In this article, you’ll learn how to judge the quality of red gemstones — from the popular to the little known — and which ones are best suited for engagement rings or better reserved for a viewing collection. [Reading time: 15 min]
Can you guess what’s the stunning red stone in this necklace? It’s not a well-known gem, but the 28.14-ct rubellite tourmaline has remarkably strong color. © Zoltan David. Used with permission.
Table of Contents:
- Evaluating Quality in Red Gems
- Expensive Gems
- Red Gemstones Ideal for Everyday Wear
- Red Spinel
- Red Diamond
- Red Gemstones for Occasional Wear
- Red Beryl
- Fire Opal
- Sunstone and Oregon Sunstone
- Red Gemstones for Collectors
Evaluating Quality in Red Gems
Gemologists assess color by considering hue, tone, and saturation. Gemstones often have a secondary hue in addition to a primary hue. In red gemstones, the most common secondary hues are purple and orange. Connoisseurs consider a pure red or red with just a hint of purple to be the top quality in red gems. As the hue moves further from this ideal, value drops. That doesn’t mean that purple reds and orange reds aren’t beautiful in their own right. In fact, few gems approach the ideal red.
Red hues reach their gamut limit, or top saturation, at about 75-80% tone. That means that the red color can be most intense when it’s medium-dark. This vivid saturation will be bright like a red traffic light. Darker reds can tend toward brown. Light reds, below 50% tone, are pink. Although gemologists debate the distinction between red and pink, we’ll stick to reds with a darker tone for this article.
Clarity grades are less important in red gemstones than in colorless gems like diamond. That’s because the darker color helps to hide imperfections in the stone. However, avoid large inclusions or fractures, as these can still make the stone more breakable. In addition, eye-visible inclusions near the center of the gem will be more noticeable than those toward the sides.
Knowing whether the colored gemstone you’re buying is worth the price can be difficult. For any expensive purchase, we recommend using a trusted custom jeweler like CustomMade and educating yourself with our gemstone buying guides.
Red Gemstones Ideal for Everyday Wear
Looking for a red gemstone for a ring? These gems are your best options. Each of these stones rates at least a 6.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, making them resistant to scratches. They’re also less likely to break when accidentally dropped or knocked against a table. These tough red gemstones will hold up to everyday wear, making them ideal for engagement rings. With regular cleaning, they’ll keep looking as good as the day you bought them.
Of all red gemstones, none is so famous as ruby, the July birthstone and the classic red gem. These gems can reach a vivid, bright saturation made even more intense by fluorescence. That’s right, rubies can literally glow in the sunlight!
Among the rarest gems in the world, most rubies undergo heat treatment to improve their color — and increase their price. If a natural ruby is out of your price range, consider a lab-created stone. These have the same durability and beauty as natural stones but at a fraction of the price.
If you’ve never heard of spinel, you’re not alone. Some in the gem trade believe it’s one of jewelry’s best-kept secrets! Natural red spinel is an affordable alternative to ruby. In fact, a fine spinel adorns the British crown, and it’s called the Black Prince’s ruby. This gem has great wearability, too, making it an excellent choice for an engagement ring.
Tourmaline, a modern October birthstone, comes in every color of the rainbow. Trace amounts of manganese in the crystal structure cause red hues in tourmaline, and the red variety of tourmaline is called rubellite. Although these gems can have fantastic color, rubellites often contain inclusions. Still, for those looking for a raspberry red engagement ring, these gems offer another affordable alternative to rubies.
If you like the ultra rare, you might be interested in red diamond. In fact, only a handful of red diamonds have ever been mined. While most of these weigh less than one carat, the world’s largest red diamond, the Moussaieff Red Diamond, weighs 5.11 carats. Because of their rarity, these diamonds have sky-high prices, too.
If you’re not ready to drop six figures on a half-carat red diamond, you do have an affordable option. Consider getting a diamond treated with high pressure/high temperature (HPHT). These stones have prices similar to white diamonds but can give you that coveted red color.
Perhaps the best-known variety of chalcedony, carnelian is a tough, translucent gemstone that gets its red hues from iron. This alternative birthstone for Virgo has a long history of jewelry use and a rich body of folklore. If you want a stone to wear while sunbathing, this might be it. Heating can improve the natural red color in this gem, and the sun’s heat alone is enough to enhance it. However, gem dealers likely already improved the stone this way.
Another classic gemstone with many symbolic associations, garnets are plentiful and affordable even in large sizes. The traditional January birthstone is best known for its brownish red hues, but garnet actually occurs in virtually every color, depending on its exact chemistry.
Almandine garnets display the familiar brownish red color, but pyropes can have intense red hues, while rhodolites exhibit purplish red hues that many adore. Spessartites tend toward orange colors. Although the pure reds in pyrope fetch higher prices than other red garnets, they still make for affordable and durable gemstones.
Take a look at the range of hues in these garnets. All photos used with permission,
Similar to carnelian but more opaque, jaspers come in a wide variety of colors, including red. These abundant, tough stones are an excellent option for a pop of color in inexpensive jewelry. Jasper is also an alternative birthstone for February.
Red Gemstones for Occasional Wear
Not all red gemstones are ideal for rings. Some scratch easily, and others are likely to break if you accidentally knock the gem. While these red gemstones might not withstand everyday wear in rings, they still make great options for other types of jewelry or for occasional wear in rings. If you’d prefer one of the following gems for an everyday ring, use a protective setting to keep it safe.
Although resistant to scratches, topaz can chip easily. Nevertheless, this November birthstone is a beautiful choice for jewelry. While blue topaz is abundant and inexpensive due to advances in gemstone treatments, traditional yellow, orange, and red colors also remain popular. The red “imperial” topaz colors are especially rare, and top-color stones can fetch a good price.
