There is also… an other kynde of Rubies which wee caule Spinelle.Richard Eden, 16th century alchemist, in 1555
Until 1783, red and pink spinels were confused with rubies. Even after spinels were known as fine pink gems, people still referred to them as “balas” or “balais” rubies. This term derives from an ancient word for Badakhshan, a province north of Afghanistan, where the mines were.
These Kuh-i-Lal (‘red mountain’) mines were the world’s primary source of large spinels from the 1st century AD. Marco Polo (c.1254–1324) described how “fine and valuable balas rubies” were dug only for the King. The King himself owned the entire supply, and he would send it to other kings as tributes or as “friendly presents”.
Mughal emperors and their ancestors, the Timurids, valued large Kuh-i-Lal spinels for their beauty and as protective talismans. As a result, the gems were polished rather than cut. Moreover, these had often inscribed the names of rulers and monarchs to commemorate them.
The Carew Spinel
The Black Prince’s Ruby
One of the most spectacular Mughal spinels which ever entered a European royal treasury is the “Black Prince’s Ruby”. The gem is a large uncut red spinel that Pedro the Cruel gave to the Black Prince in 1367. The Black Prince’s Ruby adorned Henry V’s helmet at the Battle of Agincourt. It now belongs to the Imperial State Crown in the British crown jewels.
The Timur Ruby
The 361-carat “Timur Ruby”, also in the British crown jewels, was in the collection of Sultan Sahib Qiran and Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of the Punjab”. Believed to be a ruby until 1851, the Timur Ruby has inscribed the names of its five previous owners. In 1851 the Timur Ruby was on display at the Great Exhibition in London and then reclassified as a spinel. After the Great Exhibition closed, the Court of Directors of the East India Company offered the gem to Queen Victoria as a gift. It became her private possession, set in a necklace by R. & S. Garrard & Co, London, in 1853.
An important polished spinel decorates the Imperial Crown of Russia, made for the coronation of Catherine the Great in 1762.
More important spinel jewels
During the 19th century, spinels cutting followed European ideals to exploit their delicate rose hue and transparency best. Important spinels mounted during the 19th century include The Hope Spinel, weighing 50.13 carats and sold at Bonhams, New Bond Street in September 2015, the “ruby” jewels of Queen Therese in the Munich Treasury and the “Bagration” jewels, now in the collection of the Duke of Westminster.
Would you like to know more about collecting spinels? Then head to Bonhams’ website and read “Collecting 101 – Spinels”.