Ruby and sapphire belong to the mineral family called corundum. Chemically they are both aluminium oxide in a crystalline formthat was made deep underground into clear and beautiful gemstones under high pressure and heat. Impurities within the crystals give it the attractive, glowing colours. Good specimens of these gems are perhaps almost as valuable as diamonds. All colours of corundum except red are known as sapphires. The colourless variety is called white sapphire and was once a cheap substitute for diamond. Yellow, purple, pink, green or white sapphires are called 'fancy' by the trade. Red corundum is now termed as ruby but there was a controversy some years ago on the difference between ruby and red or pink sapphire. In 1991, the International Coloured Gemstone Association ruled that even the lighter shades of red corundum should be termed ruby.
Sapphire and rubies are found all over the world and are mined in Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, U.S.A. and Zambia, but the gemstones from India, Myanmar, Thailand and other countries in the Far East were and still are renowned for their pure, rich colour and quality. Good quality stones have been found all over India, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Kashmir in the North. The blue sapphires from the very inaccessible mines of the Zanskar valley in Kashmir are the finest in the world. Discovered in 1880 after a huge rock slide, they have a pure intense blue colour, with a slight measure of silk or milkiness. The oldest sapphire mines were in Sri Lanka and gems found there are light to medium blue in colour. Sapphires from Madagascar are of high quality with some exceptional yellow and pink stones. Brazil has unearthed some good blue to purple and pink stones recently.
Corundum was mined in the East for centuries and there are fascinating reports on the ruby mines by European travellers at the end of the fifteenth century and by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. The red coloured corundum got its name from the Latin word, 'rubrum' or 'ruber' meaning red. The great French traveller of the seventeenth century, Tavernier found that the coloured stones of Eastern Asia were only mined in the kingdom of Pegu (now Myanmar) and in the island of Ceylon. The first Pegu mine was on mountain called Capelan, twelve days journey from Ava, the capital of Pegu. It was a long and tiresome journey after landing at the port of Siren, or Syriam or Siriam, some ten kilometres east of the present day Rangoon. The trip from Ava to Siriam had to be made at the time by boat because the jungles teemed with wild animals. Wonderful rubies, sapphires and spinels came out of the Pegu mine, but Tavenier never saw any that were of good quality and size, and 'not one heavier than three or four carats'. This was because the Burmese King there kept all the largest and best stones. In those days, all the coloured stones from Pegu were called rubies, irrespective of their colour. The sapphire was a blue ruby, the amethyst a violet ruby and the topaz a yellow ruby.
Ruby, spinel, yellow topaz, blue and white sapphire, amethyst and other stones were also found in Capelan, or Kyatpyen, about one hundred ten kilometres north-east of Siriam. Sapphires also came from a river that flowed down from high mountains in the middle of the island of Ceylon. About three months after the spring floods, the local people searched the river banks, and found these precious stones in the sand. The stones from the river were generally cleaner and more beautiful than those from Pegu. Inferior stones were found in the beds of streams around Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and some of the small rivers in the south. But the more precious gems such as ruby, sapphire, topaz, alexandrite and catseye had to be sought within a rubies of fifty kilometers of Ratnapura, thought rubies are occasionally found in Uva.
Tavernier also mentions that rubies were found in Camboya (Cambodia) and from this kingdom came 'balas' rubies, spinels, sapphires and topazes, apart from gold. By balas rubies, Tavernier meant not the spinels that are characteristic of Baluchistan, but any rubies of light colour resembling them. Other travellers found rubies mined in Chantabun (Chantanburi) and Krat and at Mounth Klung.
The stones were then exported to Masulipatam and Golconda in India, where they were sold by the weight called rati (0.875 carat). The coinage in these places was the pagoda. A ruby of 1 rati was sold for 20 pagodas; that of 2.5 rati cost 85 pagodas; for 3.25 rati the price was 185 pagodas, while a 5 rati stone was worth 525 pagodas; and 920 pagodas would buy a 6.5 rati stone. The price pf a heavier stone was negotiable. The dealers were so particular about their profit in trade that they would not open a parcel of fine rubies unless they were promised beforehand that in case the sale was not made, they would get a present such turban or a waistband. A liberal buyer would then be able to see all their stock and could then transact some business.