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Legends Throughout Time: 'The Big Three'

Today, it's far easier (and less dangerous) to own one of these precious gems, but it's nevertheless fascinating to learn their history. For example, did you know that emeralds were regarded by the ancient Egyptians as mystical and magical, and were often used in funerary jewelry for nobility? Or that during the Middle Ages, emerald was believed to ward off malaria? Or that Nero, an excitable fellow, would watch his gladiators through an emerald crystal and be calmed by the mayhem?

Of course, the world's finest emeralds come from Colombia, and during the late Renaissance, conquistadors plundered the Inca and Aztec societies for them. In fact, it is said that Francisco Pizarro was driven mad in his desperate search for more of these gems in El Dorado.

Rubies and sapphires also have their place in legend and history. The two are often linked because they come from the same family, corundum. (Rubies are the red corundum; all other colors, including yellow, pink, green and, of course, blue, are sapphires.) Second only to diamond in hardness, they have been fashioned into amulets, ornaments and dazzling jewelry since ancient times. Prized by the ancient Persians, who believed sapphire's deep blue color gave its reflection to the heavens, this September birthstone was also believed to protect the wearer against evil spirits and poisons. Its name comes from the Latin sapphiru, meaning blue. Sapphire was also a favorite of Marco Polo, who often presented this gem to dignitaries, such as Kublai Khan, throughout his travels.

The birthstone of July and the anniversary stone for the 15th and 40th years of marriage, ruby also has a fascinating history. During the Middle Ages, a ruby was worn by a knight into battle to strengthen his courage and turn the tide toward victory. A longtime favorite gemstone of India's maharajahs, rare rubies frequently bring record prices at auction.