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Ruby Jewelry Through the Ages

The History Of Ruby Jewelry

Items made with precious materials has been part of fashion since jewelry first appeared. The inherent rarity and beauty conferred status and value to its owners.  The catalog of historical jewelry periods and styles below will provide an idea of how rubies have been cherished and worn throughout history.

ruby diamond flower ring
An antique-style ruby and diamond flower ring.

The History Of Antique Jewelry

Antique jewelry is by definition created more than 100 years ago. Vintage is defined as being around 20 -100 years old. Fine antique ruby jewelry is quite scarce and valuable, with various designs and selected gems that often serve to date the appearance. Many of the greatest ruby jewels live in museums, vaults, and national collections.  If a quality and/or famous antique ruby does come on the market, it commands high prices. The most impressive prices are commanded by large untreated, rubies, and ones with unusual or star-studded history. Auction houses like the famed Sotheby’s and Christies often sell the most impressive pieces, potentially multiple times over the long history of these gems.

Classical Greek and Roman Jewelry

Roman mosaic jewelry
An ancient mosaic from Pompeii illustrates Roman jewelry fashions around the 1st century C.E.

Rubies are known in classical Greece and Rome for attributions of healing, talismanic, and astrological powers to their gemstones.  Much of the jewelry of antiquity is characterized by the extensive use of engraved seals and gemstones. Cleopatra was known for engraving emerald tokens with her likeness for foreign dignitaries.

Authentic jewelry from this period is exceptionally rare and untreated. It is mostly found in museums, but from these examples we know that classical artisans were very fine metalsmiths and carvers.  Ancient goldsmiths practiced the art of granulation, a precise technique that decorates surfaces with small gold beads. Granulation is most often associated with the Etruscans, a civilization who occupied northern and central Italy before the rise of Rome.  They learned the technique from the Phoenicians, who in turn carried it from Egypt, but it was the Etruscans who perfected the art.

Renewed interest in classical themes and motifs was the focus of the Renaissance.  A more recent trend in modern jewelry is the increasing demand for classically styled jewelry. This has brought on the production of contemporary granulation-based ruby settings, and modern goldsmiths are happily indulging this ancient art.

renaissance ruby ring
An example of a late Renaissance ruby ring with details on the band.

Jewelry In The European Middle Ages

The Roman legacy in Europe continued in the Early Middle Ages through techniques such as filigree gold, cloisonné work and the use of cabochon gems. The jewelry of this period was primarily associated with clothing adornment and it included clasps, brooches, belt buckles, and buttons.  Intricate techniques for cameos and intaglios were inherited directly from the Romans, who also used these techniques a great deal in jewelry.

By the High Middle Ages, precious stones had become more widely available in many important European cities that traded with the East, and the gem and jewelry industry was becoming increasingly regulated.

antique ruby brooch
An antique ruby brooch featuring the preferred cabochon gemstone in the center.

In the early 1300s, laws began to be passed that would start to prohibit certain practices in jewelry-making.  Paste gems were outlawed in France, and later, jewelers were forbidden to put tinted foil under gemstones to improve their color. Up to this point, certain laws mandated that precious gems be reserved only for the clergy or aristocracy, but the general use of jewelry and the amount worn continued to increase throughout the period.

In 1363, Edward III of England’s statute de victu et vestitu set about establishing who within the realm was allowed to wear jewelry of precious metals and gemstones.  Only merchants, owners of land and their families were allowed to wear clothes and headdresses adorned with silver and precious stones.

Anne Beaujeu jewelry headdress
Anne de Beaujeu, detail from the triptych of the Maître de Moulins (c. 1498).

Court jewelry was where ostentation and colorful gemstones flourished. Crowns, hats, and other head ornaments were encrusted with fine stones, including rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, and diamonds.  Men wore jewel-encrusted clothes, necklaces, and belts.  In the late 14th century, women’s hair was held in place with overly jeweled gold hairnets. A variety of brooches and badges were worn on dresses with low necklines that were themselves embroidered with silk and hand-sewn with jewels.

The most widely used type of jewelry was the ring. While used for many different purposes, the ring was also imbued with many meanings. Of high symbolic value, a ring could be a talisman, a good omen, a sign of a certain level of office, and used as a seal all at once.

