Who is the Great Ruby Imposter in History?

And 8 other ruby misnomers you really need to know...

In my previous blog on the Screaming Red Ruby, I told you about what a ruby is (aluminum oxide combined with the trace element of chromium which gives the ruby its famed red color) and that the stone belongs to the gemstone species ‘corundum’, to which also the sapphire belongs. 

One happy, colorful, noble family 😉.

We discussed that, in its purest form, corundum is colorless and the more chromium a ruby contains the better because the red will be stronger (and that is what matters most for a colored gemstone; the deeper its hue, the more valuable the colored stone will be). 

Chromium can also cause fluorescence which adds even more to the intensity of the red color. But more about this spectacular phenomenon which makes certain rubies the most sought-after gems in the trade in the next Gem Tale.

We talked about how gemologists grade color in colored gemstones by looking at 3 things:

  • Hue;
  • Saturation; and
  • Tone

And how tricky it is in the trade to distinguish between red and pink sapphire as red and pink are actually the same color (!) with different saturation and tone. I gave you the tip that it’s wise to keep that distinction in mind when you’re buying your own ruby (or pink sapphire) because it has a massive impact on the price…

Gem dealers may try to sell a stone as ruby the moment they see some red in the corundum. Ruby fetches a substantially higher price than pink sapphire. And so, you, as a buyer knowing this distinction now, can try to argue in your gem piece negotiation that it’s actually a pink sapphire in your opinion (provided you see quite some pink in the stone of course) and propose a lower per carat offer for the piece. 

We talked about how incredibly rare rubies are and that they can command the highest per carat price of any color stone which makes ruby one of the most important gems in the color stone market.

This was shown by the famous (or should I say, infamous?) example of the Sunrise Ruby, set in a Cartier ring, which sold in 2015 for more than $30 million USD, $1.19 million per carat…

Sunrise Ruby Cartier Ring

The exceptional Burmese Sunrise Ruby that beat all previous ruby records at auction...

A price no colorless diamond of similar quality has ever fetched!

Lastly, I mentioned that ruby comes from the Latin ‘ruber’ meaning red and that only around 1800, ruby was designated as belonging to the gem species corundum while before that time red stones, such as red spinel and red garnet, would also be called ruby in those days!

  1. Ruby Misnomers...

This brings me to today's Gem Tale as still today there are plenty of trade names used with the word ‘ruby’ in it while they actually are not a ruby...

Some examples of these misnomers are:

  • Alabandine ruby: a misleading name for almandine garnet (a red variety of garnet)
  • American ruby: pyrope or almandine garnet found in Arizona and New Mexico
  • Arizona ruby: pyrope garnet from Arizona (a pink-red variety of garnet)
  • Bohemian ruby: pyrope garnet from the Czech Republic
  • Brazilian ruby: red or pink topaz from Brazil
  • Californian ruby: hessonite garnet (orangy variety of garnet)
  • Rocky Mountains ruby: pyrope garnet
  • Siberian ruby: pink to red tourmaline from the Ural Mountains, Russia.

So you see, be careful and ask your gemstone dealer or jeweller questions as to a stone's identity.

Even if no clear origin can be provided (which can still be totally OK as jewellers tend to be far away from the original mining source in the gem production chain and most of them are not gemologists, nor do all stones come with a(n) (origin) certificate or do they have to - usually that is best reserved for the more valuable pieces as of a few thousand US Dollars and up, in my opinion), at least some openness into their buying policy could be revealed.

2. The Great Ruby Imposter

Now in that above list, I left out the most famous misnomer of them all…

The stone which has been called in history the "Great Ruby Imposter": the Balas ruby.

This stone was actually? Can you guess?

It was a spinel.

A high-quality stone you probably never heard of, right?

As I said, anything red found before approx. 1800 was usually called a ruby.

Black Prince's Ruby

Close-up of the big Black Prince's Ruby in the center. Or was it a ruby?...

It was only in 1783 that the French mineralogist Jean-Baptiste Louis Rome de l’Isle was able to distinguish red spinel from ruby.

They were two totally different gemstone species!

So, what is this spinel, or Balas ruby, as it was called?

It was called ‘Balas ruby’ after Badakhshan, a historic region consisting of parts of today’s Tajikistan, Afghanistan and a little bit of China.

Badakhshan Map

Photo © Map: Richard W. Hughes - lotusgemology.com


Let me show you some beautiful famous example of historic jewelry with that Balas 'ruby' in it.

Imperial State Crown

England's Imperial State Crown, set with the Black Prince's Ruby, a massive 'Balas ruby', in other words: a spinel!


(a) This is the 14th century Black Prince’s “Ruby”, set in England’s Imperial State Crown and displayed here in the Tower of London.

A ruby, you think?

