Rubies are like caviar: Their origin is an important part of their market value.
Until a month ago, anyone interested in buying a big ruby knew with certainty that Myanmar, formerly called Burma, produced the most valuable stones. For eight centuries the gems in a deep red shade known as “pigeon’s blood” found in the legendary Mogok mines had reigned supreme, attracting prices far higher than rubies from Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam or East African countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya.
Then in June, the 55.22-carat Estrela de Fura, mined in Mozambique, sold for $34.8 million at Sotheby’s in New York — what the auction house called “a world auction record for a ruby and any colored gemstone.”
The stone, whose Portuguese name means Star of Fura, actually was one of three exceptional rubies auctioned in the past two months.
One, from Myanmar, had been the world’s highest priced ruby, but sold in May for far less than its estimate. (The industry continues to use the term Burmese for rubies from the country.)
The other — nearly equal in size to Estrela and also from Mozambique — went for a 10th of Estrela’s price, but an amount in line with previous sales from the country.
Still, the Estrela de Fura auction was a cause for celebration at Fura Gems, the ruby’s initial owner. “This is a new chapter for Mozambican rubies,” Devidas Shetty, the company’s chief executive and founder, said in a post-sale phone interview from its headquarters in Dubai. “It was time we positioned Mozambican rubies in the place they deserve.”
The sale — at a staggering price, on what appeared to be a single bid — has provoked a lot of eyebrow-raising in the jewelry industry. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that, however the price was achieved, the public will be paying more for rubies from the East African country.
And one question remains: When it comes to rubies, is Mozambique the new Burma?
Rubies, Rubies, Rubies
Fura is a privately owned company that mines emeralds, rubies and sapphires through its subsidiaries in Colombia, Mozambique and Australia. It was founded in 2017 by Mr. Shetty, a former chief operating officer and board member of the London-based Gemfields, another global gemstone miner.
In July 2022, Fura reported the discovery of a 101-carat rough stone from its Montepuez mine in northeastern Mozambique; rubies were first discovered in the country in 2009 and now the industry generally considers it to be the world’s most prolific source of rubies of all grades.
Fura Gems does not publish its results, but Mr. Shetty said the mine produced approximately 10 million carats of rubies in 2022, and that “our production target is gem quality stones between 0.25 to 40 carats, so finding a 101-carat rough was a very rare event.”
Vincent Pardieu, a field gemologist familiar with Mozambican rubies, said the Montepuez region produces two types of rubies: “iron-rich gems in darker tones that are usually clean and large, up to 40 carats, while the rest of the deposit, including Fura’s area, produces stones that are usually smaller with more inclusions, and pinkish to red with a brighter, fluorescent color.”
“That second variety is comparable in color to Burma rubies based on its lower iron content, but it is extremely rare for a stone of that variety to have good clarity at weights over 10 carats,” he said.
The Fura stone was sent to Bangkok, the global hub for cutting, polishing, heating and trading gemstones since the 1970s, to be cut by François Garaude, a Paris-based gem dealer with a cutting and distribution operation there.
“We were very nervous about cutting because the rough had tremendous potential,” as well as significant challenges, Mr. Garaude said. “But for a 55-carat stone, we achieved remarkable symmetry and balance.”
Meantime, the Horten Sale
Shortly after Estrela de Fura began a world tour in April to generate interest in its sale, two other important rubies came up for auction at Christie’s in Geneva: the 25.59-carat Sunrise Ruby, a Burmese gem at the center of a Cartier-designed platinum and diamond ring, and the 54.95-carat Star of Africa, a Mozambican stone in a diamond-studded pendant by Harry Winston. Both were highlights of the jewelry collection owned by the billionaire Austrian art collector Heidi Horten.
On May 10, the Sunrise Ruby was hammered for 11 million Swiss francs ($12.25 million), selling for 13,055,000 with fees, less than its pre-sale estimate of 14 million Swiss francs — and less than half of the 28.25 million Swiss francs that Ms. Horten paid for it in 2015.
The Star of Africa sold two days later for 2.7 million Swiss francs, including fees. Its price per carat — 50,000 Swiss francs — exceeded its auction estimate, but without achieving extraordinary heights.
While the cost of a ruby varies widely, depending on factors such as quality and size, Mozambique rubies traditionally have been a cheaper alternative to Burmese rubies, selling at a fraction of Burmese prices even when stones were of comparable size and quality. “For the same quality, you would pay 10 times more for a ruby from Burma than Mozambique,” Laurent Decque, director of the Paris-based gemstone dealership Imagem, said in 2021.
There has been considerable discussion in jewelry circles about the current price of Burmese rubies in the wake of Sunrise Ruby’s poor performance at the Horten auction. But, “when the Sunrise Ruby was sold at auction in 2015, its starting estimate was 11 million francs,” Max Fawcett, head of jewelry at Christie’s Geneva, wrote in an email. “It was due to two bidders at the time that the price went as high as it did then.”