Jewelry of the Indian Subcontinent

ruby emerald mughal jewelry
A highly detailed piece of Mughal jewelry featuring emeralds and rubies.

The ancient civilizations of the Indian subcontinent were fascinated by gemstones as evidenced from the earliest records of the period.  Ancient texts contain references for the use of rubies in ceremony and everyday life.

Although indigenous Indian cultures had strong jewelry traditions of their own, the most recognized and collectible of all antique Indian jewelry styles was developed by foreign conquerors called the Mughals.

During the Mughal period, from 1526 to 1761, the Muslim imperial courts that dominated northern India were packed with maja rajas wearing jewelry on every conceivable piece of clothing, in between teeth, and even in their nostrils.  Mughal jewelry mixes colored stones and diamonds in elaborate, abstract ways, favoring the colors red, green, and white, so rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls were seen most often in these pieces.  Precious stones were set alongside intricate and colorful enamel work , and  complex gold settings were created in a uniquely Indian style called the kundan technique.

mughal bracelet rubies
Gorgeous bracelets inlaid with gemstones would be worn by men and women in the Mughal empire.

In the Mughal period, men wore just as much jewelry as women.  All types of jewelry were created: rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, as well as sword hilts, scabbards, aigrettes as turban ornaments, brow pendants, anklets, and nose rings.  Even furniture and palace interiors were adorned with precious gems.  The great production center for Mughal jewelry was the beautiful “Pink City” of Jaïpur in Rajasthan, which to this day remains a major hub for traditional Indian jewelry manufacturing.

Much of modern Indian jewelry is made in imitation of the Mughal style, which has grown in popularity outside of India.  India itself has a flourishing indigenous jewelry market, and a large percentage of a family’s accumulated wealth is based in the gold ornaments of its women.  Today, rubies are used extensively in Indian jewelry designs.

Jewelry Of The European Renaissance

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

The European Renaissance was a period of growth in all aspects of artistic expression. Metal smithing and stone cutting in Europe made great strides and jewelry ownership began to spread beyond the aristocracy and clergy.  Although Henry VIII wore as many gems and jewels as his wives did, this period began to mark our more modern understanding of wearing jewelry.  Women’s adornment became far more elaborate than men’s, although the men still wore heavily embroidered clothes.

Renaissance jewelry found inspiration in classical motifs found in sculptures: nymphs, centaurs, griffins, satyrs and other classical subjects.  Heavy gold chains and collars were quite popular, especially among women, and elaborate pendants gradually overtook the traditional brooch.

Rubies flowed to Europe through India.  In turn, practically all of India’s rubies came from the fabled mines of Sri Lanka. Famously, the explorer Marco Polo had many references in his journals to outstanding rubies he had seen during his travels.

renaissance jewelry ruby merman
A highly stylized piece of Renaissance jewelry depicting a merman and inlaid with many fantastic jewels.

The Renaissance saw an enormous increase in the use of jewelry with the courts of England, France, Spain, and Italy where everyone would try to outdo the other in extravagance.  Nobility and the rich middle class followed closely behind in the taste for jewels and the brightly colored stones of rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. This period features jewelry at its excess. For the families that could afford it, even their youngest children would be adorned in jewelry. And women of the higher ranks would usually wear at least three necklaces, multiple rings on each hand, and a bejeweled head ornament. Queen Elizabeth is known for her layering of multiple strands of necklaces, wearing fabulously jewel-adorned clothes, and massive crowns.

Jewelry Of The 17th and 18th Century

Around the first quarter of the 17th century, a Baroque period was emerging throughout Europe that featured improvements in the cutting of precious stones and an enhanced interest in flower cultivation. In particular the Baroque style focuses on movement, elongated figures, and relatively less detailed styles. Fashions began to emphasize soft, flowing draperies and simpler jewels to match.

ruby pendant with venus in gold
A 16th century gold and gemstone pendant featuring Venus in carved relief.

By the 18th century, brilliant stone cuts (the precursor to the round brilliant) had been invented by Vicenzo Peruzzi.  Figurative decoration completely disappeared to be replaced by ornamental motifs of ribbons, knots, and scrolls. Gold jewelry was the highlight for this type of work, often being colored with enamel. With Peruzzi’s new stone cuts creating beautiful new faceting techniques, precious stones were being coveted at an entirely new level.

