SPINEL-A BRIEF HISTORY
Spinel is an ancient name that originally referred to red gemstones, which today, we recognize as crystals of magnesium aluminum oxide, MgAl2O4. The origin of the name has been lost in antiquity, though it may derive from the Latin word spina, meaning “little thorn,” a reference to the sharp points on spinel crystals.
We find the first mention of spinel in the sixteenth century:
There is also… an other kynde of Rubies which wee caule Spinelle.
Richard Eden, The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, 1555
But in medieval times, spinels were known by other names, especially balas ruby or lal (lal is the Persian word for balas ruby; in Chinese it is la).
The name balas ruby is thought to derive from an ancient word for Badakhshan, a region covering portions of present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Among the most storied stones of history are the large balas rubies found in museums and gem collections throughout the world:
…The majority of them [balas rubies] come from Afghanistan, from the mountains of the province of Badakshan. In old Russian manuscripts it was called ‘lal Badakhshan.’
Alexander E. Fersman, 1946
Based on the historical record it is clear the Badakhshan mines were of great importance during the period 1000–1900 ad. Even Marco Polo (ca. 1254–1324 ad) found pause to comment on the mines, as recorded in Yule and Cordier’s definitive version of Marco Polo’s travels.
BADASHAN is a Province inhabited by people who worship Mahommet, and have a peculiar language. It forms a very great kingdom, and the royalty is hereditary… It is in this province that those fine and valuable gems the Balas Rubies are found. They are got in certain rocks among the mountains, and in their search for them the people dig great caves underground, just as is done by miners for silver. There is but one special mountain that produces them, and it is called SYGHINAN. The stones are dug on the king’s account, and no one else dares dig in that mountain on pain of forfeiture of life as well as goods; nor may one carry the stones out of the kingdom. But the king amasses them all, and sends them to other kings when he has tribute to render, or when he desires to offer a friendly present; and such only as he pleases he causes to be sold. Thus he acts in order to keep the Balas at a high value; for if he were to allow everybody to dig, they would extract so many that the world would be glutted with them, and they would cease to bear any value. Hence it is that he allows so few to be taken out, and is so strict in the matter.
Henry Yule & Henri Cordier, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, 1903
It is safe to say that, based on numerous historical accounts, the Badakhshan mines were the source of many of the finest early red spinels in gem collections around the world, such as those in the crown jewels of Iran, the collection in Istanbul’s Topkapi, Russia’s Kremlin and Diamond Fund, and England’s Tower of London. Of the titled red precious stones in royal collections, virtually all are spinels, the most famous being the Black Prince’s Ruby.
Where goeth spinel?
Thus we have a mineral that forms some of the world’s most beautiful gems. And yet few know its name and fewer still understand its importance. This is truly a tragedy, for fine spinels can and do stand with any gem on the planet. From royal collections, through the elite private collections, to the haute culture salons of Paris, Geneva, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London, spinel is both represented and the object of desire.
Where goeth spinel? In 2007, several huge crystals of red spinel were discovered at Tanzania’s Mahenge mines. This set off a crimson-colored renaissance in the gem world. Within months prices doubled and then tripled as demand for spinel soared.
As these words are written, spinel has at last shaken off the “ruby” misnomer. Spinel today stands proud and alone—as it should—for it is one of the planet’s most beautiful, most famous, and most coveted gems.