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A Price Above Rubies

An unexpected discovery about a family heirloom doesn't make it any less precious

By Brenda Janowitz

The story went like this: my husband's Grandpa Ruby was a larger-than-life character, universally loved by everyone he met. His laughter was said to fill up a room, and he was movie-star handsome, with a full head of hair and eyes that sparkled. He'd had dance lessons as a child, so he was an incredible dancer, as well as being an accomplished athlete.

A pair of cufflinks in a jewelry box. Next Avenue, family heirlooms
Doug's ruby cufflinks  |  Credit: Brenda Janowitz

True to his name, he wore a ruby on his pinkie finger. A ruby for Ruby. As the sole grandson in the family, my husband, Doug, knew, for as long as he could remember, that he would be the one to inherit the ring. The ring was special. People knew Ruby by the stone he wore — it was part of the legend of Ruby Lebenbaum.

Ruby died when my husband was only twelve. Family members began to whisper — surely a twelve-year-old wouldn't inherit a stone so large, so valuable. But my mother-in-law, Judy, decided that Doug would take immediate ownership of her father's ring. But not to wear just yet. The expensive ruby would go directly into a bank vault for safekeeping. It would re-emerge when the time was right.

A New Setting for the Ruby

Years later, when Doug was in college, Judy determined that it was time: he was old enough to start wearing the ring, mature enough to take care of this priceless family heirloom. Pinkie rings were no longer in style, so Judy suggested a trip to the family jeweler to brainstorm ideas on how Doug could wear the ruby.

It felt like a rite of passage

Doug was excited to finally take ownership of the ring he'd admired throughout his childhood. It felt like a rite of passage — finally, his birthright. The jeweler suggested creating a pair of keepsake cufflinks; he'd have no problem converting the original ruby from the ring into a cufflink, and he'd easily be able to find a match for them to make a complete set.

Doug and Judy were thrilled. Ruby's ruby would live on, through their family, and Doug would have a reminder of his beloved grandfather whenever he wore the cufflinks. After all, heirlooms are an important reminder of our past. Seeing them can remind us of the person who gave them to us, and wearing them can give us the feeling that the person is still with us, their spirit conjured by the simple act of having one of their treasured items close.

A black and white photo of a man wearing a white button up shirt. Next Avenue, family heirlooms
Doug's Grandpa Ruby  |  Credit: Brenda Janowitz

I know the feeling. I have a few of my beloved Grandma Dorothy's rings and I wear at least one of them nearly every day. Some days, I wear three at a time. Every time I look at the rings, I think of my grandmother — the tiny but tough matriarch of our family. When I look at the gold ring with a giant star on it, I can't help but think of my childhood. Dozens of memories are filled with her, wearing that ring. And then one day, when we were both older, me, age 30, her, age 85, I told her how much I loved it, what it meant to me. She held it out for me to take.

"Why wait until I'm dead?" she said. "If you love it, why not take it now? That way, I can see you enjoying it."

And I did enjoy wearing it. (Still do. I'm wearing it as I write this.)

Doug was expecting to have a similar feeling when he wore his Grandpa Ruby's ruby, soon to be converted into cufflinks. He was excited as they stood at the jeweler's counter, ready for him to tell them how long it would take to source a matching ruby.

An Unexpected Revelation

"Let's take a look at this stone," the jeweler said, bringing the loop up to his eye. "Oh." He looked up at my husband and my mother-in-law, and then back down at the ring again. "So, we'll do a fake for the second cufflink?"


"Of course not," Judy said, furrowing her brow. Indignant. "Why would we get a fake?"

"You can keep the cost down, for one," the jeweler replied, still looking through the loop. "And, of course, you know that this ruby is fake."

The jeweler brought the loop down and looked at my mother-in-law and husband. Judy's face had gone pale. The jeweler had been incorrect. My mother-in-law did not know that the ruby was a fake.

The story, it seemed, had changed. Ruby's ruby wasn't a ruby, after all. The ring that they'd thought was so valuable that a twelve-year-old couldn't possibly take care of it, the ring that had sat, protected, in a safe deposit box for almost ten years, wasn't worth a fraction of what they'd originally thought. The priceless heirloom wasn't priceless, after all. The stone was made of paste.

The fate of the ring was decided.

"There's only one solution," Judy said, steadying her voice, "We buy two new rubies, and create the ruby cufflinks we originally intended."

"But I want Grandpa Ruby's stone," Doug said.

"Yes, but that's a fake," Judy said, still in shock over what she'd just learned. She was confused —there was no way that her mother would have bought a fake ruby for her father, all those years ago. Had she been duped when she originally bought the ring? But Judy couldn't ask, her mother long gone by this time.

"You don't want to put a real ruby in one cufflink," the jeweler told Doug, "and have a fake in the other."

"Then match my grandfather's stone with another fake," Doug said.

The fate of the ring was decided.

The Power of Heirlooms

A few weeks later, the cufflinks were ready. And with them, a new family legend was born. From the story of Ruby's ruby came a different story, and a mystery at that: was the ring ever real? Had it been real at one point, and then replaced? Or was it always made of paste?

It's not the monetary value that makes them important.

We would never find out.

Doug proudly wore Grandpa Ruby's cufflinks at our wedding, thankful to have a piece of his beloved grandfather with us for the important day. It didn't matter that the ruby wasn't quite as valuable as they originally thought. It didn't even matter that it wasn't really a ruby. What mattered was that when he wore the cufflinks, he felt like his grandfather was a part of our special day, as if he were looking down on us, seeing the man he'd become.

Because that's the power of heirlooms, isn't it? It's not the monetary value that makes them important. It's the person who once owned them, their memory. Their story that lives on through the person who wears it.

We will never know the true story of Grandpa Ruby's ruby. But as Doug proudly wears it for other important moments in our life, we realize: it doesn't matter.

Brenda Janowitz
Brenda Janowitz is the author of seven novels, including THE GRACE KELLY DRESS. Her eighth novel, THE AUDREY HEPBURN ESTATE, will be published by Harper Collins/ Graydon House on April 18, 2023. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Real Simple, The Sunday Times (UK), and Salon, amongst others. She is the former Books Correspondent for PopSugar. Read More
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