Ruby, the New Problem Child of the Gemological Kingdom


For many years, with the love one has for a brilliant but troubled offspring, I bestowed the title, "problem child of the gemological kingdom," on Emerald. Its highly included nature makes it prone to breakage, which, in turn, has led to a plethora of treatments to hide its flaws by filling them up, with anything from traditional oils in use for hundreds of years to various synthetic materials in modern times. Emerald forms in complex geological environments and its rare ingredients are cooled rapidly, leading to imperfect crystallization. From one viewpoint, one judges it inclusions as jardins (gardens), no more objectionable than (or, one might say, as desirable as) flaws in fine leather. But the market, with its consumers used to clarity standards based on diamond, has driven demand to emeralds of high clarity, as well as to the more legitimate criterion of color. This tendency culminated in the infamous Fred Ward case in 1997. Ward was considered a colored gemstone expert, having written cover articles for National Geographic on ruby, emerald, and sapphire. As the owner of a private salon in the Washington, D.C. area, he sold a 3.65 carat emerald, mounted in a ring, for $38,600 (with a cost of $28,100) to a woman who subsequently struck it a blow on her kitchen counter. She filed a claim with her insurance company, State Farm, who rejected it on the grounds that it had been treated with a synthetic epoxy resin called Opticon.  Then she sued Ward on the basis that the emerald had always had a fracture, undisclosed at the time of sale and hidden by the Opticon. (He advised her when he sold it that it had been treated with oil only. The gemological facts are in dispute to this day.) A jury ordered Ward to buy the ring back for the purchase price and pay the plaintiff's attorney’s fees of $180,000; he eventually settled with the plaintiff for $58,000. But it was enough that his company went out of business. Emerald then went into a long nuclear winter in the world’s gemstone markets. Rare and beautiful stones were brought up out of the earth, fashioned with care, and sat in dealers’ inventories. Only gradually has emerald emerged, as the trade has learned how to detect its treatments and made disclosure to ultimate consumers.

What of Ruby? When a major new find of corundum, the mineral stuff of which ruby is the red variety (by virtue of a trace of the transition element chromium), was made in the late “90s, we now had an infusion of this rarest of all the commercially important gemstones, but with two problems not present in “pigeon-blood” stones from the storied Burmese mines sixty miles to the northwest: color too purple (with a blue core, to boot) and fractures open to the surface. Thus the gemstone doctors of Bangkok began to work their magic in ways more arcane than the simple heat treatment that had been used on corundum for centuries to improve color (by dispersing the iron that underlay the bluish color). Borax was used as flux to make this new material flow under great heat, along with alumina, the principle constituent of corundum, with the intention at first that the open cavities would become glass-filled by the transformed borax. The next evolution was that the walls of the breaks themselves were dissolved and re-crystallized as synthetic ruby filling in a natural ruby host.

We see the final descent in the bogus ruby of East African origin that is so full of glass or flux that more than half by weight in a given stone is no longer corundum, giving rise to a material that is so bizarre that it has never been seen before. What to call it has been an ongoing debate in the gemological community, reaching a crescendo in the past twelve months or so: composition ruby, hybrid ruby, ruby with glass, and the winner is – composite ruby. We ask ourselves, is it really ruby? Is it really a gemstone at all?  It has entered our society from thousands of armed services veterans returning from service in the Middle East, but also from the department store Macy’s, which has sold it without disclosure at times.

These are the facts of history, briefly sketched. I know from my own work that ruby has become more and more difficult to sell. It is saddening. If, as the old saying goes, nothing “greens greener” than emerald, then it is probably even truer to say that nothing reds redder than ruby. Nature has seen to it that a very fine ruby weighing five carats or more is some order of magnitude more rare than a comparable diamond. I have read that perhaps no more than three or four of them are available for sale in the world at any one time. It is considered permissible to apply heat treatment to ruby, as long as it is disclosed; a report from one of the major independent laboratories such as GIA is essential with a larger ruby (that is, two carats or more) of much quality. Still, little or no treatment is best.

I was especially delighted this year to sell the 2.04 carat ruby that you see pictured with this post. (I have not retouched the image, taken under fluorescent light, just hinting at its real beauty.) To see it is to come near a spark thrown off by this planet millions of years ago and know the happy circumstance that gave birth to it and to the simple gift of our own awareness. Then we feel that we have come to the navel of the world.