Our Top 5 Alternatives To
A Diamond Ring
Our Top 5 Alternatives To A Diamond Ring
Ever since De Beers coined their unbeatable slogan ‘a Diamond is Forever’, diamonds have been synonymous with engagement rings, to the extent that sometimes it seems there’s no other option. Don’t get us wrong - we love a classic diamond engagement ring (and we have some amazing finds in our collection), but it’s important to remember that there is a whole world of gemstones out there, and it’s definitely worth exploring.
We’re here to broaden those horizons with a shortlist of five thrilling alternatives to diamond, each with their own history, character and charm.
Heading up the trio of ‘precious’ stones is sapphire. Sapphires are the gem version of the mineral corundum. Corundum is a crystal of aluminium oxide, and in its purest form it’s completely colourless. However, luckily for us, it’s often found with a variety of different impurities in its crystal structure, and it’s these we have to thank for its legendary colour palette. Probably the best place to start is with the colour that sapphire does better than anything else: blue.
The biggest cause of blue in sapphires is a mix of iron and titanium, and the interplay of these two elements creates a massive variety of blues, each synonymous with a particular historic source. The most historic of these is Sri Lanka. Known as ‘the isle of gems’, Sri Lankan sapphires (still often referred to as ‘Ceylon’ sapphires) are famous for their soft, slightly violet hue, known as ‘cornflower’. Full of charm and subtlety, they have been treasured for millennia, finding their way into everything from ancient Roman cameos to medieval reliquaries.
Of course, sapphires from Myanmar (Burma) and Kashmir set the auction world alight every season with their extraordinary deep blues - a pure ‘Royal Blue’ is the preferred colour for Burmese stones, but Kashmir sapphires (mined for only a very short time in the late 1800s) take the top prices for their distinctive velvety, dreamy blue, from some angles with a surprising touch of sea green. While this trio of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Kashmir are the most famous, other localities such as Thailand and Madagascar also produce beautiful stones of their own. It may come as a surprise that Montana, USA also had its own sapphire mining craze in the late 1890s, and their characteristically charming light greenish blue was championed by America’s most famous jeweller, Tiffany & Co.
Of course, sapphires don’t just stop at blue. Different types of iron atom (we won’t bore you with the exact details, don’t worry) bring out a range of bright, sunny yellows, which can also be closely mixes with blue bands to form green. Add chromium and you get bright pink (more on that later), as well as a seemingly infinite number of variations. Finally, there’s a peachy pinkish orange, or orangey pink depending on who you’re asking, known as ‘padparadscha’, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘lotus blossom’. These are extremely rare, very pretty, and highly sought after as a result.
Whatever colour you go for, sapphires are beautiful, very hard-wearing stones - it’s as easy as ever to see why they have captivated humankind for all these years, and they’re an amazing choice for your engagement ring.
You might have noticed that a colour was missing from the list of sapphire colours we mentioned above: red. You don’t get red sapphires, because when they’re red, they’re called rubies. It’s that simple! And yes, it means that sapphire and ruby are technically the same, and that those famous three ‘precious’ stones are really just two: corundum (in its sapphire and ruby varieties) and emerald.
You can’t discuss rubies without discussing THAT colour. That red has led to ruby being known as ’the king of gems’. It’s a warm, romantic and fiery stone, the birthstone of sunny July, and in India it’s strongly associated with the sun god Surya. No other stone does red like a ruby, and that colour has led it to be historically the only stone capable of matching diamond for price per carat.
The inimitable red of rubies is caused by impurities of the element chromium. Chromium is one of the most talented colouring agents in the gemological world - it is responsible for the green of emeralds, the red of rubies, and the elusive, colour-changing alexandrite.
Complicating things slightly for rubies, however, pink sapphires are chemically pretty much the same thing - corundum with chromium colouring, and this means that sometimes the lines are blurred between what qualifies as a pink sapphire or a ruby. In short, how pink is too pink? The general rule is that in order to qualify as a ruby, red has to be the dominant hue. There are almost always visible secondary hues in ruby - pinks, oranges, purples and browns, but the stone has to ‘read’ as red, and traditionally, the redder, the better.
The most famous and highly sought after hue is known as ‘pigeon’s blood red’, and is an unforgettable shade of deep, pure red, perhaps very slightly more towards purple than orange in hue. Rubies of this coveted hue are most famously found in Myanmar (often still referred to by its old colonial name ‘Burma’ in the trade), specifically in the Mogok mines. These Burmese stones are prized for their fluorescence - like a bright pink light-bulb under UV light, which boosts their colour and gives them an interior glow in sunlight. There are other superb sources though - Thailand has very attractive and historically significant deposits, usually yielding slightly purplish red stones, and newer deposits in Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar are also capable of a spectrum running through bright scarlet ‘fire engine reds’ to those deep ‘pigeon’s blood’ hues.
Rubies are very rare stones, and good ones are even rarer. Like sapphires, they’re at 9.0 on the Moh’s scale, meaning they’re very hard wearing, and very suitable for rings. However, the vast majority of the rubies you will see in shop windows are either too pink, too included (too many minerals trapped inside), or heat treated to improve their colour and clarity. There are also a myriad of synthetics out there and even ones with lead glass filling, so be careful! However, if a ruby is has a deep, rich colour and good level of clarity all on its own, then you’ve got something special on your hands, which makes it well worth the effort and the price tag. Luckily, untreated natural rubies are the only ones we sell, so if you’re buying with us you can breathe a sigh of relief!
