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If gold has always been the foremost precious metal, ruby has always been the foremost precious stone. For as long as men have written about gems, and there are treatises on the subject dating back thousands of years, ruby (from the Latin ruber for red), has been at the top of the standings for value and veneration. Indeed, the civilized world seems to have operated for nearly as long a time on a ruby standard as a gold standard.

Early in the eleventh century, al-Biruni, a noted Persian mineralogist, celebrated ruby's eons-old preeminence when he wrote that this chromium-containing red member of the corundum family, a family that also includes sapphire, has "the first place in color, beauty and rank" among all gems.

Nine centuries later, ruby sentiments were still the same. "A clear, transparent, and faultless ruby of a uniform red color is at the present time the most valuable precious stone known," declared Max Bauer, al-Biruni's nineteenth century British counterpart, in his 1894 masterpiece Precious Stones.

Granted, the value of fine ruby relative to other highly prized gems wasn't as extreme in Bauer's day as it had once been. Around 1550, Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini reported that the finest-grade one-carat, (0.2 gram) ruby cost eight times more than a comparable-quality one-carat diamond—this at a time when diamonds were only marginally more available than rubies. By Bauer's time, the same ruby was only two times as expensive as its diamond equivalent.

Nevertheless, a 2:1 value ratio between fine rubies and diamonds is impressive. Certainly, ruby's status as the most valuable gem of the age helps to explain why England took the rather drastic step of invading and annexing Upper Burma in 1885 when it learned a French company would begin mining of this gem at the famed Mogok ruby tract—the most celebrated source for ruby ever known. While gemstone imperialism is common throughout history (the quest for emeralds was a major reason for the Spanish conquest of South and Central America in the 16th century), what might be called the Anglo-Burma Ruby War is one of the most extreme examples of it.

Why did ruby enjoy a reputation as the most supremely valuable gemstone from the glory days of ancient India and Greece until well after World War I? Although rarity is a factor, ruby's peerless beauty, as well as a hardness second only to diamond, play major roles.


Some linguists say that Western languages encourage more abstract thinking and Eastern languages encourage more concrete thinking. Hence when Westerners think of ruby, they immediately think of the color red. But when the writers of ancient India, the first to have put pen to paper on the subject of ruby, thought of this gem, it conjured a multitude of metaphors. Great stones, they wrote, had color like the glow of burning embers or the shiny skin of pomegranates. Merely to call ruby red would have insulted their poetic sensibilities.

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