The Big three. Why do we love emeralds, sapphires, and rubies so much?

Published: 17/06/2022

Talking about colored gemstones, the first gemstones that usually come to mind are emeralds, sapphires, or rubies. Why these three gems? It seems that we have always known about them. Almost everyone has a favorite gem among the Big three. Someone admires the deep color of the emerald. Others like the velvet softness and richness of sapphire. The third is captured by the flame enclosed in the ruby.

Photo by O. Rybnikova.

Today we will talk about each stone from the Big three. And no doubt, you will fall in love with them even more!

Let's start with what is common between emerald, sapphire, and ruby, even though they all have completely different colors. Of course, color is the first thing a person notices when looking at a gemstone. Cut, carat weight, and clarity fade into the background before the rich colors of minerals.

Historical context

All three heroes of today's article have a long history. More than one generation admires the beauty and brilliance of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. They adorn all the most important royal regalia, such as the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the Imperial State Crown, and many others.

The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire (German: Reichskrone). The Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria. Photo by O. Rybnikova.

The history of the emerald begins in ancient Egypt. Mines of Cleopatra, where the first known emeralds were mined, were developed in 3,500 - 330 BC. Emerald was considered the favorite stone of the Empress. The following important chapter in the history of the emerald dates back to the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors discovered the Chivor and Muzo deposits in Colombia.

The ruby, like the emerald, was discovered over 5,000 years ago. For centuries, the primary source of high-quality ruby ​​was Mogok in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Ancient Sanskrit texts refer to the ruby ​​as the king of gems.

It is impossible to determine precisely how long sapphire has been known to mankind. But certainly more than 2000 years. Classically, when we hear the word sapphire, we imagine a cornflower blue mineral. Still, sapphire can be absolutely any color: from colorless, yellow, or orange to purple and green-blue.

Since all three gems have been known to civilization for several millennia, they remain the most sought-after gems due to the historical context. Much more often, people are aware of emeralds and rubies than, for example, tanzanite and Paraiba tourmaline, discovered only in the second half of the twentieth century.

Physical Properties

As we have clarified in the previous article, a precious stone can be called one that fulfills three conditions: rare, beautiful (aesthetically attractive), and durable. Sapphire, ruby ​​, and emerald meet all three requirements. In particular, we would like to pay attention to durability (resistance to environmental conditions and mechanical damage). Sapphire and ruby ​​are varieties of the mineral corundum. They are the same mineral with the same chemical formula (aluminum oxide Al2O3) and crystal structure. Corundum is incredibly hard - 9 on the Mohs scale (the relative hardness scale of minerals from 1 to 10, where each unit corresponds to a specific mineral), and can only be scratched by the hardest natural substance - diamond (10 on the Mohs scale).

Ruby is a chromium-bearing variety of the mineral corundum. Photo by O. Rybnikova.

Emerald is slightly softer than sapphire and ruby and measures 7.5 - 8 on the Mohs scale. On the other hand, quartz is a relatively hard mineral, has a hardness of 7, and cannot scratch an emerald, sapphire, or ruby. Let us give an opposite example: minerals such as gypsum, calcite, and fluorite, no matter how beautiful they are, are rarely used in precious jewelry due to their low hardness (2, 3, and 4 on the Mohs scale, respectively).

Thus, all three minerals are highly resistant to abrasion, scratches, and chemicals and can be passed down from generation to generation.

Interesting facts about the Big Three that will make you fall in love with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies even more.


Emerald has a complex chemical formula (Be3Al2Si6O18) and is a variety of the mineral beryl. Thanks to chromium impurities introduced by unique geological processes, beryl can be considered an emerald.

Faceted emerald and raw crystal in rock. Photo by O. Rybnikova.

There are other varieties of a beryl:

  • pink - morganite
  • yellow - heliodor
  • blue - aquamarine
  • colorless - goshenite
  • red - bixbite or red beryl.

But emerald is the most popular and expensive among all varieties of beryl.

Currently, the primary sources of emeralds are Colombia and Zambia, as well as Brazil, Zimbabwe, and Afghanistan.

Advice! Do not trust people who try to abuse terms and sell yellow beryl as a golden emerald. This is just a common variety of beryl – heliodor.

Sapphire and ruby

Despite the different colors of the stones, sapphire and ruby ​​are varieties of the same mineral - corundum. The red color of the ruby ​​is given by chromium, and the various shades of sapphire, including the most sought-after blue, are created by titanium and iron.

Faceted and natural sapphire crystals. Photo by O. Rybnikova.

One of the rarest varieties of sapphire is the padparadscha, a lotus-like or Ceylon sky sunset-like colored sapphire.

In corundum, the effect of asterism is often observed. Asterism is an optical effect of a moving six-pointed star on a round (cabochon) stone surface.

Ruby with asterism effect. Photo by O. Rybnikova.

The primary source of ruby ​​is Mozambique. Other sources are Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Sapphires are mainly mined in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Australia. The historic Kashmir mine has been mined up, making sapphires found there in the past a target for auction houses and collectors.

Sapphire, emerald, and ruby ​​are precious stones with a thousand-year history. They are the central stones of the royal regalia. They are passed down from generation to generation without losing their play of color and vibrant colors. As a result, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies remain the most sought-after colored gemstones.


Rybnikova Olena - gemmologist, MSc in Mineralogy, Geochemistry and Petrography. Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv alumnus. Applied Jewelry Professional certified by Gemological Institute of America. Now she is doing PhD in Europe and is writing a dissertation on the beryllium minerals topic. Actively popularizes gemstones and gemmology.

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