 1679
A portrait of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier painted by Nicolas de Largillière, 1679.

Tavernier was often searching for rubies to present for purchase to his royal client, King Louis XIV, for which the king would pay directly in gold. European royalty of the Middle Ages coveted the fiery gemstone and paid extremely well for exceptional stones.

Tavernier wrote of caves in Burma where the finest rubies were found, describing one specific mine as having “produced a ruby as large as a walnut” and often alongside the bones of large animals of a prehistoric nature.

During this time, interest in rubies grew heavily throughout Europe as trade routes established with the east presented the opportunity to bring back stones with every voyage. However, the nature of rubies at this time was also such that they were often confused with garnet, spinel, and other red semi-precious stones. So it is not uncommon for some fairly famous rubies to have been discovered to not be rubies at all. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the Black Prince’s Ruby, set in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.

Holbein Henry VIII of England
A portrait of King Henry VIII in a selection of his elaborate jewels by Holbein.

Rubies at court during the Renaissance were highly prevalent and often present in some of the most famous pieces of jewelry from the era. Famously, King Henry VIII wears a substantial necklace set with rubies and pearls in his most well-known portrait of the era.

The appeal of rubies was only growing stronger, and with the greater movement of goods along trade routes, the history of the ruby exploded on the scene even more in the coming years. We explore that next in Rubies in Modern History.

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