Book Review: Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel: An Archaeological, Textual and Cultural Study

Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel: An Archaeological, Textual and Cultural Study By Derek J. Content, 2016. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium,, 452 pages, illus., ISBN 978-2503568089. €150.00 hardcover.

While ruby, sapphire and spinel find occasional mention in books on engraved gems, no comprehensive text focusing on the history of these gems has been previously written. Thus the current work is welcome on that score alone. That it is the product of two true experts on antique gems—Derek Content and Riaz Babar—makes it all the more important.

Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel: An Archaeological, Textual and Cultural Study is split into two volumes. ‘Part I: Text’ is 191 pages long and gives a detailed historical description of these gems, from ancient times to the modern era. Following the Introduction are seven chapters. Chapters I and II cover the early history up through modern times (with the period after about 1830 AD being something of an afterthought). Chapter III deals with early mining technology, while Chapter IV covers fashioning methods. The remaining chapters cover usage, properties and nomenclature. Part I finishes with an epilogue, a comprehensive bibliography and a detailed index.

‘Part II: The Babar-Content Collection’ is 261 pages long and almost entirely composed of colour photographs (by Gonzalo Salcedo) and descriptions of 99 pieces in the combined collections of Riaz Babar and Derek Content. The photographs of each piece are excellent, and in the case of the many engraved pieces, wax replicas of the mostly Arabic inscriptions are also included, along with English translations. Approximate dates are given for each piece, increasing the value to scholars and appraisers alike.

As someone who has long been involved in researching these gems, this reviewer was extremely impressed by the high level of scholarship brought to bear on the subject. Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel is clearly aimed at an academic audience and is written with that in mind. Citations from the literature are both detailed and pertinent, with the original authors’ words quoted rather than paraphrased. Almost every page reveals a fascinating tidbit or three, not just about these gems, but also about life, society and culture in early times. More importantly, this book gathers together an astonishing amount of information from disparate fields and sources and places it into a modern gemmological and historical context, correcting many of the errors of previous authors, who often lacked gemmological training.

This is an extremely important book on the history of gems and jewellery. If there are any flaws, they are that Part I is completely devoid of illustrations, and not a single map appears anywhere in the entire set. While scholars in the field will know the location of many of the places named in the text, adding maps and other illustrations would have enriched the reading experience for more casual readers. But these are small quibbles when one takes into account the decades of work in both collecting and research that

Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel represents. Not only would I highly recommend this book to gemmologists, but would suggest it is a must-buy for appraisers and jewellery historians.

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About the author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the Fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard and his wife and daughter's Ruby & Sapphire • A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology. In 2018, Richard was named Photographer of the Year by the Gem-A, recognizing his photo of a jade-trading market in China, while in 2020, he was elected to the board of directors of the Accredited Gemologists Association and was appointed to the editorial review board of Gems & Gemology and The Australian Gemmologist magazine. Richard's latest book, Jade • A Gemologist's Guide, was published in 2022.


Review first published in the Journal of Gemmology, 2016, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 367–368