By David Federman
When I first started writing about colored stones in 1977, the phrase “pigeon’s blood” was a connoisseur term reserved for a handful of rubies that dealers felt exhibited consummate color. This term incorporated factors such as hue and tone into an intuitive aesthetic judgment based on extensive past experience. To even qualify for consideration as a “pigeon’s-blood” ruby, stones had to be of provable Burmese origin and show no sign of heat treatment. The term was ultra-restrictive to begin with. It was never meant to serve as a quantitative gemological designation or color grade.
Indeed, during one interview with famous 46th Street cutter Reggie Miller, he called in two close dealer friends to confer on and agree that the gems he was showing me were exemplars of the term. That color, which writer Richard Hughes describes as “stop-light red” and dealer Benjamin Zucker once likened to the red of a Marlboro cigarette box, was ravishing, unforgettable and seldom seen. Indeed, dealers acted protective of it, fearing mis- or overuse.
Flash forward to today, when a lab report that describes a ruby as “pigeon-blood” is virtually required for the sale of a significant ruby, leading to a bull market in pigeon-blood reports. Has the overall quality of rubies on the market improved? Or are we now experiencing a bubble of color grade inflation in the ruby market? To answer that question, we must look closer at the use of “pigeon’s blood” in the past and trace it to the present day.
FROM EXCLUSIVE TO INCLUSIVE
The term “pigeon’s blood” is said to be ancient. But etymological research to substantiate this claim fails to support this claim. In his authoritative book, “Rubies and Sapphires,” published in 1997, Richard Hughes traces vague, wide-berth usage as far back as 1348 in a gem treatise by al-Afkani. “Rummani [ruby],” al-Afkani writes, “has the color of the fresh seed of pomegranate or of a drop of blood (drawn from the artery) on a highly polished silver plate.”
No mention is made of the specific animal from which the blood is drawn. Indeed, at his Lotus Labs web site, where Hughes regularly updates his findings on this term, he says the earliest mention in English of the term “pigeon’s-blood red” as a comparative term for ruby dates from 1849. That’s considerably less than 200 years ago. Hughes, who is as witty as he is thorough, finally takes matters into his own hands by cleverly comparing the red of a ruby to the stop-light red of a pigeon’s eye.
Nevertheless, once introduced into the trade, the term “pigeon’s blood” took a grip as tight as an eagle’s talons (to keep the ornithology analogies going). In 1900, gemologist Max Bauer practically canonized it in his great tome, “Precious Stones.” There he pontificates as follows: “The shade of color which is most admired is the deep, pure carmine-red with a slight bluish tinge. This colour has been compared by the Burmese to that of the blood of a freshly-killed pigeon, hence the references to such stones as being of ‘pigeon’s-blood’ red.”
Once “pigeon’s blood” became accepted nomenclature for upper-echelon Burmese ruby, the term remained analogical. No attempt was made to correlate it with any color measurement and/or communication system such as Munsell or CIE. The AGL system, popular in the 1980s, was purely visual and, to its credit, did not try to postulate correspondences between its grades and standard trade jargon. Some stones that earned its top grades of 3.0 and 3.5 were likened to “pigeon’s blood” while others were not. Exceptionally rare stones that the lab felt deserved to designated “pigeon’s-blood red” were given this honor only in special detailed supplements that accompanied their reports. Even now, this is the lab’s policy for use of the term “pigeon’s blood.” But lab director Chris Smith freely acknowledges this purist stance has cost him customers.
THE CASE FOR “PIGEON’S BLOOD” PEDIGREES
It is generally conceded that gemologist Adi (short for Adolf) Peretti is responsible for lab adoption of “pigeon’s blood” as a broad color category. In 1998, his Bangkok-based GRS Lab started issuing reports for corundum that expanded the eligibility of rubies for the prized designation of “pigeon’s-blood red” to stones regardless of place of origin. “It is not reasonable to disqualify mining areas based on a color grading system, which only allows for those with a traditional heritage (e.g. ‘pigeon’s blood’ label only granted from Burmese rubies),” Peretti states on his Web site.
Many gemologists applaud what one, speaking off the record, called this “nomenclature liberalization.” As this gemologist understands GRS grading policy, Peretti has destroyed the “tyranny of origin.” He continues: “Ever since Africa became a major ruby producer, many stones have come on the market that are Burma-like in color. Yet they are stigmatized for their birth elsewhere. By making ‘pigeon’s blood’ purely a color category, all natural rubies with a Burma-type appearance are entitled to the prestige and prices once reserved for Burmese goods.”
No doubt about it, Peretti’s decision to extend admissibility of rubies from every mining source to having their color labeled as “pigeon’s blood” addresses a long-standing favoritism toward Burmese material. Even defenders of traditional ruby preferences concede that their predilection dates from a time when Asia was the primary source of ruby–and stones from Burma’s legendary Mogok tract accorded highest value. In recent years, however, the Burma mystique has been clouded by discovery of a second major ruby deposit at Mong Hsu whose material is generally of far lower quality than that found at Mogok. Consequently, Peretti argues, Burma-origin alone is no longer a valid provenance. Dealers we talked to concede that Peretti has a point and that Burma origin should be qualified as “Mogok.”
In the meantime, stones from Mozambique are said to rival Mogok’s in color. “Should Africa be penalized as a latecomer to the ranks of suppliers of magnificent rubies?” one asks.
Nevertheless, use of the term “pigeon’s-blood red” is—whether or not intended—a reaffirmation of the Burma mystique. This leads to a second problem with building a color-grading standard on a metaphoric term.
Building a standard depends on building a consensus among experts. Peretti’s standard is unilateral and represents only his own opinions. “One man’s thinking cannot make a standard–especially one having to do with aesthetic judgment,” Arem says. “There needs to be consultation to define all the elements of the standard and then to make sure there is a means by which users of the standard can prove adherence to it. That would mean looking at an awful lot of stones, agreeing on what constitutes ‘pigeon’s blood,’ then translating these factors into a truly objective (i.e. scientific and instrumental) framework of communication. This process could take years–and I have my doubts whether it could be completed. Never forget you are trying to quantify a subjective term that has defied standardization for centuries. Also, consensus has never been a strong point within the gem and jewelry industry”
Ironically, there is one element of the currently accepted pigeon’s-blood ‘standard’ that is not subjective and on which all participants in a standardization project could agree: origin, the very criterion of value Peretti and others seek to eliminate. After all, determining origin depends on finding geological and gemological signatures in a stone which conclusively prove it is Burmese. “There are useful gemological methods for proving origin in many cases,” Arem says. “So if you are attaching significance to a particular locality, such as Burma, you at least have a chance to validate any perceived augmentation in value using some kind of objective test. But this added value should always be recognized for what it is, a locality pedigree, not a color designation.”
David Federman is the author of The Consumer Guide to Colored Gemstones, Gem Profile: The First 60, Gem Profile 2:The Second 60, and a co-author of The Professional’s Guide to Jewelry Insurance Appraising and The Pink Pearl. As a journalist for Modern Jeweler and JCK magazines for more than 30 years, he helped to create the groundbreaking gemstone treatment disclosure system now used by the industry today. His popular column Gem Profile for Modern Jeweler magazine won more Neal Awards than any feature in the history of the awards.