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Modern History

Modern History of Rubies

natural untreated mozambique cushion ruby ring
A natural, untreated cushion cut ruby engagement ring in a vintage-style setting.

As the allure and appeal of rubies entered the modern age, they experienced a rapid increase in how they were coveted and collected. When nations were conquered, rubies and other precious gemstones were targeted in the spoils of war. And as countries developed the means of harvesting their mineral resources, mining operations ramped up to bring more rubies to market.

At the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), alchemists, lapidaries , and artists were everywhere and held considerable influence with the ruler.  Although Rudolf II was not a good leader, he was known to be a decent painter and lapidary.  He was also a known hypochondriac who assembled a team of traditional and non-traditional healers to counsel him on the powers of gemstones.  One of the hallmark pieces of his extensive collection of gemstones included a ruby the size of a hen’s egg.

portrait emperor Rufolf II
Portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II by Hans van Aachen.

Royals of every country coveted rubies as the centerpiece in crowns, tiaras, and parures of exceptional beauty and quality. As the ruby mines in Mogok continued to produce greater quantities of rubies, they flooded the European market and appeared in some of the most impressive jewelry pieces of the modern era.

From Danish ruby parures that are historically considered some of the most beautiful pieces of ruby jewelry to Russian royal jewelry that made its way into the British Crown Jewels, the royal fascination with rubies exudes love. The British Royal family often celebrates weddings and engagements with colored stones.  Princess Margaret received a flower-shaped ruby and diamond ring as an engagement ring in 1960.  Twenty-five years later, Sarah Ferguson received a similar token on her engagement to Prince Andrew.

queen elizabeth ruby necklace
An official portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing an exceptional ruby necklace. With her husband, Prince Albert.

Queen Elizabeth inherited some of her favorite ruby pieces including a tiara with a floral design, a cluster and drop necklace, a pair of pendant earrings, and four fabulous brooches.  Several of these pieces were originally set with opals. In the late 19th century, when Queen Alexandra received them from her Mother-in-law Queen Victoria, she had them reset with fabulous Burmese rubies because she, like many in her day, believed that opals brought bad luck.  

The appeal of vintage ruby jewelry pieces is one of the strongest for all precious gemstones. Augusto Castellani, a famed Italian jeweler coming from a long line of esteemed jewelers including his father Fortunato Pio Castellani, wrote of rubies in his text Gems: Notes and Extracts in 1871 that:

The gem most prized next to the diamond is the ruby. The splendour of its tints, sometimes purely red, at other times violet, pink, or purple, makes it the most beautiful colored gem in nature.

The Castellani family designed jewelry that was inspired by medieval and ancient pieces. Drawing on those techniques, Augusto Castellani was commissioned by British Lord Layard in 1870 to create a wedding bracelet for his wife featuring 20k Italian gold and ruby red enameled mosaic with the Latin saying:

NON RELINQUAM means “I will never give up on you.” 

NON RELINQUES means “You will never give up on me.”

Castellani made only three of these bracelets: the second for Gwendolyn Talbot, Princesse Borghese, and the third was commissioned for Princesse de Bogali of Milan by her husband. The Princesse de Bogali had died thirteen years prior to the creation of the bracelet, and legend has it that the prince paid Castellani three times the value of the bracelet to never make another, the final bracelet serving as a tribute to the timeless love he felt for his wife. The Borghese bracelet appeared at auction in 1983 where it was purchased by Jacqueline Kennedy for $170,000.

castellani love bracelet
A Castellani love bracelet pictured with a custom pendant at auction. Photo credit: Sotheby’s.

Aside from jewelry, rubies have been the source of breakthroughs in science and engineering. Rubies excel at transmitting light from one location to another with minimal loss of energy. This trait makes them the perfect choice for the primary components in precision lasers. Their bright red hue also makes them ideal for solid-state lasers since they’re visible to the human eye.

Rubies have also become essential components for modern watchmaking. Since rubies are smoother than most metals, they result in less friction when bearings move or rotate within the device. The most common application for jewel bearings is in the moving parts of mechanical watches.

rubies mechanical watch movement
A close-up of rubies used as bearings in a mechanical watch for standard movement.

Today, people all over the world love rubies. Exceptional rubies often surpass diamonds in per-carat price, and hold the auction record for a per-carat price for a colored gemstone.  Modern ruby supply supporting the bulk of the world’s gemstones stems from Madagascar and Mozambique as African countries elevate their mining techniques

The beauty, durability, and rarity of rubies makes them perfect for all kinds of jewelry. Throughout the ages and into the modern and contemporary eras, rubies have served as the centerpiece for many breathtaking pieces of jewelry. Special rubies have made their mark as heirloom pieces, and we explore many of these works of art elsewhere on the site.

Across all centuries, rubies have appeared in many memorable and standout pieces of jewelry, or as a singular ruby on their own. Discover the fascinating stories behind them next with Famous Rubies.

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