Spinel? Really, that cheap fake crap that you can get at Forever 21? Rare? You bet. To explain why, I have to take you time travelling; going back maybe a thousand years to the domains of some lost civilizations in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Spinel used to not exist; way back when, there were only rubies and sapphires. If it was red, it was a ruby. If it was a color other than red it was a sapphire. That was a pretty simple classification, the type of classification that drives my birding roommate up the wall. To me there are six kinds of birds: crows, seagulls, not-crows, and not-seagulls, chickens, not-chickens. I know I’m wrong, but it’s too much fun to watch him pop a vessel when I play the moron.
In the mountains of what is now the border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan shiny, gemmy red stones were discovered and a very primitive mining began.
Who commissioned the mine? When were they opened? The first known historical reference to these “rubies” was by the Central Asian Divinci of his day, Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973-1048):
Ruby mines are situated near the village of Warzqanj which is situated in the direction of Kharukhan while going from Badakhshan at three days’ journey. It is a part of an emperor’s domain, the capital of which is Shakasim, which is close to the mines producing this stone. The approach to the mines via this route is easier, and it passes between Shakkasmi and Shaknan. This is why the governor of Wakhan keeps the most precious jewels for himself, and precious jewels pass this way clandestinely. Jewels weighing beyond a certain size are prohibited from being carried outside the mine, and only stones weighing up to the sizes he has fixed or specified are permitted to be taken out.
It is said that the mine was located when there was an earthquake in the area and the mountain was cloven. Big rocks fell down and everything was destroyed. Rubies were disgorged in the process. Women thought the stone was something with which clothes could be dyed. They ground the stones, but no colour came out. Women showed the rubies to men and the matter was publicised. The king ordered the miners to locate the mine. When they found it they began to excavate it.
al-Bīrūnī 11th Century
al-Bīrūnī was an amazing person, by the way. A true polymath (renaissance man, genius, righteous dude), al-Bīrūnī spoke Persian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, and probably others. He was a master of physics, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, is known as the “the world’s first anthropologist”, and the founder of geodesy (the science of accurately measuring the surface, shape, and features of the Earth). This article isn’t about al-Bīrūnī, but maybe a future one will be, until then read up on the dude, he was amazing.
I digress… In the early 1970s, Dr. Mira Alekseyevna Bubnova, an anthropologist from the Tajik Academy of Sciences, found evidence that mining operations may have began as early as the 7th century. The empire of Shakasim funded and controlled the mining operations for the “rubies” and the local governor of Wakhan managed to keep the best stones for himself. There were also problems of miners “high-grading” the nicer stones for themselves (“high-grading”: that act of sneaking big, fancy stones or gold nuggets, etc, out of a mine) and then smuggling them out of the realm. The laws were fairly strict, only a stone smaller than a certain size was allowed to be removed from the mines, leaving many of the greatest stones right where they were found.
Some of the most famous rubies in the world came from these mines; the Timur Ruby, the Samarian Spinel, and the Black Prince Ruby. Wars were fought over various crown jewels; the majority of which managed to be coalesced by the Mughal Empire. The Mughals were a mix of Persian and Mongolian ancestry that were direct descendants of the Genghis Khan. These warrior lords invaded and ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The wealth of the maharajahs who ruled the empire were legendary. Portuguese and English sailors who were presented to the courts of these men told the world of the piles of jewels that surrounded them in the throne rooms and of the elaborate, ornate jewelry that adorned the monarchs and their family. Much of the gold that was discovered in the gold rushes of the Yukon, California, and Colorado went to the maharajahs to create their jewelry; where they traded their lesser stones for the gold. One particular tradition that began with the Mughal Maharajahs was to inscribe their names on the grand stones. Some saw this as vandalism while others, like Emperor Jehangir, saw it as a way for their name to live on forever. In his case, it has.
Rubies and Sapphires were so important to the world’s powers that England overthrew Burma to take theirs. It was not until gemological sciences started to become more refined by the 19th century, as did all sciences with the Industrial Revolution, that was realized that what we had been calling rubies and sapphires were not really exactly what we thought they were, but different stones that were basically named wrong. It turns out that there were two stones involved, just not he distinction of rubies and sapphires like everyone thought, but of corundum and spinel.
The problem: Scientists had to decide on their definitions. Which stone would remain a “ruby”, which stone would remain a “sapphire”, and which stone would get the new moniker of “spinel”. Well, 150 years later we have our answer. If it was corundum and red, it was called a “ruby”. If it was corundum and any other color, science henceforth dubbed thee “sapphire”. Everything else then became “spinel”. The downside to this was that the largest red stones in the crown jewels of Iran, Russia, England, France, and India were all ignored as useless because they were no longer “rubies” as previously thought. Spinel’s problem was that rubies had 4,000 years of marketing behind them, and spinel had none. If the scientists had decided the other way around and called what are now known as rubies and sapphires “spinels” instead things would have turned out different indeed.