Beryls come in many colors. Of course, the most popular are green (emerald) and blue (aquamarine). But, did you know it comes in red, too? Red beryls are found in only one spot in the mountains of Utah, making them truly rare gems. With a hardness of 7.5-8, these gems don’t scratch too easily, but they can break. Though rarely found in large sizes, they still make unique jewelry stones.
Pezzottaite is frequently called “raspberry beryl,” but this name isn’t quite accurate. In fact, this name has caused some confusion with red beryl, since pezzottaite is actually a different mineral. In 2003, miners discovered a bright pink lithium and cesium-bearing beryl analogue in Madagascar. This material is most commonly light in tone but can achieve rare, saturated raspberry red colors. Although it’s hard enough to resist scratching, this mineral frequently contains inclusions that can leave it vulnerable to breaking.
Red corals can be gemstones, too. Although most coral-producing areas have stopped harvesting coral due to sustainability issues, coral remains in demand in many parts of the world. Make sure the coral you purchase is secondhand or sustainably harvested. Unsustainably harvested coral is illegal to possess in many countries. Deep red colors are the most valuable and make for beautiful cabochon material. Still, coral is a soft gem susceptible to scratching, so don’t use it for everyday jewelry.
Not to be confused with cubic zirconia, a synthetic gem material, zircon is a fascinating gemstone in its own right. Although its fiery dispersion makes colorless zircon a natural diamond simulant, this gem comes in colors, too, including fantastic, bright reds. This color is usually the result of a low-temperature heat treatment, which lightens the gem and removes brown hues. Although these gems are reasonably hard, they can chip and abrade, especially along facet edges. Still, with proper care, a red zircon might be the sparkliest choice of all the red gemstones on this list.
Rare facetable red rhodochrosite occurs in only a few locales. More often, this gem is used in massive form to create attractive opaque pink cabochons, but the few red gems can be quite stunning. However, crystalline rhodochrosite is a delicate jewelry stone. It’s susceptible to scratching and breaking, and acids can dissolve the gem. Rhodochrosites have such high birefringence that some stones have a fuzzy, hazy appearance.
The “fire” in fire opal refers to the gem’s body color, which ranges from yellow to red. This opal may be translucent or transparent and may or may not show a play of color. Since Mexico is the principal source of fire opal, the trade name “Mexican opal” generally refers to this variety. Although the natural color of these gems is often quite attractive, the GIA has identified dyed specimens.
Sunstone and Oregon Sunstone
A variety of feldspar, sunstone and Oregon sunstone have glittery inclusions that create a unique schiller effect. These gems can come in fantastic red colors. With sparkling bits inside the stone, it’s no wonder how they got their names. However, these are actually two different gem varieties with a small distinction. In traditional sunstone, the inclusions are made of the minerals hematite or goethite. In Oregon sunstone, the state gem of Oregon, the inclusions are copper. Either way, this material makes for an interesting but somewhat soft red gemstone.
This somewhat soft, rare stone is more commonly found in mineral collections than jewelry collections. Nevertheless, with some care, friedelite could be worn as a jewelry stone. While facetable crystals are rare, translucent cabochons of this gem can make attractive and unique pieces.
If you like a little danger in your life, a small eudialyte gem just might become your favorite red gemstone. This mineral is rare in facetable form, but its bright colors are also attractive in massive rocks. However, you don’t want to wear a eudialyte above five carats in size. This mineral is mildly radioactive. In large sizes, it could give you a dose of radiation you’d rather avoid. You must also store this mineral carefully, too. Its irradiation can alter the color of other gemstones in your collection, and dangerous radon gas can build up in its container. For storage recommendations, see our article on toxic and radioactive gems.
Red Gemstones for Collectors
Some red gemstones won’t hold up to jewelry wear. Whether they’re too soft or too toxic, it’s best to keep the following gems for display only.
Even if it looks like rock candy, cinnabar is one mineral you don’t want in your mouth — or on your skin! That’s because it’s made of mercury sulfide. In addition to its toxicity, it’s so extremely soft you can even scratch with a fingernail. Leave this one in a display case where no children or pets can reach it.
This soft stone is a nightmare for faceters because it can cleave and fracture easily. For the same reason, crystalline rhodonite isn’t very suitable for jewelry use. Rhodonite most commonly occurs in pink, massive stones but only rarely as facetable material. Massive pink stones hold up better in jewelry because the piece can’t cleave in massive form. Either way, it makes an attractive collector’s stone.
Few locales produce cuprite in a form large enough to facet, but those rare cut red stones are beautiful. The dust from this soft copper oxide mineral is toxic, though skin contact with a finished gem should pose no health risks. Cuprite’s color can fade in sunlight. If you set this gem in jewelry, reserve it for evening wear.
Fantastic red hues have made proustite a favorite among collectors. This gem has a hardness of 2-2.5. That means almost any handling can produce scratches. In addition, this gem will turn black over time when exposed to light. Even though it’s best to store proustite in the dark and remove it only for occasional viewing, it still makes an excellent addition to any gem collection.
Containing both lead and hexavalent chromium, crocoite is a highly toxic gem. While handling crystals or finished gems shouldn’t pose any problems, be wary of mineral dust and keep these pieces out of reach of children and pets. Though it’s rarely transparent, this red gemstone can have bright hues.
This toxic red gemstone contains arsenic and was once a major source of this poison. Few faceters will handle realgar. Still, with the proper precautions, some lapidaries have cut this bright red gemstone. Understandably, most aficionados of unusual gemstones will keep realgar as a crystal specimen in a viewing collection.