Romance And The Stone

A rare Burmese ruby memorializes a philanthropic woman

At 23.1 carats, the gem is one of the largest Burmese rubies in the world. Chip Clark/National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

We don't need Wagner or Tolkien to tell us how powerful rings can be, though it must be said those two make the point pretty convincingly. Most of us have conducted our own ring cycles since childhood. When I was a boy, one of my most prized possessions was a cheap plastic ring, acquired perhaps by mailing in cereal box tops. I want to think that it had some tenuous connection to the effort to defeat the Axis powers late in World War II, a struggle my friends and I desperately wanted to be a part of. I seem to recall the ring had a compartment for secret information, but that may be a trick of my memory. I remember clearly, though, that the ring made me a star among my 7-year-old spies-in-waiting, a status that I hoped to retain with my high-school ring and my college ring, both now as lost, in my case, as the legendary golden trinket forged by Alberich and the Nibelung.

But it is as tokens of love that rings are most endearing. Those of us who have repeated the life-altering words "With this ring, I thee wed" know the sudden, thrilling significance a simple circlet of gold can convey. With such rings, we put into material form that ineffable bond that holds two people together, sometimes forever. On my own left ring finger I wear a gold band first worn by my wife's grandfather, a World War II general, a ring now incalculably more important to me than any of the prized rings of my youth.

When the romantic aura of a ring is combined with the drama of a precious jewel, the effect can be powerful. I well remember sitting in a New Orleans restaurant of a late summer afternoon, mesmerized by the astonishing spectrum emitting from a diamond ring on the gracefully gesturing hand of a woman seated at a nearby table. As she spoke to friends, her hand passed through the rays of sun slanting through a window high on the opposite wall, sending a shower of sparks all over the restaurant. It was as if she were conducting her own concert of color.

Combine a ring made to show off a legendary gem with a love that has transcended death, and you have what Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, calls "the most important addition to the collection in the 20 years that I’ve been here." The ring in question is a 23.1 carat Burmese ruby flanked by two triangular diamonds. Its acquisition was made possible last August by Peter Buck, an investor and physicist, now retired from Schenectady, New York's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, in the name of his wife, Carmen Lúcia Buck, who died in 2003.

Mrs. Buck, born in Brazil, was a collector of jewels as well as a philanthropist dedicated to medical research, the aged and children in Brazil. She had learned of the ruby from jeweler Frank Cappiello of Danbury, Connecticut, who, in 2002, had heard that it might be coming on the market after many years in private hands. At the time, she was fighting cancer and hoped to celebrate a recovery by purchasing the stone. Though this was a consummation only to be wished, her husband decided to honor her by providing funds for the Smithsonian to purchase what is now known as the Carmen Lúcia ruby. At the museum, it joins such legendary jewels as the Hope diamond and the 423 carat Logan sapphire.

The oval-shaped ruby was mined in the 1930s in the Mogok region of Burma, now also known as Myanmar—the classic source of great rubies, according to curator Post—and is one of the largest fine faceted Burmese rubies in the world. (Burmese rubies are prized for their color; the Carmen Lúcia is a bright red with undertones of pink and purple, a coveted hue known to gem dealers as "pigeon blood red."”) The stone's provenance since it was first cut is unclear. "We don't know who owned the stone before international gem dealers bought it 15 years ago," says Post, "but it's not so unusual to have remarkable stones remain for generations in private family vaults." When such a treasure surfaces, Post says, "it causes a major stir in the gem world."

A nuclear physicist by training, Buck helped underwrite a friend's submarine sandwich shop. The shop evolved into the Subway chain. Buck has not revealed the amount of his donation to the Institution to purchase the ring.

But its value, as is so often the case with rings, lies more in its meaning than in dollars. As an expression of the abiding love of a man for a woman, the Carmen Lúcia ruby ring should sparkle for all who see it in the years ahead. "Already," says Buck, "the ring has probably been seen by more people than had seen it altogether since it was first unearthed in the 1930s."

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