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Crown belonging to the Bavarian Ruby and Spinel Parure.
Gemstones Jewellery Stories

Spinels – a bit of history

Bits of history and some masterpieces featuring the spinel - the gem that used to be mistaken for a ruby.

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

In the Victoria & Albert Museum collection in London, the Carew Spinel has inscribed the names of Emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

The Carew Spinel - Victoria & Albert Museum
The Carew Spinel – Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Spinel with engraved inscriptions to the Mughal emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and ‘Alamgir; drilled vertically; gold pin with diamonds at both ends; silk cords. Height 4 cm, width 2.3 cm and weight 133.5 carats.
Bequeathed by the Rt. Hon. Julia Mary, Lady Carew.

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 Imperial State Crown and The Black Prince's Ruby
The Imperial State Crown and The Black Prince’s Ruby. British Crown Jewels, London.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.

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.

The Timor Ruby
The Timor Ruby.
The ‘Timur Ruby’ (a spinel) at the necklace’s centre belonged to several Mughal emperors, including Shah Jahan, and like nos 224–5 came from Lahore in 1849. The necklace was designed to take the Koh-i-nûr as an alternative centrepiece, made for Queen Victoria.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

An important polished spinel decorates the Imperial Crown of Russia, made for the coronation of Catherine the Great in 1762.

Imperial Crown of Russia – this is an exact copy, using natural gems and white gold instead of silver.

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.

Crown belonging to the Bavarian Ruby and Spinel Parure.
Crown belonging to the Bavarian Ruby and Spinel Parure. Wikimedia Commons.
Tiara belonging to the Bagration Jewellery Parure
Tiara belonging to the Bagration Jewellery Parure. Image from orderofsplendor.blogspot.com

Would you like to know more about collecting spinels? Then head to Bonhams’ website and read “Collecting 101 – Spinels”.

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2 comments on “Spinels – a bit of history

  1. yes want to more about spinel , thank for sharing the information .
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