Only recently (in the last decade or so), have spinels started to get noticed in their own right. Jewelers and collectors started seeing the inherent beauty in the wide array of colors of spinels. Those in the know have also realized how rare these stones actually are. Historically, gem-quality spinel was only found in three places around the world: Badakshan (Afghanistan/Tajikistan); the gravels of Sri Lanka; and Mogok (Burma/Myanmar). Two recent discoveries in Luc Yen, Vietnam and in Mahenge, Tanzania have come to the forefront as of late. Mahenge is the real reason for spinel’s revival. The discovery of the neon orange/red/pink stones there have driven up prices world-wide with stones larger than 5 carats fetching $10,000 to $20,000 per carat, now rivaling the finest rubies of the same quality and size.
Spinels are usually found in metamorphic rock, marble mostly, all over the world. There are deposits on every continent, including North America. It is the discovery of gem-quality stones that evade us here in the “New World”. You can find examples of ugly, brown cubic crystals of spinel in New York and New Jersey, and Ontario. There are reports of gem-quality stones in East Fresno County, CA of various colors and sizes–I haven’t seen any yet, nor can I find any photographs of these supposed spinels.
I listed a couple famous spinels from the mines of Central Asia a little earlier. The current world record holder is the Samarian Spinel at 500cts. The stone is heavily included, brownish red in color, “polished in the rough”, and worth tens of millions of dollars. In ancient times spinels, and most stones in general, were polished in their rough form as exact faceting methods where not necessarily invented yet. In the 18th century, the Persian King Nader Shah captured the stone and its 270ct cousin in an invasion and conquest of India. There is a hole drilled in the Samarian that was supposedly used to affix it
around the neck of the Biblical Golden Calf that the Israelites created while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments. The problem is that the Samarian was most likely from the mines of Northern Afghanistan and was mined a couple thousand years after Moses yelled at the idol worshipers in Sinai.
The most valuable spinels are as follows: Balas rubies (the stones that were originally thought to be rubies from Afghanistan/Tajikistan); neon Mehenge spinels (a 10ct stone will cost you about $200k!); pigeon blood spinels, usually from Mogok, Sri Lanka, or Vietnam; and cobalt spinels (often from Sri Lanka or Tanzania, they are a steely blue hue and color come from, you guessed it, cobalt!) which can be valued upwards of $5,000 per carat.
This brings us to my big announcement:
I proudly present the new record holding polished spinel: I am the proud owner of the The Sinful Red Spinel (named such because it is sinfully ugly). The original stone was 2000cts and was found embedded in white marble in Mahenge, Tanzania. I received the stone in the rough and polished it myself. Keeping with the tradition of the great Mughal emperors the Sinful Red is polished in the rough and weighs in at a hefty 689cts crushing the old world record holder!
I have a large collection of Tanzanian and Vietnamese spinels that I will be polishing in the coming months and I look forward to sharing them with you.
9 thoughts on “The Rare Gem Series: Spinel (The Balas Ruby)”
My great grandmother on my fathers side has a picture of her wearing red colored stones I believe to be spinels and not venetian glass . That’s what a jeweler here in California told me they might be but she didn’t seem very sure. I was looking at the shape of the stones and they sure look like the shape of the Balas rubies the more I study them . What do I need to do to find out if they are real Balas rubies. jack
No matter what you do it is going to cost you some money. Either you pay for the equipment to test the stones yourself (a refractometor or reflectometer), or you pay a licensed gemologist to look at the stones for you. A spinel will have an incidence of refraction of about 1.716. Man-made spinels do not have birefringence when natural ones do (this means that natural stone will create two paths of refracted light as it passes through the stone; if you were to place the stone over a line on a piece of paper you would see two lines). If these stones are spinels and are over 100 years old you could have some very valuable jewels on your hands.
Wrong- natural Spinel shows NO bifrengence. It is singular refractive.
Actually it is one of just three single refractive prescious gems known to the world, one of the others being diamond.
A well cut spinel from Myanmar or Tajikstan will smoke any other stone in the world except maybe a large flawless symmetrically perfect vintage cut chunky facet cushion diamond. Even then it’s a matter of choice- the high sparkle of diamond or rich color and unmatched fluoresced brilliance of a neon pink/red or hot orange found no where but in Mogok or a pink ice native cut like only found in my collection 🙂
Sorry, you are correct, I totally wrote that backwards. Thanks for pointing it out!
In what instance would a pinkish purple Balas ruby be a spinel and not a ruby (which is technically corundum)?
Bales Rubies (spinel) are always spinel. They are chemically different than corundom.
Spinel = MgAl2O4, hardness of 7.5 to 8
Corundom = Al2O3, hardness of 9
I’m confused: A seller has both Balas rubies and Balas spinels for sale. He says there ARE Balas rubies that aren’t spinels, and the stones do look different. So how can that be the case if you claim that “Balas Rubies (spinel) are always spinel”?
Also, how does one find out the value of a Balas Ruby (or Balas Spinel)?
Generally the term “Balas Ruby” is given to red spinels that were thought to be rubies prior to the 18th century and the science of mineralogy. They could very well be rubies and not spinel as I can totally understand even jewelers getting confused over such semantics. The best way to test is look at refraction. Spinels have a refractive index of 1.712 to 1.736 while rubies are 1.76 to 1.77. Comparing prices you can look at other gem wholesalers like ajsgem.com and see what they are selling them for. The Mehenge spinels from Tanzania are ridiculous and often wholesaling faceted for over $10,000 a carat. Good luck!