Health, wealth and good fortune in affairs of the heart: those are the promises made by the ruby. And no wonder. For centuries, love's fervor has been linked to a deep ruby-red color, the symbol of passion, devotion and desire. Designated as July's birthstone and Cancer's starstone, rubies are so prized that superb specimens often surpass similar quality diamonds in cost.
One reason for this lofty price is its rarity. In fact, rubies are even rarer than once thought. Since chemical testing has become available, it's been discovered that many of the world's most famous rubies are not rubies at all, but either garnet or spinel. Two of Britain's Crown Jewels - including the Black Prince's Ruby, previously believed to be the largest cut ruby in existence - are among the debunked rubies. While still beautiful, they don't possess the hardness or rich depth of color found in true rubies.
That glorious color sets a ruby apart from all other gems, including its sibling, the sapphire. In mineral terms, rubies are classified as red corundum, while all other colors of corundum are known as sapphires. Only the ruby stands alone, so special that it was given a unique name all its own.
People through the ages have responded to the ruby's magnetic draw, ascribing to it potent abilities. Along with love and passion, numerous legends associate the stone with courage, power and devotion. In Hindu lore, rubies were believed to be the crystallized blood of the demon, Vala, whose body seeded all the world's mines. When his body was divided, his blood fell over Sri Lanka and Burma, creating the rubies that are taken from the ground. The sparkle and luminescence of rubies is said to be fueled by an inextinguishable fire in the heart of the stone. This fire is linked to the life of the person who wears or owns it, and as long as the ruby burns brightly, that person will enjoy good fortune and good health. Likewise, these legends decree that a ruby will darken in color if its wearer's life is in danger.
In India, where rubies are valued above all other stones, there are specific rituals for the wearing and acquisition of rubies. For instance, a ruby should be bought at the start of the week - on a Sunday or a Monday - or on a Thursday, and always during an ascending moon in order to make the most of its power. A ruby also should touch the skin when it's worn. Even today, many settings for rubies are open at the back so the stone can be in contact with the skin. This connection, according to legend, is necessary to improve the stone's power to heal diseases of the blood and heart.
In Ayurvedic tradition, rubies are associated with the sun, and their fire is said to emanate from a spark of the sun itself. It's believed that a real ruby has the power to make a lotus bloom, and if the ruby is placed in a glass jar, it will radiate a red light. In fact, one story says that a Chinese emperor lit an entire room in his palace with a single large ruby. It's a likely exaggeration that's rooted in the fact that rubies do have a natural red phosphorescence that makes them appear to give off light.
The fiery, passionate nature of rubies took on new associations in medieval times: dragons and combat. The dragon connection persists to this day in sculptures of the scaled beasts, many of which still sport eyes made of red stones. Where battle was involved, rubies were believed to confer courage, boldness, passion and steadfastness. Some tribes believed that he who wore a ruby under his skin would be invincible during war.
Perhaps this invincibility lore arose from rubies' naturally durable composition. Second only to diamonds on the Mohs scale, they have no cleavage, making them less prone to breaking than other gems. Treated well, a good quality ruby will last for centuries, a symbol of enduring love to hand down to the next generation.
Known for its brilliant red hue, it's no surprise that a ruby's worth is determined in large part by its color. The benchmark in excellence is a "Burmese ruby," a name that speaks not to a stone's origin - though it might, indeed, be from Myanmar - but to a red associated with the famous "Mogok Stone Tract" deposits in that country. The color, a rich red that leans more blue than orange, is extraordinarily vibrant in both natural and artificial light.
Clarity is also important, of course, but to a lesser degree. Inclusions can impact the value of a ruby for better and for worse. If they impact the stone's transparency, they decrease the value. Inclusions that don't affect the clarity, however, can actually be valuable, confirming a stone's authenticity and highlighting its individual beauty. Then there's the extremely rare star ruby, produced by a star-shaped mineral deposit within the stone. A high-quality specimen, cut in a proper half-dome shape to show off the six-pointed star, is highly valuable.
Except for a star ruby, which requires a prescribed cut, rubies can be cut into a multitude of shapes. But due to the makeup of the stone itself, you'll mostly find oval and cushion-cut shapes used in jewelry. Other popular fashion cuts - such as round, emerald and pear - can be found, though they typically don't feature large rubies.
Heat treating rubies is a common way to reduce or eliminate undesirable inclusions and boost color. Keep in mind that heat treated rubies should be less expensive than naturally high-quality stones.
Fracture-filling rubies is another method to artificially enhance a stone's beauty. Adding liquid lead glass to imperfections can solve aesthetic problems but lowers the value considerably. Ethical jewelers either don't carry fracture-filled rubies or label them truthfully - with a significantly lower price tag, of course.
Because rubies rate 9 out of 10 on the Mohs' hardness scale, they have a well-deserved reputation as a strong, durable gem. Their lack of cleavage means they also are less likely to break when knocked around. All of this makes rubies an ideal everyday-wear gem. Yet they aren't indestructible, with chipping and cracking a not terribly rare occurrence. Your best bet is to care for your ruby the way a precious gemstone deserves.
Exposure to chemicals, even those used in household cleaning, won't affect the chemical makeup of rubies, though it may lead to tarnish. Boric acid, however, should be kept away from rubies, as it can scratch their surface. The altered composition of fracture-filled rubies is reflected in its stepped-up care requirements. Even acidic substances like lemon juice can damage these fragile variations.
If your ruby takes a hard hit, whisk it off to the jeweler immediately to check for cracks or a loose mounting. And even if you baby your ruby, it should have a professional cleaning and inspection once a year to ensure it's still in perfect shape.
Storing your ruby well is key to extending the life of the gem. Preferably, rubies should be stored in individual cloth bags. If you don't have bags, they can be placed in a fabric-lined jewelry box or on top of a layer of cotton, with another layer on top. It's crucial to keep ruby jewelry away from softer gems it may scratch. In fact, storing any item of jewelry against another piece can lead to scratches and loosened stones.
Ultrasonic and steam cleaners work well on rubies. But if you want to save a little money, you can clean them for pennies with a bit of liquid soap, warm water and a lint-free cloth. Add a soft toothbrush to the regimen if you want to polish away any accumulated dullness. Fracture-filled rubies are unable to withstand even that gentle treatment; the only recommended cleaning tool is a damp cloth.