The nationalistic tendencies of the early 19th century led to an eclectic array of styles represented in jewelry of the day. Inspiration from past styles all mingled with an emerging romanticism that was being expressed in paintings of the time by noted artists like Jacques-Louis David.

Jewelry Of The Victorian Era

The Victorian era can be broken into three distinct eras:  the Early Victorian or Romantic period (1837-1860), the Mid Victorian or Grand period (1860-1885), and the Late Victorian or Aesthetic period (1885-1901).

queen victoria portrait 1847
A portrait of Queen Victoria from 1847. Notice her jewels featuring extensive, draped pearls and large gemstones.

In the early 19th century, the ideal woman was envisioned as a decorative showpiece, the vessel on which the wealth and prosperity of the family was prominently displayed.  Jewelry had come to be regarded as an essential component of the dress of the middle and upper classes.  Among those classes, it was traditional for the groom to present the bride with a casket of jewels, called a corbeille, as part of the marriage agreement.  The corbeille of the extremely rich and famous were detailed in ladies’ fashion magazines, which were scoured for information on what was new and socially acceptable.

A demand for superior craftsmanship emerged along with a taste for the exotic, brought on through contact with the cultures of the British colonies.  During Queen Victoria’s long reign, jewelry featured intricate metalwork; fabulous stones; and Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern motifs.

In the Early Victorian or Romantic period, the inspiration for jewelry derived from nature.  Delicate motifs and themes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were very popular once again. Bracelets were a popular item, and stacking many on each arm was the trend.  Larger, more ornate necklaces dominated evening wear, but demure lockets were worn during the day.

queen victoria portrait 1887
Later in her reign, jewelry styles had changed and in her official portrait from 1887, Queen Victoria can be seen wearing more modern styles.

By the Mid Victorian or Grand period, jewelry design had become bolder and more flamboyant.  Greek, Etruscan, and Egyptian themes became popular, due to exciting new archeological finds around the continent.  By the 1880s, colorless stones were the rage.  Because this period corresponded with the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, mourning jewelry, featuring jet, onyx, garnet, and amethyst, also became popular.

By the Late Victorian or Aesthetic period, when more women were enrolling in university and pursuing the right to vote, fashion shifted again.  Women began to limit their displays of jewelry, reserving their precious gemstones for evening attire.

Large artistic firms producing high-quality jewelry suited to the prosperous new bourgeois class formed throughout Europe. While displaying very high standards of technique and materials, because they catered to the tastes of the bourgeois clientele, design was usually quite traditional. One of the oldest firms was founded by Peter Carl Fabergé in 1870 when he took over from his father’s firm started in 1842. Known for their elaborate enamel eggs, Fabergé used a greater variety of precious and semi-precious stones than perhaps any other jeweler in history.

enameled faberge egg
One of Faberge’s famed eggs with heavily detailed enameling.

Jewelry Of The Edwardian Era

Victoria’s successor, King Edward VII, inherited an empire at the peak of its power and influence, as it moved into the 20th century.  Edwardian England gave birth to a distinct and influential jewelry style.

Edwardian jewelry owes much of its personality and aesthetic to platinum; a rare and unusually strong metal that entered the jewelry trade at the end of the 19th century.  Although the Spanish recovered platinum from South America during the 17th century, it was nearly two hundred years before metalworkers mastered the techniques for refining and casting it.  Once they did, jewelers were quick to exploit platinum’s unique properties.

The tremendous strength of platinum allows it to endure wear even when it is drawn into a thin wire and slender shapes.  Fine mesh, dainty garlands, and satiny ribbons, all so delicate they would collapse like wax if they’d been cast in gold, became a trademark of Edwardian jewelry.  

antique ruby diamond necklace christies
An antique ruby and diamond necklace in delicate Edwardian style. Photo credit: Christie’s.

Edwardian designers adopted a clean, light style that made ample use of classical motifs borrowed from Greece and Rome.  With a huge influx of diamond coming from the newly discovered South African deposits, Edwardian jewelers regularly enhanced their pieces with many small diamonds.  Diamonds and platinum also offered a complementary backdrop for exquisitely colored rubies.

