History of Spinel Gemstones
Spinel is the name given to the red gemstones that have been somewhat confusingly associated with rubies throughout their history. The origin of the name is unclear although it is believed to have come from the Latin word, spina which means 'little thorn', and may refer to the sharp points that occur on some spinel crystals.
Purple Spinel from GemSelect
Alternatively spelled 'spynel', 'spinell', 'spinal', 'espinal', and 'spinelle', this gem has been documented in literature dating from the sixteenth century. However, it is clear that earlier still, in medieval times, spinel was known by other names, in particular, 'balas ruby' or 'lal', the Persian word for balas ruby. This comes from an ancient word for Badakhshan, a province in Northern Afghanistan that is famous for its rubies and spinel mines.
The Badakhshan mines were of great importance as early as 1000 - 1900 AD, and one of the earliest references to them occurs in the diary of Marco Polo (1254 - 1324 AD). He wrote the following of the spinel mines:
"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... 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."
This extract could provide evidence that many of the finest early rubies and red spinels in gem collections around the world were originally mined at Badakhshan, and that some of the most famous stones, long thought to be rubies, are in fact spinel from this source. Two of the most famous form part of the British Crown Jewels and are known as the Black Prince's Ruby, and the Timur Ruby. Both have long and fascinating histories.
It was not until the nineteenth century that the structures of the many natural forms of spinel were finally recognized, as well as the astounding beauty and clarity of its range of colors.
Apart from its aesthetic qualities that are arguably equal to that of rubies, some spinel has another important quality which has been of use throughout history. One of the members of the spinel group, magnetite, has magnetic properties that make it perhaps the most important mineral ever to be discovered.
Mariners as early as the 11th century used this form of spinel known as lodestone, which literally means 'way stone', to magnetize their compasses and guide their ships at sea. This also saw the beginning of the art of cartography, as seamen began to plot the courses of their voyages and create the earliest maps of the world.