Summary
Over a decades-long career, Richard Hughes has gained extensive knowledge of ruby and sapphire gemstones. In this interview, he discusses how he became a leading ruby expert, reveals what he looks for in fine red corundum, and offers his advice for those starting out in the ruby trade.
Reading time: 6 min
mozambique ruby in chanthaburi

Rough Mozambique ruby in the Chanthaburi market, Thailand. Photo by Richard W. Hughes, Lotus Gemology.

Becoming a Ruby Expert

How did you get your start in the gem trade?

When I graduated from high school, a friend of mine and I set out for Europe. Our original plan was to spend the winter in Israel. My friend was Jewish, and that was his personal pilgrimage. At one point, I met an Australian who had just come from Asia. He described Europe as “a bit tame” and started spinning yarns about his trip overland from Australia. It sounded so exotic, so exciting, and when he mentioned Nepal, I was hooked. I had seen documentaries in school about “marching to Everest,” and the thought of walking in those footsteps was extremely exciting to me. My friend and I parted ways in Greece, he to Israel and I to Asia.

It was on the road to Nepal that my interest in gems was first kindled. The British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London had previously sparked my interest, but in Iran, Afghanistan and India, I was exposed to gems as a business. It seemed both fascinating and exotic. Later, after trekking to the base camp of Everest, I continued east to Myanmar. In Mandalay, I saw my first fine ruby and my first piece of jade.

child labor in burma

“Child labor” in the Mogok market, Myanmar. Photo by Wimon Manorotkul, Lotus Gemology.

Eventually, I settled in Bangkok and began studying gemology at AIGS. When I finished, they offered me a job. The Thai gem trade subsisted almost exclusively on ruby and sapphire at that time, so that’s what I was exposed to and that’s what I focused on. But on weekends, I also made many visits to the Myanmar border, mostly to Mae Sot, where ruby, sapphire, spinel, and jade would enter Thailand.

Tell me a little about your path to becoming a leading ruby expert.

After several years of working in the trade in Bangkok, I noticed that there were virtually no books specifically written on ruby and sapphire, so I wrote one, Corundum, and published it in 1990. But I wasn’t really happy with the result, so I spent several more years working on a book that would be full color and without compromise. The result was Ruby & Sapphire, which was published in 1997. In 2014, I published Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector’s Guide and, in 2017, Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist’s Guide. The latter is probably the most comprehensive book ever written on a single gem species.

books by ruby expert richard hughes

Books authored or coauthored by Lotus Gemology’s Richard Hughes, Wimon Manorotkul, and E. Billie Hughes. Photo by Wimon Manorotkul, Lotus Gemology.

What sort of research did you need to do for your books? Are they based entirely on your experience as a gemologist, or did you do additional research?

My books are based on my own experience, both in the lab and traveling (I’ve visited over 70 countries on all continents except Antarctica; it’s on my list), as well as a tremendous amount of research. I have one of the largest gemological libraries outside of the GIA; my last book had over 3,000 references.

books in ruby expert Richard Hughes's library

A small sample of books from ruby expert Richard Hughes’ personal library. Photo by Wimon Manorotkul, Lotus Gemology.

Ruby Trade Terminology

In your books, you’ve written a bit about the fuzzy distinction between ruby and sapphire. How do you decide whether to call a stone ruby or pink sapphire?

Like classifying “Pigeon’s Blood”, this is a judgement call. It’s actually a problem created by our language. To a color scientist, pink refers to the lighter tones of red. Historically, people considered both red and pink stones rubies. But in the late 19th century, someone incorrectly decided that pink is not red, and the problems began. Interestingly enough, in the Thai language, they divide blue in the same way we divide red. See fah means light blue and see num ngun refers to a deep blue. We don’t have a problem with blue sapphire, light or dark, it’s still sapphire. But we have a problem with ruby vs. pink sapphire because of our language. We always emphasize to our clients that they should buy gems, not paper. Meaning they should make judgements with their eyes, not by what a lab report says.

When was the first time you saw “Pigeon’s Blood” color? What was that like?

“Pigeon’s Blood” is a term used in Myanmar that refers to the finest color of ruby. Of course, I saw fine rubies from the beginning of my career. The best stones are red-red and glow, something like a red stop light.

mogok rubies

Ruby for sale in Mogok, Myanmar. Photo by Richard Hughes, Lotus Gemology.

Choosing a Ruby

As a ruby connoisseur, what do you look for in a fine gem?

When I was younger, I was drawn towards stones that had the most vivid color. Now, 40 years on, I tend to look for balance, stones that are eye clean, nicely cut, and with a color that is not too dark or light. I would rather have a stone with life, as opposed to a piece with vivid color but on the dark side.

In your career you’ve handled a lot of ruby. Is there one stone that’s completely blown you away?

Actually no, because there is no perfect ruby, at least in any size above one carat. Ruby is so rare and there is always something that could be better, in terms of color, clarity or cutting.

mozambique rubies

Mozambique ruby from rough to cut. Rough from left to right: 15.79, 19.77, and 22.30 cts. After faceting: 8.52, 8.41, and 13.22 cts. Photo by Wimon Manorotkul, Lotus Gemology.

Some people have very strong opinions on treated gems. Where do you stand on ruby heat treatment? What about other treatments? Lab-made gems?

Gems have been treated since the beginning of time, and I have no problem with treated stones or synthetics. But the customer should be clearly informed about what they are buying. As for myself, I would generally avoid spending serious money on a treated stone, and obviously you should never spend serious money on a synthetic.

Advice and Highlights from a Career as a Ruby Expert

Have there been any major disappointments in your career?

Not really. I’ve led a blessed life and have had a chance to do almost everything I’ve wanted to do. Of course, there are always more places to go.

Any major highlights?

I think the biggest highlight of my life is having my daughter, Billie, join our company, Lotus Gemology, and watching her grow into the job. She is doing great things, particularly in the realm of photomicrography, so much so that people often refer to me now as “Billie’s father.”

mining in madagascar

The Lotus Gemology family mining sapphire at the “Swiss Bank” at Ilakaka, Madagascar, 2016. From left: Wimon Manorotkul, Richard Hughes, and Billie Hughes. Photo: Lotus Gemology.

What advice do you have for someone new to dealing in ruby?

First, you need to educate yourself, to learn as much about the subject as possible. You can do this by visiting shows, dealers’ offices, markets, museums, etc.

When it comes to buying, unless you have unlimited funds, it’s best to start slow. You can often learn the same lessons from buying a $100 gem as a $10,000 gem, so move slowly up the food chain. Catch a few guppies before going shark fishing.