It is in this time that the most well-known of this era’s jewelers emerged: Cartier. Alfred Cartier and his son Louis founded their jewelry firm in Paris in 1898, soon making a name for themselves as purveyors of very fine and delicate settings in platinum that sought to highlight the beauty of the precious stone.

Art Nouveau and Jugendstil Styles of Jewelry

art nouveau ruby diamond ring
An art nouveau diamond ring with a fantastic ruby featured in the center and natural swoops of metal.

While Edwardian jewelry flourished in England, continental Europe created a family of styles that remain popular with today’s jewelry collectors.  These styles were known as Art Nouveau in France and Jugendstil in German-speaking countries.

In a strict turn away from prim ribbons and garlands of Edwardian England, the continental styles focused on organic, nature-inspired themes.  Faceted, carved, and cabochon -cut stones, including fine rubies, were set in complex metal settings and often enhanced with fine enamel.  Since subjects from nature were especially popular, turn-of-the-century jewelry often featured delicately rendered flowers, insects, fish, lizards, snakes, and birds.

The History of Vintage Jewelry

Vintage ruby jewelry includes the glamour of Art Deco and the often oversized pieces of Retro jewelry.  Vintage styles are highly collectable among connoisseurs, so especially fine pieces command prices far in excess of the value of the gems and the precious metals that they are made of.

Jewelry of the Art Deco Era

J8486 | medium | left | “One of our Art Deco inspired pieces with sharp, angular cuts, pave rubies” The term “Art Deco” stems from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, held in Paris in 1925.  The Paris exhibition, which included furniture, interiors, and household objects along with jewelry, introduced the world to a radical new style.  The delicate tracery of Edwardian jewelry and the whimsical animals and natural loops of Art Nouveau were completely erased.  In their place arrived the bold, contrasting colors, and lines of glittering diamonds in a design reflecting the geometry of the energy of the machine age.  Yet for all that it celebrated modernity, Art Deco jewelry borrowed heavily from ancient jewelry traditions around the world.  Chinese, Egyptian, and African motifs were reinterpreted in modern materials.

Art Deco jewelry was intensely modern, but its up-to-date techniques and aesthetics also combined a freedom of imagination and exquisite craftsmanship.  Jewels of this era are still elevated as icons of the jeweler’s art, or that of grand jewelry houses including Cartier, Mauboussin, Boucheron, and Van Cleef & Arpels whose reputations are built on this work.

tutti frutti bracelet cartier
A Cartier bracelet in their show stopping “tutti frutti” design featuring large, carved precious stones. Photo credit: Sotheby’s.

Art Deco designers used the undiluted blue, green, and red of sapphires, emeralds, and the boldness of rubies against platinum settings or black enamel.  Sapphire, emerald, and ruby combinations were a favorite of Cartier, and jewels with these gems carved into the shapes of fruits and leaves were called “tutti frutti.”

At the height of popularity were long dangling earrings, along with cuff bracelets, intricate platinum-set rings, and necklaces and pendants of all sizes.  Two types of jewelry belong especially to the Art Deco style: the double clip and the sautoir .

Jewelry of the Retro Period

ruby gold retro ring
A ruby and gold retro-style ring with scrolling metal and patterns of smaller gemstones.

Over the turbulence of the 1930s, Art Deco transformed into a style now referred to as “Retro.”  The bold geometry of Art Deco jewelry persisted, but in a more massive and metallic way.  Art Deco jewelry was heavily studded with diamonds and colored stones, but metal would dominate in the jewelry of the Retro period.  Retro jewelry features broad curved, rolling, or scrolled surfaces and blocky shapes rendered in glossy metal.  Bullet shapes, fat ribbons, and cylinders are also common motifs.

Gold was used extensively in designs of the Retro period, since platinum supplies were siphoned off for the war effort of the 1940s.  Pink gold’s coppery hue is still linked with the Retro style in public imagination.  Ruby was a popular stone in Retro jewelry designs, which included large cocktail rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets.  Retro jewelry often featured small gemstones, which were frequently channel set.

With a thorough understanding of ruby jewelry as it developed across history, we now jump into Diversity in Modern Ruby Jewelry.

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