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The Splendour of Spinel, part 3: Early Exploitation

Even though it is a lesser known gemstone, spinel’s history still stretches at least as far back as pre-Christian antiquity; some of the oldest known spinel gems were found in ancient buddhist tombs located in what is now Afghanistan, with these sites being dated to approximately 100 B.C.E. Despite earlier usage of this stone, spinel gems did not achieve prominence until later in the first millennium of the Common Era when the spinel mines of Central Asia were highly productive. Stones from these sources were taken all over the continent by traders and even travelled as far as Europe in some cases. The most important source from this time, both in terms of the quality of spinel found there and the impact it would have on human history, are the spinel mines of Badakhshan.


A map showing the historical region of Badakhshan (green) in relation to present day Afghanistan (centre) and Tajikistan (top right); Image: Wikipedia

The Badakhshan region covers parts of what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but the spinel deposit found in the land area that eventually became a portion of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan is one of the most famous and culturally significant spinel finds known to humankind. It is not clear exactly how this spinel was first encountered, but it is said that the region experienced a large earthquake sometime during the 8th Century C.E., afterwhich small numbers of red and pink stones nestled in a matrix of exposed white rock were discovered in the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan. The mining operation which consequently began after this discovery became one of the world’s most legendary gemstone mines; located near the village of Kul-i-Lal, which sits adjacent to the Pyanj River and the Afghan border, the Tajik spinel mines yielded countless high quality spinel gemstones over multiple centuries.

A photograph of the Pyanj River vallery, with the locations of Kul-i-lal and its associated spinel mine marked; Image: Vincent Pardieu/ Google Earth

At the mines of Kul-i-lal, a number of very large and very high quality red spinel gems were found which caught the eye of powerful rulers and wealthy aristocrats, frequently making their way across vast swathes of land before arriving in the royal courts and treasuries of distant nations. In central Asia, spinels mined in the Pamir Mountains were called “laal”, which is thought to be an ancient Persian word for spinel and similar gemstones. It was not known in the rest of the world at the time that these stones were in fact spinel, and most were mistaken for rubies; in the ancient world and during the middle ages, coloured stones were often named and/or identified based on their apparent colour, making it quite common for the name “ruby” to be applied to any transparent red gem. Despite the misconception that red spinel gemstones were rubies, stones sourced from the Pamir Mountains were still widely recognized as being somewhat distinct from the rubies being mined in Southeast Asia, a perception that is reflected in the name which was given to such gems: “balas rubies”, referencing “Balascia”, a name once used for the Badakhshan region. True rubies and other red stones called “ruby” were similarly recognized as possessing slight differences from one another, and just like balas rubies these stones were referred to in a manner that pointed towards the locations where they were mined; true rubies from the area that eventually became Myanmar were known as “oriental rubies”, and red garnets from the region of Europe that later became the Czech Republic were known as “bohemian rubies”, with both of these names appearing alongside “balas ruby” in the writings of 12th Century lapidary and French bishop, Marbode of Rennes. The balas rubies were so highly sought after and so widely distributed that it has been suggested these stones are connected to the spread of the word “ruby”, as the fame associated with true red corundum rubies did not become as prevalent on a world scale as that of balas rubies until later in history. It is easy to see how spinel gemstones could be responsible for this bolstering of ruby’s reputation when considering how many of the world's famous “rubies” were actually Tajik spinels.   

A reddish pink spinel gemstone from the famed mines of Kul-I-Lal; Image: Dr. E. J. Gübelin/ GIA

In the next part of this series, read about famous red spinel gemstones which are thought to have come from the legendary mines of Badakhshan.

© Yaĝé Enigmus

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