First off, forget blue topaz. It’s very pretty, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying it, wearing it and enjoying it. However, it’s an entirely modern phenomenon - it’s vanishingly rare in nature, and those ones you see in countless jewellery shop windows are the products of artificial irradiation, and have to spend years ‘cooling off’ before you can safely wear them.
Every season, at the opening of parliament, the Queen wears one of the most dramatic jewels in the Crown’s collection: the Imperial State Crown. At its centre, just above the enormous Cullinan II diamond, is a bright red stone in a strange and amorphous cut - the Black Prince’s Ruby. It’s a stone that was gifted to Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376), a son of Edward III, often known as ‘the Black Prince’, in 1367, as a ‘thank you’ for helping overthrow Peter of Castille, who had his own, pretty hardcore nickname, ‘Don Pedro the Cruel’. Before that it had belonged to the Muslim ruler of Granada in Spain, Abu Sa’id, and before that there’s also more to the story. But the reason we’re talking about the Black Prince’s Ruby is because it isn’t actually a ruby - it’s a spinel.
And what is spinel, you ask? If you want the gemmological explanation, it’s a cubic crystal of magnesium aluminium oxide, and its name derives from the Latin word spinella, meaning ‘spine’, in reference to its pointed crystals. It’s a bright, hard and beautiful gemstone, often mined alongside ruby and sapphire, and comes in a distinctive spectrum of colours including deep ruby reds to peachy pinks, steely greys, blues and lavenders, which are really quite different from those of rubies and sapphires.
Red spinels such as the Black Prince’s Ruby were often confused with actual rubies in the west because they resembled each other so closely, and it was only in 1783 that gemmology had evolved enough as a scientific subject to differentiate between the two.
Confusingly, spinels were also often called ‘Balas rubies’, which referenced the ancient name for the area of Tajikistan which produced some of the most treasured specimens. While the west was struggling to understand what these stones actually were, in Asia and the Middle East it was a very different story. In Mughal India in particular, spinels were among the most treasured of all stones, and many examples are known, left as tumbled beads in the same manner as the Black Prince’s Ruby, and engraved with names of the emperors who owned them.
The historical confusion regarding spinel led to it being a much more mysterious and obscure stone than it ever should have been, to the extent that most people haven’t actually heard of it. We’re spinel fanatics though, and gradually, this extraordinary stone, with its rich yet subtle colour palette and historical pedigree, combined with ideal clarity, beauty and durability, is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Chrysoberyl is a beautiful, bright stone which comes in a variety of colours, from pale yellows to golden browns to green. These beautiful hues gained particularly popularity in Portugal in the 18th century, after the discovery of a major deposit was discovered in Brazil - still the world’s leading source. With entire parures of 18th century Portuguese jewellery made solely in glittering chrysoberyl, it’s no surprise that chrysoberyl is almost exclusively associated with Portuguese jewellery of this period.
Much like spinel, chrysoberyl was often subject to confusion of its own, as in its darker shades it comes close to olive-green peridot. Both were interchangeably known as ‘chrysolite’, and it was a long time before gemologists were able to clear things up. Consequently, chrysoberyl is not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be.
There are two famous stones you may have heard of that are actually varieties of chrysoberyl, however: cat’s eye and alexandrite.
‘Cat’s eyes’ are so-named because of the narrow flash of light across their centres, resembling a cat’s pupil. This optical effect is caused by light reflecting off many microscopic needle-like inclusions in the stone, all aligned in the same direction, and is revealed when the stone is cut as a cabochon. While this phenomenon is known in a few stones, for the stone itself to qualify as a proper ‘cat’s eye’, it must be a chrysoberyl. An ideal cat’s eye should be a narrow flash of bright light, which runs across the centre of the stone. The narrower, brighter and more central the band of light, the finer the stone.
Alexandrites are even rarer, and good quality examples are among the rarest and most coveted of all gemstones. Discovered in Russia’s Ural mountains in the mid 19th century, alexandrite was named after the future emperor Alexander II of Russia. We mentioned alexandrite earlier because, like the green of emerald and the red of ruby, it’s coloured by chromium. Uniquely, however, alexandrite seems to flit between the two colours in different lights - the best examples are a slightly bluish green in daylight, and a deep raspberry red in artificial light. The real reason for this is that the stone is picking up on the different colours present in those light sources. All coloured stones do this to an extent, but barely any will appear to change colour altogether. Natural alexandrites which can pull off this feat are among the rarest and most valuable gemstones of all.
At a strong 8.5 on the Moh’s scale of hardness, any of chrysoberyl’s characterful varieties are a superb choice for a ring - they’re hard-wearing, and their distinctive appearance will always make them an instant conversation starter.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief trip through the world of coloured gems. Remember, there are seemingly endless options to explore - we’ve only given you a snapshot of each stone, and there are yet more, well beyond the scope of this list.
If we’ve missed anything out, or if you want to know more, then just ask! We’ll be bringing you more gemmological treasures in the future, but for now, happy hunting!