How Africa's rare gems made their way to the red carpet

Story highlights

  • Asia was traditionally home to the world's major ruby mines
  • New discoveries in Mozambique are changing the market
  • The country is rapidly becoming the world's largest source

(CNN)Traders on the ancient Silk Road believed the ruby to have occult powers and carried the fiery red stones for protection. Mined in Myanmar as early as 600 AD, the stones considered most precious had an intense dark red hue, said to be reminiscent of pigeon blood.

But with mined out deposits, the rise of the diamond and sanctions against Myanmar, the ruby's glow began to fade.
Now discoveries in Montepuez, northern Mozambique are breathing new life into the ruby market.
    "These are incredibly exciting gems, and times, because the world is waking up again to the beauty, rarity and individuality of color," says Ian Harebottle, CEO of colored gemstones company Gemfields, the largest player tapping into the new deposits.
    Discovered in 2009 and spanning more than 500 square kilometers, the Montepuez deposits have quickly become the largest source in the world, accounting for an estimated 50% of global production, according to the Gemological Institute of America, (GIA).
    In the world of colored gemstones supply is everything, Harebottle says.
    "In order to stimulate advertising and marketing you need supply, because it is costly, and so you get into difficulty championing these products without it."
    The color of pigeon blood?
    Russell Shor, a senior industry analyst at GIA, says the discoveries are the "shot in the arm" the ruby industry has been waiting for.
    "It could provide a consistent long-term supply that jewelers really need to make a business," Shor adds.

    Hitting record sales

    The company's first Mozambican ruby auction in Singapore in June 2014 generated $33.5 million at 18.43 per carat -- the unit of weight for precious stones, equivalent to 200 milligrams.
    This cast the spotlight on the new discoveries, and since then revenues and the price per carat has climbed higher, with this summer's auction taking home $44.3 million with an average price of $29.21 per carat, according to Gemfields.
    Ruby fast facts

    The red stone is called ratnaraj in sanskrit, meaning the king of gems

    It's the most precious variety of the mineral corundum, which also includes sapphire

    Less than 2m carats is produced annually compared to around 50m carats of diamond

    An estimated 50% of global production comes out of Mozambique

    A 25.59 carat ruby ring sold for $1,266,901 per carat in 2015, a record for colored gems

    Source: GIA

    Overall 31.6 million carats of ruby have been produced from the company's Mozambique operation, with 7.5 million carats sold at auction for a total of $195.1 million, according to the company.
    However, the quality of ruby produced varies greatly, and some of what is produced are rough, uncut stones, or corundum, which is generally considered of lower quality, Shor explains.

    Where do the gems go?

    The biggest markets for the rubies are Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, who are involved in the cutting and trading, with the largest consumer markets in China, the US and India, says Richard Hughes, an industry expert at Lotus Gemology, Bangkok.
    "The biggest change in the industry over the past few decades is that there are now many important sources of ruby in East Africa -- Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania --, whereas 40 years ago most came from Thailand and Myanmar," Hughes adds.
    Gemfields' Montepuez operations lie side by side with smaller companies such as Australian Mustang Resources and a number of independent artisan miners.
    With much of the market made up of underground trade, it's unknown just how much changes hands, but Hughes estimates that the value of the global annual trade is between 500 and $800 million.

    Rarest stones on Earth?

    However, compared to diamonds, the ruby industry is relatively small.
    50 million carats of diamond is produced every year, compared to around 5 million carats of emeralds and less than 2 million carats of ruby, says Harebottle.
    "You can see just how incredibly rare these gems are relative to diamonds, and we all know how rare diamonds are," Harebottle says.
    And it's hard to compete with the mystique and history of rubies from the Far East, with country of origin a key selling point in the industry.
    That said, much of what is mined in Mozambique is generally considered high quality ruby comparable to the famous Mogok stones from Myanmar, which is one of the reasons for its success so far, Shor explains.
    "Some of the dealers will compare the better Mozambique material to the Hmong-Shu deposits."
    But there are some differences.
    "The color is very slightly different, and I am not saying for better or worse," Shor adds.

    Vibrant rainbow shades

    Since the 1950s emeralds rubies and sapphires have been overshadowed by diamonds, which experienced an upswing thanks to the marketing campaigns of industry leaders such as De Beers with slogans like "diamonds are a girl's best friend".
    The producers hope colored gems will once again regain their status -- Christian Jordaan, CEO Mustang Resources, thinks they may even outshine diamonds one day.
    "The age of colored gemstones is here."
    Tanzanite was discovered by the Maasai in 1967
    So what's the attraction? According to Jordaan, it's all about the vibrant rainbow shades. "It's a good way for people to express themselves instead of a boring diamond."

    A star's best friend?

    Mozambican ruby and other African stones such as sapphires from Nigeria, tanzanite from Tanzania, emeralds from Zambia -- and newly discovered deposits in Ethiopia -- are now seen in high-end jewelry, with Cartier and Fabergé among brands attracting celebrities to wear the stones.
    "We certainly see an incredible resurgence in interest in all colored stones," Harebottle says.
    Gemma Arterton wears African emerald earrings at the Venice Film Festival in 2016
    Millennials are particularly keen on color, he adds.
    "[They] are somehow buying in different ways to what their parents did, and they are not as influenced by marketing."
    Harebottle thinks we will see more of the African gems in the future, calling the continent a "garden of Eden" for precious stones.
    "Africa is a treasure trove."