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Red Spinel

Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, Henry VIII of England, and Peter the Great of Russia are among the fabled rulers who prized red spinels so much they made them crown jewel and royal regalia centerpieces. There’s just one little problem: These potentates thought their pet rocks were rubies.

Luckily for the jewelers who sold, one assumes unknowingly, these sovereigns ruby stand-ins, the stones’ true identities weren’t discovered until centuries afterwards.

Starting in the late 19th century, practitioners of a new science called gemology began to unmask many of the great rubies of antiquity as other species—the most common of which by far were spinels.

One by one, illustrious gems such as Russia’s 414.30 carat Imperial Crown ruby and England’s 352.20 carat Timur ruby were deprived of their standing as rubies. Indeed, every historic ruby discussed in Eric Bruton’s 1986 book, Legendary Gems, is now a known imposter. The few pride-of-the-realm rubies Bruton mentions that gemologists didn’t expose as spinels turned out to be either garnets or tourmalines.

Yet news akin to finding out that the major canvases signed by Rembrandt were painted by other artists, or that Shakespeare’s plays really had been written by Sir Francis Bacon, was greeted with a curious calm. Could it be that the gem world had all along secretly suspected that many of its great rubies were pretenders?

Maybe. For centuries, spinels had been openly called “balas rubies” in recognition of their substitute status. (“Balas,” or “Balascia,” refers to Badakshan in northern Afghanistan, an active gem-producing region during the Middle Ages whose hulking red spinels were considered the best rubies of their time.) No wonder that today many dealers still call red spinel “ruby spinel.”

There’s the rub. Red spinel has never been forgiven its almost-ruby status. As a result, it has yet to come into its own among jewelers. Indeed, if it weren’t for collectors, there would be no market at all for spinel. Why must a stone that can ape the best Burma ruby in color and appearance contend with so much indifference and misunderstanding?

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Red Spinel