When one gem importer buys pink sapphire from Burma tribesmen, they call it ruby -- and don’t take kindly to contradiction.
When another importer buys pink sapphire from Sri Lankan dealers, they call it padparadscha (an extremely rare pinkish-orange sapphire) -- and act offended if you suggest otherwise.
The debate arises from the fact that ancient gem connoisseurs, lacking the science of gemology, named gems according to color, not chemistry. As a result, different colors of the mineral corundum ended up with different names: Ruby when it was red, sapphire when it was blue, hyacinthus when it was yellow, and oriental amethyst when it was purple. When it was later discovered that all these gems were the same mineral, all colors but red were named sapphire.
Starting around the turn of the last century, “all colors put red” began to include pink, meaning that pink corundum should be called pink sapphire, not ruby. But this creates a tricky border: when does red become pink?
Many dealers, as well as gemologists, contend that calling any pink corundum “sapphire” is a misnomer. Pink, they argue, is simply light red and, therefore, all such stones should be called ruby. If the trade must use the term pink, this faction urges that such stones be known as pink ruby rather than pink sapphire.
But pink sapphire specialists seem content to leave things as they are. “It’s a gemological issue. Pink is just different than red,” says one New York gem dealer. “So leave the pink corundums associated with sapphire and the red ones associated with ruby.” It is a sign of pink sapphire’s growing acceptance that more and more dealers agree with him.
The sapphire-versus-ruby nomenclature battle revolves around money. Since ruby is usually far more expensive than sapphire, it is hoped that being able to call sapphire ruby will entitle dealers to charge more for it. That’s hoping for a lot. A name change would help reddish-pink Burmese and Vietnamese sapphires that might qualify as borderline rubies. The gem name on the grading report, whether the stone is dubbed a light ruby or a dark pink sapphire, does make a difference in the selling price for these gems. But the rest of the time, calling pink red makes about as much sense as calling it white.