Although there are many types of gemstones, almost everyone will recognise the names of the four precious stones: ruby, sapphire, emerald, and diamond.
Ancient civilisations valued precious colored stones as much as society does today. Ancient Greeks began using gemstones in jewelry around 1600 BC, importing precious stones like emeralds, rubies and sapphires from India, Sri Lanka, and the Far East. Roman jewelers crafted jewelry using both precious and semi-precious stones like emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires, garnets, topaz and amber, sourced from territories across the empire.
Thanks to its peculiar mineral composition, the ruby is one of the rarest and most costly precious gemstones. While both rubies and sapphires are composed of the mineral corundum, in rubies chromium replaces the common aluminum, giving the crystal structure its distinct red hue, a highly desired shade.
While the beautiful blue and violet hued sapphires from Kashmir and Myanmar have historically fetched the highest prices, the array of sapphire’s colors, from the stunning pink and purple varieties found in Sri Lanka, to the lime and earthy green tones famously mined in the US state of Montana, make the sapphire renowned for its diversity in color and geographical origin.
In recent times, sapphires have become known for their practical uses, due in large part to their unique hardness; sapphires and rubies are second only to diamonds in terms of durability. Being exceptionally resistant to scratching and abrasion, as well as having an extremely high melting temperature, sapphires have become an ideal material for many applications from smartphones to the window in barcode scanners.
Like the aforementioned gemstones, emeralds played an important role in ancient civilizations and have an enchanting history of their own. The most valuable variety of the mineral beryl, emeralds have been cherished by Egyptian royalty, Incan kings, the dynastic rulers of the Mughal Empire, and the ancient Greeks.
However, it is likely that no civilization loved this gem more than the early Egyptians, who associated the color green with fertile land and eternal life. While gem experts today may regard Egyptian emeralds of the 15th and 20th century in a different light, these stones were coveted in antiquity far and wide across the Mediterranean, India, and the Near East
It is believed that diamonds were first discovered in India around 2,500 years ago in the Golconda region, between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers. At this early stage, cutting and polishing had yet to be mastered, so diamonds retained their natural outer skin. Textural and touchable, rough diamonds were kept as talismans and only later incorporated into jewelry, which initially only men were allowed to wear.
From the 10th century onwards, the West began to have economic access to diamonds through trade routes and they soon became status symbols. Throughout the Middle Age, diamonds were sought after as amulets thanks to the belief they had mystical and medicinal properties. It was during this period of history that the diamond ring also became a symbol of marriage.
The use of precious gemstones in jewelry has varied over the years, with different gems gaining and losing popularity over time.
For example, although diamonds have always been popular, the late 20th century saw a surge in diamond demand, particularly for engagement rings. The rise of advertising campaigns by diamond companies helped to promote diamonds as the ultimate symbol of love and commitment. This meant that diamonds were the go-to gemstone for engagement rings, but sapphires, rubies, and emeralds also gained popularity, likely influenced by celebrities and their colorful engagement rings, such as Princess Diana's sapphire engagement ring.
In recent years, while white diamonds are still the most popular, colored diamonds have also gained popularity. Pink, blue, and yellow diamonds are particularly desired and can fetch high prices due to their rarity.