The Fab Five: World-Famous Gemstones

4 minutes minute read

There are approximately 200 naturally-occurring minerals in the world that we refer to as gemstones. These gems come in every color, quality, and quantity imaginable. But every so often, a jewel is discovered that distinguishes it from all other known gemstones, entrancing us with its rarity, beauty, and incredible story.


These one-of-a-kind gemstones and antique jewelry pieces discussed here are true legends. Whether owned by royalty, the social elite or simply heralded as the very best of its kind ever discovered, let's delve into the fascinating realm of famous gems.


1. The Mackay Emerald


The Mackay Emerald

The Mackay Emerald


Weighing an unbelievable 167.97 carats, the Mackay Emerald is the largest cut emerald in the Smithsonian's National Gem Collection. Mined in Muzo, Colombia, a locale acclaimed for its amazing emeralds, this gigantic green jewel was mounted by Cartier into a stunning diamond and platinum Art Deco necklace. In 1931, American financier Clarence Mackay acquired the emerald and diamond necklace and gave it as a wedding present to his new wife, Anna Case, a prima donna of the New York Metropolitan Opera.



Clarence Mackay with his wife Anna Case Mackay wearing the famed emerald.

Clarence Mackay with his wife Anna Case Mackay wearing the famed emerald.


According to accounts, Anna was invited to sing at a private party held at Mackay's home in 1916, two years after having divorced his first wife, Katherine Duer. Mackay instantly fell in love, but because of his personal beliefs, he would not propose marriage while Katherine was alive. Upon her passing in 1930, Mackay proposed to Anna and the two wed the following year at which time he gifted her this piece of emerald gemstone jewelry.


The cabochon-cut jewel presents the most perfect and desired green coloration for emeralds and is surrounded by 35 additional emeralds and 2,191 diamonds. When Anna died in 1984, she bequeathed the emerald to the Smithsonian Institute, where it can be viewed in the Gem Hall of its National Museum of Natural History.


View our current selection of rare and untreated emeralds


2. The Sunrise Ruby


The Sunrise Ruby

The Sunrise Ruby


Named after the poem by 13th-century poet Rumi, The Sunrise Ruby isn't just the world's most expensive ruby, but it is also one of the most expensive colored gemstones that's not a diamond.


Praised by the gem world's leading authorities, the 25.59-carat Sunrise Ruby is considered the rarest of all jewels. Originally estimated to be worth between $12 to $18 million dollars, this radiant ruby was sold in 2015 by Sotheby's Geneva in its Magnificent and Noble Jewels sale for $30.42 million dollars. The chairman of Sotheby's International Jewellery Division, David Bennett, stated that "during his 40 years in the industry, he has never before seen a ruby of this caliber." It has been evaluated by both Gübelin Gem Lab and the Swiss Gemological Institute, and both entities have praised the ruby's quality, finding the gem to be a natural, untreated Burmese ruby with perfect “pigeon blood” red coloration and incredible clarity and purity.


View our current selection of rare and important rubies


3. The Logan Sapphire


The Logan Sapphire

The Logan Sapphire


Known as one of, if not THE largest faceted sapphire in the world is the incomparable Logan Sapphire. The jewel hails from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) the world's prime location for exceptional sapphires and weighs an astounding 422.99 carats. The mixed cushion-cut jewel exhibits an incredibly rich, velvety blue coloration. It was examined and certified in 1997 by the Gemological Institute of America and found to be entirely natural and free of heat treatment, further stating in the report that the stone possesses “exceptional clarity” for a sapphire of its magnitude.


It is believed the Logan Sapphire was acquired from a maharajah in India by Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon, 3rd Baronet of Bombay. At some point in time, it became the possession of American statesman and World War I veteran Colonel Meyer Robert Guggenheim of the prominent Guggenheim mining family. In the early 1950s, the Colonel gave the sapphire to his wife, Rebecca Pollard, as a Christmas gift. She kept the sapphire after Guggenheim died and she remarried John A. Logan, from which the stone's name derives. In 1960, Mrs. Logan donated the sapphire to the Smithsonian Institute, where it can now be seen in the Gem Hall, along with the Mackay Emerald.


View our current selection of rare and important sapphires


4. The Aurora Australis Opal


The Aurora Australis Opal

The Aurora Australis Opal


Over 95% of the world's finest opals hail from Australia, with the Lightning Ridge region producing the most incredible black opals ever discovered. Named after the natural electrical phenomenon the play of color in this striking gem evokes is the ethereal Aurora Ausralis. This wonder of nature weighs a mesmerizing 180 carats, measuring 3-inches by 1.8-inches, and is believed to be the most valuable black opal in the world.


Discovered in 1938 approximately six meters from the surface in the remains of what was once a seabed, the back of the opal actually bears the impression of a starfish! The extraordinary range of color, from deep reds and blues to intense greens and yellows, is second-to-none. Valued at $1 million dollars, the jewel was cut from a 12-ounce (1,860-carat) rough that, at the time, was not considered of any value. The rough was acquired by the renowned Australian opal firm of Altmann & Cherny, who cut and polished the gemstone as it's seen today in the firm's Sydney showroom.


View our current selection of rare and important opals


5. The Black Prince's Ruby (Spinel)


The Black Prince's Ruby is set within the British Imperial State Crown.

The Black Prince's Ruby is set within the British Imperial State Crown.


The history of this royal gem can be traced back to its first known owner and namesake. England's Edward of Woodstock, better known as the “Black Prince,” was given this 170-carat spinel in 1367 by the Moorish Prince of Granada in exchange for the English sovereign's military assistance in putting down a revolt. Some accounts say Edward demanded the ruby as payment, while others say it was willingly given to him.


However it was acquired, it has remained within the Royal Family since. Kings from Henry V through Richard III wore the jewel in battle, as it was believed the ruby was a symbol of courage and vitality, protecting the wearer from evil and misfortune. Today, the Black Prince's Ruby holds a place of prominence within the Imperial State Crown of England mounted directly above the Cullinan II diamond.



Queen Elizabeth II wearing the Imperial State Crown.

Queen Elizabeth II wearing the Imperial State Crown.


But what makes this gemstone's story even more fascinating is the fact that it's not actually a's a spinel! So why is it still referred to as a ruby?


Before modern technology, spinels and rubies were both known as “balas rubies” or simply rubies. It wasn't discovered until 1783 that the two gems, though they look incredibly similar, possess very different chemical properties: rubies being the red crystalline variety of aluminum oxide known as corundum, while red spinels are composed of oxygen, iron, magnesia, and chromium. Even after this realization, the ruby moniker just stuck, and continues to be referred to as a ruby to this day.


Browse our selection of antique opal rings.



Sign up below to be the first to know about new acquisitions, exhibits, blogs and more.

Back to Top
back to top

Shopping Bag

Your shopping bag is currently empty.