Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Shining a light on rubellite

Often mistaken for ruby over the years, this red tourmaline is coming into its own and even starring in high-jewelry collections.

By Richa Goyal Sikri

Images: Dolce & Gabbana; Tiffany & Co.

There are many anecdotal stories about famous rubies that later turned out to be red tourmalines — or rubellite, as traders commonly call this form of the mineral. Spanish conquistadors first found rubellite in Brazil in the 1500s, according to academic records, but it was only in the 1800s, in Europe, that it was identified as a distinct species.

In fact, one rubellite specimen was believed for centuries to be Europe’s largest ruby. The first reference to the 255.75-carat Caesar’s ruby was in the late 16th century, and Russia’s Catherine the Great received it as a gift two centuries later, relates gemologist Jan Asplund in an article for the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A). In 1922, mineralogist Aleksandr Evgenevich Fersman correctly identified the stone as a red tourmaline.

Recent findings have revealed even older samples. In July 2019, two Gem-A experts determined that an artifact in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum was a third-century carved red-yellow tourmaline intaglio. The item depicts Alexander the Great in profile, along with an ancient Indian script.

In the past, rubellite has been marketed as a more accessible option to the higher-value ruby, but in the last 10 to 15 years, growing consumer awareness and appreciation have increased the demand for rubellite itself.

Color counts

Tourmalines are a group of mineral species that share the same crystal structure but vary in chemical composition. Most gem-quality specimens on the market are elbaite tourmalines; the others include liddicoatite, dravite, uvite and schorl. Red and pink tourmalines are elbaite, with manganese causing the red hue in most cases.

Because “rubellite” is a trade term rather than an official mineral designation, not everyone agrees on which tourmaline colors it refers to. Some include pink specimens in this category, while others believe only red, pinkish-red or purple-red hues count as rubellite.

Color is one of the main factors that determine rubellite’s pricing, notes Thailand-based gem merchant and gemologist Simon Bruce-Lockhart, who has been trading in the markets of Bangkok and Chanthaburi for 20 years. Some of his customers “want pure red, others prefer with a little hint of pink or purple,” he says. “My preference is rubellite with a dash of pink, as I feel it has better low-light performance, which means it will hold and exhibit its colors better in dim lighting conditions.”

Irradiation and heat treatments affect pricing as well, in part because they impact color. While most traded rubellites are untreated, low-temperature heating can remove the brown tinge in certain stones. Interestingly, this treatment is frequently undetectable, since the lower temperature doesn’t change the inclusions inside the gem, and those are what gem labs study to identify treatments.

The most common inclusions in rubellites are liquid- or gas-filled needles, according to industry sources. Traders tolerate these flaws when the stone displays a well-saturated color and the needles do not negatively impact the gem’s beauty. To suppress the inclusions’ visibility, gem manufacturers will cut rubellites as cabochons.

Is Brazilian better?

It is generally recognized that Brazilian rubellite has the finest historical pedigree. Some buyers, particularly fine-jewelry brands, place a premium on Brazilian rubellite over the African variety, though many wholesalers will avoid creating such a price differential — especially since goods from the two locales can be virtually indistinguishable in many cases. Indeed, there are those who take advantage of that fact and export African rubellite to sell in Brazilian markets, industry sources say.

In Thailand, reports Bruce-Lockhart, “we mainly see rubellites from Nigeria and Mozambique.”

Size-wise, he adds, “most of my clients are seeking rubellite between 5 and 12 carats. Above 20 carats, demand tends to drop a little, as the cost of setting the stone in a jewel increases exponentially.”

Pricing perspectives

Demand for the gem has fluctuated over time, and that has impacted its value as well. Twelve years ago, a 5-carat, good-color, mostly clean rubellite would have been around $150 to $200 per carat in Thailand’s relatively volatile wholesale market, according to industry sources. Those prices nearly quadrupled around 2012-13, when Chinese customers were aggressively buying rubellite. As interest in the stone cooled, the price dropped, leaving many in the industry stranded with rubellites they could not sell at a profitable rate.

While wholesale prices in Asia have recovered with the recent rise in demand — as well as the shortage of good stones in the last 18 months — they still haven’t quite returned to the peak of 2012-13. Still, since most specimens are included, a clean stone of more than 5 carats displaying a lively red hue may command a premium.

In the broader tourmaline group, rubellite generally ranks third in terms of value today. Paraiba is the most expensive variety, with a top-quality, 5-carat stone fetching around $7,000 to $10,000 per carat wholesale, according to industry sources. Some top-grade lagoon tourmaline from Afghanistan — a green-blue variety — comes next at $700 to $800 per carat wholesale for that size, while a 5-carat rubellite usually sells for $450 to $500 per carat wholesale in Thailand. Next in line would be lagoon tourmaline from African sources, and after that, the value goes mainly by color rather than origin: pink, green, yellow, orange, and finally muddy brown, in that order.

Luxe appeal

International designers and jewelry houses are increasingly using rubellite as a center stone — though for Italian jeweler Verdura, employing colorful gems like this one is nothing new. The company’s founder, Duke Fulco di Verdura, was a pioneer of showcasing and mixing vibrant hues.

“We see the market gravitating not only toward color, but also previously overlooked gemstones like rubellite,” says Nico Landrigan, president of Verdura as well as iconic house Belperron. “For example, one of our most popular rings is the Candy ring, which was originally made in 1942 for a client’s 102-carat star sapphire. Today, rubellite is the most popular gem in our Candy ring orders. There is something about that depth of color in a cabochon cut that works beautifully with a rubellite. The stone looks like a Jolly Rancher.”

In the world of high jewelry, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana — the duo behind global fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana — have declared rubellite one of their most beloved red gems. The possibility of finding large specimens allows the company to create jewels that express the countless facets of love and the designers’ passion for life and art. Rubellite is among the exclusive stones in Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Gioielleria collection.

It also stars as a center stone in several pieces from maison Chaumet’s Perspectives de Chaumet collection. For this line, the jeweler selected extraordinary stones for their rarity and the richness of their hue, and some of the settings give the impression that the gems are levitating, suspended in the middle of a white-gold lattice. “Rubellites have an exceptionally saturated and velvety color, creating a beautiful contrast with the surrounding diamonds of the rest of the piece,” says the maison.

Another fan was Tiffany & Co. founder Charles Lewis Tiffany, who was passionate about acquiring unusual gemstones. Tiffany introduced many gems that had never been used in jewelry, such as rubellite, kunzite, tsavorite and tanzanite, to name a few. In 1876, he purchased a remarkable rubellite from young gemologist George Frederick Kunz, who joined the firm.

“We are pleased to have lifted the vibrant red hue that rubellite is so coveted for in several important designs, and specifically in two important pieces that were featured in last year’s Blue Book collection: the Schlumberger Vrille necklace and an exceptional rubellite and amethyst necklace from the 2021 high-jewelry collection,” says Tiffany & Co.

The latter necklace embraces “the regal colors found in the natural world” and “is noteworthy for the unexpected color combination of majestic amethysts paired with an extraordinarily vibrant set of rubellites,” the company continues. “The bold combination of 24 emerald-cut rubellites of over 124 total carats and nine cushion-cut amethysts of over 23 total carats makes this necklace explode with dimensional color. Square-cut diamonds of over 5 total carats separate each rubellite, bringing this 18-karat yellow gold necklace to life.”

With its rarity, durability and sparkling beauty, rubellite sits high in the ranks of gems pushing the boundary between precious and semiprecious.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2022. To subscribe click here.

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