Spinel is a good candidate for the title of “History’s Most Underappreciated Gem.” Some ancient mines that supplied gems for royal courts from Rome to China produced spinel, but it was usually confused with better-known stones like ruby and sapphire.
In ancient times, the mines of central and southeast Asia yielded exceptionally large spinel crystals. These fine stones became known as Balas rubies, and some of them were the treasured property of kings and emperors, often passing through many hands as spoils of war. As a result, some of the world’s most illustrious “rubies” are actually spinel.
One of the most famous examples is the so-called “Black Prince’s ruby.” This historic crimson-red gem is set in England’s Imperial State Crown and displayed in the Tower of London. Smoothly polished and roughly octagonal in shape, it was probably mined in the mountains of Afghanistan. It first appeared in the historical records of fourteenth-century Spain, and was owned by a succession of Moorish and Spanish Kings before Edward, Prince of Wales—the “Black Prince”— received the stone in 1367 as payment for a battle victory.
Since then, many other English monarchs—including Henry VIII—have cherished the gem. It’s outlasted them all, surviving fires, attempted theft, and World War II bombing raids, to become—with the Koh-i-Noor diamond—one of the centerpieces of England’s Crown Jewels.
Another large spinel in the Crown Jewels, the “Timur ruby,” weighs over 350 carats. It, too, has a checkered history. Several Persian inscriptions carved into the gem testify to its age.
Modern technology hasn’t helped spinel’s confused identity as far as the general public is concerned. This is due largely to the widespread use of synthetic spinel as an imitation for many other gems. Most customers aren’t even aware that there’s a natural version of the stone.