An issue may have been the ruby’s origins in Myanmar. Jewelry houses including Tiffany & Company, Cartier and Harry Winston no longer buy Burmese stones, regardless of their age, to avoid business connections with a country where the army, known as the Tatmadaw, has repressed citizens, particularly ethnic minorities. And in 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department placed several entities related to Myanmar’s mining ministry on a “Specially Designated National” list, barring U.S. companies from trading with them, effectively banning Burmese gems in the country.
Ms. Horten’s family history also may have been a factor: She was the widow of Helmut Horten, a department store magnate whose Nazi-era connection was well known. “This particular auction was boycotted by certain trade buyers,” Alisa Moussaieff, the owner and chairman of Moussaieff Jewellers in London, wrote in an email. (She did not bid on the gem.)
Yet Christie’s reported a total of $202 million in sales, making the Horten auction the most successful jewelry auction in history, far surpassing the $137.2 million result when Elizabeth Taylor’s collection was sold in 2011.
The Estrela Auction
Against that background, Estrela de Fura was auctioned on June 8. Its pre-sale estimate was $30 million, even though no Mozambican ruby had ever sold at a public auction for that price.
The sale catalog noted that Sotheby’s had guaranteed the sale: An unidentified person had submitted what is called an irrevocable bid so that Fura, as the seller, was assured the minimum sale price, regardless of the auction’s outcome.
Bidding on Estrela began at $24 million and while no one in the room was seen to be bidding, it increased to $29 million, in $1 million increments, as the auctioneer announced to the silent audience that he had bids “with him.” A telephone bidder offered $30 million, and the auctioneer brought down the hammer.
In less than two minutes, Estrela de Fura was sold for a total of $34.8 million (including fees), bumping the price of a Mozambique ruby to $630,000 per carat, an amount that exceeded previous market prices by a factor of almost 10.
“We jumped for joy,” Mr. Shetty said. “I am happy that Mozambique gems will now go into a whole new category.”
Sotheby’s later identified the winning bidder only as a “Middle Eastern private collector.” Fura said last month it did not know the person’s identity.
Some in the gem trade have been eying the Estrela sale with skepticism, questioning the single bid and the huge price achieved under the usual cloak of auction house secrecy.
“In Bangkok, everyone is smiling about this auction,” Federico Barlocher, a Swiss mineral-gem collector and dealer, said in a phone interview from the city. “Not a single dealer bid in that sale.”
He added: “We may never know if Fura bought back its own stone, or if a behind-the-scenes deal was made with a third party,” to buy the stone for Fura. “But the sale raises many obvious questions, like why were there no other bidders and why would a wealthy buyer pay $3.48 million in auction fees when they could have bought directly from Fura?”
Asked about the auction, Mr. Shetty said he had no information about its operation beyond Sotheby’s post-sale news release. A spokesman for Sotheby’s also referred to the release and, asked about a third party sale, said, “We have no comment about this.”
As for the stone itself, industry figures are divided as to whether Estrela de Fura is a game changer for rubies in general. Jeffery Bergman, an American gem trader based in Bangkok, who viewed the stone on tour in Geneva, said, “It looks like a top quality Burma ruby, and its clarity is beyond exceptional for a stone over 10 carats.” But other dealers who had seen the stone called it “dark” and “milky.”
“Estrela is unique because there is no other stone its size and color on the market,” said Harish Lakhi, chief executive of Royal Gem Source, a dealership based in Bangkok. He examined the rough gem in Bangkok last fall and the cut stone in Geneva in May.
Adding to the questions was data published by two of the five laboratories that had been hired by Sotheby’s and Fura to assess the gem for the auction catalog.
In the catalog, all five listed Mozambique as the stone’s origin, but the full report from two of them — GemResearch Swisslab (GRS) of Meggen, Switzerland, and Bellerophon GemLab of Bangkok and Paris — said there were inclusions in the stone that are not commonly found in Mozambique’s Montepuez region. And Adolf Perreti, GRS’s chief executive, noted in an interview posted on his company website on May 26, two weeks before Estrela’s auction, that the ruby had inclusions of the mineral zircon that were “unseen in Mozambique stones.”
Mr. Pardieu, the field gemologist, did not examine the stone, but agreed that its general shape and the inclusions were not common for Mozambican stones. “The unusual rounded aspect of the rough, and the reported presence of very fine silk and zircon inclusions, would usually point to a Madagascar origin, particularly from the Zahamena and Andilamena areas,” he said, referring to northern regions of the island.
Mr. Shetty dismissed the idea, noting that all five laboratories identified Estrela’s origin as Mozambique. “As is often the case with high profile sales of this nature, “ he said, “there are unfounded theories regarding the stone’s origin which are not based in fact or reality.”
Whether the debate about Estrela ends with Mozambican stones routinely unseating Burmese rubies in price and desirability remains uncertain.
But it is sure that, for some, the excitement around the record-breaking auction has not diminished their regard for a reputation built over centuries. “I consider this an excellent buying opportunity for a gem pigeon blood ruby,” Mrs. Moussaieff wrote. “ If it appears.”