The Origins of Red

Image courtesy Yoghendra Singh, Unsplash


Hot, powerful, energetic, romantic, passionate and sexy, red ruled the runways for the past couple of seasons and the hue continues to enchant going forward. From vibrant crimson and scarlet to earthy burgundy and ox-blood, red in all its shades dominates. Designers from Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs to Jil Sander and Ferragamo, were all on the red wagon showing the hue generously in their collections.

Red Hot

Art Deco Burma ruby, diamond and platinum ring

Attention grabbing red has been around since the cavepeople. They used ochre, a natural red clay, to decorate their caves and for an early fashion statement (more likely for a ritual) as a body paint. Speaking of a fashion statement, brides in ancient Rome wore red shawls to show love and fidelity, while brides in China also wear the hue, as do some in other Asian countries as well, symbolizing good luck, happiness, wealth, fertility, beauty and purity.

In the Middle Ages, in Europe, red became associated with royalty, because the color was believed to represent their God given right to the throne. It was also the color of the clergy symbolizing the blood of Christ. Red was also an expensive color to make so it was affordable for only the most privileged in society.

Aztec Red

Ruby and 18-karat gold earrings

The color became even more expensive after the Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico in the 1500s and saw the Aztec leaders resplendent in their red finery, a much brighter and more brilliant shade of red than what was available in Europe. It turned out that the red was created from a tiny bug: The cochineal, which lived on cactuses. The bugs were removed from the plant, dried and ground up to create a ravishing red. The red dye was so valued that it was a controlled substance and its use was limited to an elite part of society.

During the Renaissance red took centerstage in art when the color was used to show wealth and status. The color became more obtainable to the masses as more affordable forms of red dyes and paints became available in the ensuing years.

Red Roars in Fashion

Ruby, diamond and 18-karat gold ring by Maubossin, circa 1970s, French

Today red has made a roaring comeback in fashion. Designer Prabal Gurung told British Vogue’s, Charlotte Sinclair, in her article “The Power of Red” that red is “femininity with a bite.” While Bill Blass stated that “when in doubt wear red.” The past couple of season’s red has made a fashion splash in everything from garments to accessories. Along the way red has seen some changes from the bright yellow based reds to the more sensual blue based reds of burgundy and maroon to the earthy brown-tinged red of ox blood. Much like gemstones the secondary color modifies the main hue creating a nuanced version of the shade.

Ruby Red

Ruby, diamond and 18-karat gold earrings by Fasano, Italian, accompanied by an SSEF report

Ruby is one of the most beloved red gemstones and it will show different aspects of the color. It is very rare for a gemstone to have a pure color, generally there is a secondary or modifying color that results in the shade that we see. The ideal ruby, the one that everyone covets, is the one with no secondary or modifying tones. These rubies are often called “pigeon’s blood” because they are a brilliant red that is very rare and very valuable.

A ruby with a purplish modifying color will have a rich color that may make the red appear redder, while a ruby with some brown in it will have a more earthy tone, a ruby with a yellow modifying color will have a warm, fiery look to it that leans towards orange.

Rubies get their red color from traces of the element chromium. The more chromium the more red the ruby will appear. Secondary colors are created when another trace element gets into the stone while it is forming. Titanium can intensify the red hue, while traces of iron will create a yellow or brown modifying color.

Much like when you choose a red dress to wear, you look at the choices and decide upon the shade of red that best suits your style and taste. It’s the same thing with a ruby, or other colored gemstone that you may consider purchasing, the big difference however is that the shade of the colored gemstone will make a difference in the value of the gem. If you find yourself attracted to a particular stone because it’s a hue that you love and that makes you feel confident and empowered, just like the color red, then it may just be the gem for you.

Top of page: Image courtesy Yoghendra Singh, Unsplash

Art Deco Burma ruby, diamond and platinum ring; Ruby and 18-karat gold earrings; Ruby, diamond and 18-karat gold ring by Maubossin, circa 1970s, French; Ruby, diamond and 18-karat gold earrings by Fasano, Italian, accompanied by an SSEF report.

Authored by Amber Michelle