Nope, a stunning red spinel of 170 carat (approx. 34 grams…)! The stone has been set above another tiny stone, the famed Cullinan II diamond.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Or perhaps rather, heavy is their gem-studded crown 👑

The name of this stone first appears in the historical records of Moorish Spain in the 14th century as the possession of Abū Sa'īd, the Moorish Prince of Granada. 

Through several wars and conquests, the stone eventually ended up with the Prince of Wales, the ‘Black Prince’, who received it as a payment for a victory of battle.

And since that time, the stone has been in the possession of several other English monarchs, to finally end up in the State Crown.

Timur Ruby

(b) This is the Timur “Ruby” which also has some illustrious provenance and equally forms part of the English Crown Jewels as one of the greatest heirlooms. 

Going from Mughal (the muslim emperors in India and Pakistan) emperors to Persian rulers and ultimately being acquired by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1813. 

The stone is a whopping 352.5 carat and was considered for a long time to be the largest ‘ruby’ in the world. 

That was, until 1851 when it was discovered to be a red spinel and not a ruby…

When the British annexed the Punjab in 1849, they took possession of the Timur ruby (and the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond by the way) from Duleep Singh, the son of Ranjit Singh and the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. The East India Company then presented the Timur Ruby to Queen Victoria as a gift in 1851…

I wonder whether that was before or after they discovered it wasn't actually a ruby but another gemstone altogether 🙄

(c) This brings me to a third beautiful red spinel... The splendid Russian Imperial Crown was first used in a coronation by Catherine The Great in 1762. It survived the Russian Revolution of 1917 and is now on display in Moscow at the Kremlin.

I said before that the Timur Ruby had been considered as the world’s largest ruby for a long time. That is until this spinel was found and brought to Russia by a Russian envoy to China in the 17th century; it is 398.72 carat (79.74 grams)!

So, in fact this stone was the largest.

Yet… it was also a red spinel. How beautiful it is, right?!

3. What's in a name?

The reason why spinel and ruby have been confused for so long is because spinel can also come in a stunning red color - its top color being called traffic light red - and on top of that, is often found in the same mine as ruby.

Spinel actually crystallises first and ceases only when the magnesium in the immediate environment is exhausted.

Just as a FYI, ruby consists of aluminum oxide + chromium. And spinel consists of magnesium aluminum oxide. So you see how they have similar chemical components.

In addition to that, spinel’s refractive index is very close to that of ruby too. 

(This index measures the bending of light in a gemstone when a ray of light passes from one medium to another, so from air into the gemstone).

And the higher that RI, the better as it basically indicates how much a stone sparkles, in other words, a stone with a higher RI tends to have a stronger brilliance.

Diamond has the highest RI, with corundum a few spots below diamond and spinel a few places below ruby, but all 3 are considered high.

No wonder no one suspected there was a difference until 1783 when that French gentleman discovered a test that showed a spinel was different from the ruby.

There was more bad news...:

In 1812, Friedrich Mohs published the scale which is still used today to define the relative hardness of stones.

“Hardness” is something gemologists and gem dealers always keep at the back of their mind as it indicates a gem’s resistance to scratching and abrasion.

On that scale, to give an idea, diamond is 10, the hardest material on earth and ruby is 9.

(Side-note: ideally, gemstones that are to be used in jewelry, esp. in rings, should have a hardness of 7 or higher).

However, spinel turned out to be an 8…!

This is actually very high compared to most other gemstones - and therefore really does belong to the high-end stones out there - but not at that time when people expected it to be a ruby.

In Europe, the high hardness associated with stones like diamond and corundum also contributed to an increase in perceived value for these stones.

And so, in that particular situation and time in history, it might be understandable that people were just a tiny bit disappointed.

Spinels continued to be used in the 1800s and early 1900s but when people realized it wasn’t really a ruby, it became a class-B gem…

Everyone had been fooled. Even royals 😉.

The proof lies in the Tower of London.

Yet, in reality, I just like to stress that it was and remains an exquisite fine-quality gemstone, a stone that’s up there with the best of the best, such as ruby and blue sapphire.

4. The dealer's stone

In fact, spinel might be called the ‘dealer’s stone’ because so many gem traders know the quality of the stone and most have fallen in love with spinel and tried - with limited success - to promote it to the public.

One of the reasons why it has been so difficult to promote the stone is simply because the stone is rare…

It can be even rarer than ruby, yet often is of higher quality than a ruby, is mostly untreated and comes in a stunning array of colors. 

This is why experts love the stone so much.

5. The Maharajas' stone

However, from more recent circumstances, you can tell that the stone has been highly regarded (and rightly so!) in other parts of the world when we remember the fabulous exhibition of the Al Thani collection at the V&A here in London, in the Grand Palais in Paris and the Met in NYC.

There we could see how India’s Maharajas had always prized the spinel gems.

Spinels have been popular in the Mughal empire due to the proximity of the source.

Remember Badakshan?

Which is very close to India; and the earliest spinels are thought to have come from the Northern Indian region of Balascia (or Badakshan as it was also called).  


