The Ruby Brothers

My jeweler friend Nan has a knack for making me fall in love with jewelry I didn’t think I cared about. Pearls, for example. She once walked into my house dressed all in black, her hair upswept, wearing a long strand of large, luminous freshwater pearls. They reached well below her waist; you could double and triple them. I didn’t wear pearls in those days, but suddenly I wanted hers. “Actually they’re quite heavy,” she said, taking them off and handing them to me. “I took three strands and had them strung together. Probably too much.” I put them on. They were too heavy. But before the visit was over I had ordered two 17-inch strands to be strung into one necklace. It wasn’t just the pearls I craved, it was the elegance of the woman wearing them.

That’s the thing: jewelry is about the wearer. It communicates something when it’s sitting in a case, but it says much more when worn by a living human being; it becomes part of a story. The ring below, for example, first entranced me when I saw it on Nan’s hand. “I got it in India,” she told me. “I bought it from the Ruby Brothers.” That was Nan’s name for the two jewelers she met in a very small shop in India, way off the beaten track.


Nan had traveled to India to attend a wedding in the family of a gem dealer she works with—one of those lavish affairs that goes on for days and involves elephants. In the photo above, taken at the Ruby Brothers’ shop, her hand still bears traces of decorative henna from the celebration.

The center stone is a ruby of that characteristic color that sometimes reads as cherry red and sometimes as deep magenta. (Rubies, remember, are red sapphires.) It’s a nice, lively stone, flanked by rose-cut diamonds, in a setting of high-karat gold. A traditional sort of setting. If you told me it was very old, I’d believe you. But the Ruby Brothers made it quite recently.

India has been a major jewelry center for centuries—at least since the early 1700s, when a luxury-loving Maharaja founded the city of Jaipur as the capital of Rajasthan and gathered the finest gem cutters and jewelry artisans there. Today, Jaipur is known for the cutting and polishing of colored gemstones, and for jewelry manufacturing on a large scale. When a gem dealer gets married, the bride and groom are sure to be draped with Maharaja-worthy bling.

The bride and groom

And so they were, above. Get a load of those emeralds, rubies and diamonds, not to mention the gold- and gem-encrusted fabrics. On such an occasion, wealth becomes one with beauty and artistry. Which, as we know, it doesn’t always.

Nan Irwin at the wedding. She brought home a suitcase full of saris and ancient textiles.

Nan traveled for two weeks in India, visiting jewelers, making connections, and buying gemstones (which she eventually sold to pay for the trip). She planned to stop for a single night at a luxury hotel in Udaipur, a palace in the middle of a lake. But when she got there, she was too exhausted to travel further. She stayed for days. The hotel upgraded her room. Every evening at sunset in the open air, musicians played and beautiful women danced. One day she took a boat to the town of Udaipur to explore the jewelry shops there. She found herself on the street below, where there was so much motorcycle traffic she ducked into a shop to escape it. That’s where she found the ruby ring.

The street in Udaipur where the Ruby Brothers had their shop. Note the brown cow.

After she returned to New York, it was a matter of days before a client bought the ruby ring right off her hand. By this time, I too had seen the ring and fallen in love with it. So Nan had the Ruby Brothers make two more, one for her and one for me.

This was not a simple process. The Ruby Brothers weren’t on the internet. To communicate with Nan, they had to visit a neighbor who had a computer. Their e-mails were few and far between; the exchange took months. Nan had to get them to scale down the design to fit my smaller finger. I think it loses a bit of opulence, but it’s still quite striking. On the hand, below, they look almost the same.

Nan’s ring, left, and mine, right

img_3458Over the years, Nan’s jewelry connections have been my way of traveling to India without boarding a plane. She got the diamond beads at left, which I wrote about here, from an Indian dealer. (It’s estimated that over 90 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in Surat, India, and Nan knew where to get some at a good price. Dangerous knowledge.) And then there were the bangles—in a traditional Indian style, with traditionally elegant workmanship. As usual, I first saw one on Nan. I ultimately bought three, below.


Diamonds, rubies, sapphires—white, red, and blue, just the right mix of funky and dressy. They can be worn almost anywhere. I’ve been known to wear all three on the Fourth of July. It’s as patriotic as I allow my wardrobe to get.

3 thoughts on “The Ruby Brothers

  1. What a wonderful blog title — ‘The Ruby Brothers’ — and the story (and pictures) of that ruby ring equally exotic and wonderful!


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