It has been the Kuh-i-Lal mines that have been the historical source of spinel.

These mines are located in what is today’s Tajikistan.

(Why have you not heard about it before you wonder? During most of the 20th century, little was known about these mines due to the fact that they were near the then closed-up Soviet Union).

The Kuh-i-Lal mines are said to have been discovered following an earthquake in the 7th century and have been the world’s main source for large spinels for centuries!

How special is that?!

They were located on the Silk Road that linked Asia to Europe and these mines probably have produced:

  • The Black Prince’s ‘Ruby’;
  • The Timur ‘Ruby’; and
  • Other large spinels that ended up in Mughal, Persian, Russian and European treasuries…

So, not such a shabby stone after all.

What I also read in this great article written by the renowned field gemologist Vincent Pardieu and the famous American gemologist Richard Hughes (who founded a gem lab in Bangkok that specializes in rubies, sapphires and spinels) is that apparently recently, large red spinels have again been found in the famous Kuh-i-Lal mines, resembling the beauty of those historic specimen!

Good news for all of us, I’d say.

6. The High Jewelry stone

Also Cartier, who has had a strong link with India throughout their existence, has always used spinel.

Now color is what spinel is really all about (besides its great clarity, high brilliance and the fact it tends to be untreated).

Besides the vibrant traffic light red, they come in hot pinks and the incredibly rare cobalt blue… but that will be revealed in another Gem Tale!

Cartier Spinel Earrings

A stunning pair of multi-colored spinel and diamond 'Magnolia' ear pendants by Cartier.

7. The Arising-from-the-Ashes stone

And the stone is luckily enjoying a comeback:

Not only because of the discovery of new spinel mines not so long ago in East Africa, in particular Tanzania, but also because its resurgence is driven by the continuous quest of high jewelry houses to offer their demanding clientele something different.

And their price is an advantage as well.

Generally, they are not as expensive as rubies and sapphires (am not saying they’re cheap 🙄 but they tend to be less expensive for sure) while still having similarly beautiful colors to choose from. 

While a ruby may go for several tens of thousands of US Dollars per carat, a spinel of the same size and beauty may go for $1000 - $8000 per carat.

A bargain, I'd say.

But their price is increasing as the time when people thought of spinel as a second choice-gem, is over.

Insider gemologists and gem dealers have always concentrated more on the intrinsic beauty of the spinel but now also consumer-connoisseurs start to recognize it.

There is no longer that negative stigma around spinels, especially among people who are looking for something exquisite, of high quality and completely unique.

Lastly, to give you an example of spinel prices at auction in recent years:

Cartier Spinel Ring

Fabulous Cartier ring with a top color red spinel of 20.18 carat flanked by emeralds and diamonds.

This gorgeous spinel, emerald and diamond ring sold recently in November 2019 in Geneva’s Sotheby’s auction for about $328K...

Imperial Necklace - Red Spinel

Historical Imperial Necklace set with humongous red spinels, emerald and natural pearls.


And at Christie’s Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence auction in New York in June of 2019 as well, this historical imperial necklace with emerald and spinels which was estimated to go for $1-2 million USD, sold for more than $3 million USD...

This clearly shows the Great Imposter days of the red spinel are finally over.

And the stone is entering the spotlight. Where it deserves to be.

----------------------------------------------------

I hope the above helps you on your gemstone piece journey and if you need any help in sourcing a special colored gemstone (like a spinel) or with creating your own bespoke gemstone jewelry piece, feel free to contact me at info@evagemsandjewels.com

For more gem stories and insider tips on how to buy your own investment-worthy gemstones, follow me on Instagram @evagemsandjewels 

In the next and final Gem Tale on ruby, you’ll discover where the best rubies come from and what makes them so beautiful.

I hope till next time!

Now a small Quiz for those who’d love to test their knowledge and thereby enter the Insider Gemstone Club 😉

  1. Is Balas ruby a ruby - Yes | No?
  2. Are spinel and ruby the same gemstone species - Yes | No?
  3. What are the chemical components of ruby? And of spinel?...
  4. Spinel’s hardness is the same as that of a ruby - Yes | No?
  5. The Kuh-i-Lal mines in today’s Tajikistan have historically produced large, high quality spinels - Yes | No?

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Sources:

  • Spinel - Resurrection of a classic gem by Vincent Pardieu and Richard W. Hughes for incredibly informative and highly entertaining stories that read like an adventure book
  • Insider gem trade secrets revealed in the book Secrets of the Gem Trade by Richard W. Wise
  • My own gem experience in Bangkok and lecture notes of my gemology education there at AIGS (the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok ;))
  • The inspiring webinars by famed gemologist Rui Galopim de Carvalho (follow him @portugalgemas)
  • Spinel: 'The Great Impostor' No More, NYT-article by Kathleen Beckett

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