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The Splendour of Spinel, part 4: Tajik Treasures

During the centuries in which the spinel mines of the Pamir Mountains were at their peak of productivity, countless high quality gemstones were unearthed and trafficked across Eurasia. Many of these gems traveled to far off lands where powerful rulers took them into their possession and showcased them for all to see. Most of these gems were mistaken for “rubies”, and a handful of these Tajik treasures are still recognizable to this day.

One of the most famous spinel gems in the world, formerly considered one of the world’s greatest “rubies”, is the stone referred to as the “Black Prince’s Ruby”. This large freeform spinel cabochon, weighing in at 170 carats, achieved world recognition as part of the United Kingdom’s Crown Jewels. Residing in the Imperial State Crown, the Black Prince’s Ruby is currently set within the cross pattée that rests above the Cullinan II Diamond at the front of the Crown’s circlet. Generally regarded as having come from the spinel mines of Tajikistan, the Black Prince’s Ruby did not make its first appearance in historical records until it had already reached Europe. In the 14th century, the Moorish prince Mohammed of Granada was deposed by his brother-in-law, Abu Said. After Mohammed sought refuge in Seville, its ruler Don Pedro retaliated against Said; Don Pedro then proceeded to have Said and his attendants killed when they convened for negotiations, seizing many treasures from them in the process, among which was the Black Prince’s Ruby. In 1366, Don Pedro was persecuted by his brother Henry and he too found himself fleeing to neighboring realms. Pedro arrived in Bordeaux and pleaded for Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, to help him fend off his brother, offering to provide the Black Prince with numerous treasures. In 1367, Edward defeated Henry and took possession of the Black Prince’s Ruby as payment, giving it his name as well. The Ruby’s history was silent for nearly a half century, until it arrived in the hands of Henry V, king of England, in 1415; it was at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th of 1415, that King Henry was said to have worn a helmet adorned with the Black Prince’s Ruby, along with other gems like rubies, pearls, and sapphires. The helmet was supposedly struck in battle by the axe of the French Prince, Duc d'Alençon, freeing the Black Prince’s Ruby in the process. After this battle the Ruby was retrieved and returned to England, although it did not rejoin Henry’s helmet, which today can be seen devoid of the Ruby in Westminster Abbey. The large spinel gem was passed from one English ruler to another, including Queen Elizabeth I who is documented to have shown the stone to Scottish envoy Sir James Melville, leading him to ask that Elizabeth give the Ruby to Mary Queen of Scots. The gem remained in English possession and was eventually set in the state crown of King James I; the Earl of Dorset mentioned the gem in his description of the crown: "uppon the topp a very greate ballace (balas ruby) perced (pierced)" referencing the small drill hole found on the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is thought to have once been used for stringing the stone as a pendant or suspended ornament but has since been covered with a small true ruby. Continuing its journey through the hands of English royals, the Ruby somehow managed to survive the seizure of jewels that took place after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and it rejoined the Royal Family in 1660 following the Stuart Restoration when it was sold to King Charles II who would have worn the gem in his own state crown. By 1838, the Black Prince’s Ruby had made its way into a setting upon the Imperial State Crown’s first iteration. In 1841, the Ruby and other pieces of the British Crown Jewels were nearly damaged during the Tower of London Fire, but it was saved by Inspector Pierse who broke into the Tower to rescue the priceless regalia. The Black Prince’s Ruby and other jewels also survived the onslaught of bombs dropped during the German Blitz from 1940 to 1941. Today the Ruby resides in the circlet of the current Imperial State Crown, first crafted in 1937, and it is housed within the Tower of London where it can be viewed alongside the rest of Britain’s Crown Jewels.

The Imperial State Crown of Great Britain, holding the Black Prince’s Ruby and Cullinan II Diamond at its front; Image: Lotus Gemology

Another important spinel gem which was once thought to be a “ruby” can be found in the Imperial Crown of Russia. Originally crafted for the coronation of Catherine the Great in 1762 by Genevan jeweller Jérémie Pauzié in collaboration with Russian court jeweller Georg Friedrich Ekart, the Imperial Crown was fashioned from white gold and adorned with numerous pearls, nearly 5000 diamonds, and one very large red spinel. The spinel rests in a setting at the very top of the Crown, just under a white gold diamond laden Greek cross. Weighing in at over 398 carats, this spinel is among the largest spinel gemstones in the world. Moldavian diplomat Nikolai Spathari is said to have brought the spinel to Russia from China in the late 17th century after being sent there as an envoy, but the stone is believed to have originated from the Tajik spinel mines of the middle ages.

The Imperial Crown of Russian, holding a large red spinel at its peak; Image: Pavan Mickey

Spinel gemstones which are believed to be of Tajik origin are featured in the Imperial Crown of Austria alongside other gems like pearls, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. The Crown was used by rulers of Austria who were members of the Habsburg Dynasty, beginning with the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, Rudolf II, who wore the Crown as his personal coronal ornament. Originally crafted in Prague by goldsmith Jan Vermeyen in 1602, this crown became the official crown of the Austrian Empire in 1804 and remained in use until 1914. The Crown is crafted from yellow gold and enamel, with multiple red spinels affixed to the Crown’s circlet including one very large stone located at the front of the Crown. Today the Crown is recognisable as part of Austria’s coat or arms, and it currently resides in the Imperial Treasury located at Hofburg Palace in Vienna alongside the Imperial Orb and Imperial Sceptre, two associated royal artifacts created after the Crown.


The Imperial Crown of Austria, holding a large red spinel at its front and numerous smaller spinels along the edge of its circlet; Image: Vienna-Trips

Spinel gemstones from the famed mines of central Asia are believed to have made their way to France, where a fantastic spinel gem resides in the Parisian held Crown Jewels of the western European nation. The Cote-de-Bretagne “ruby” became a possession of French aristocrats in the late Middle Ages, and like many famous “rubies” has since been identified as a red spinel. This stunning gem obtained its name from one of its first French owners, Marguerite of Foix the Duchess of Brittany (French: “Bretagne”), who passed it down to her daughter Anne. Eventually the stone made its way into the possession of her grandson, King Henri II, sometime during his reign over France (1547-1559). Later on during the rule of King Louis XV (1715-1774), the Cote-de-Bretagne was reshaped from its original size into the 105 carat east Asian dragon inspired carving known today. This incredible work of gemcraft was then mounted in the King’s insignia for the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Catholic brotherhood of chivalry for which medals like the King’s are bestowed upon inducted knights; the insignia of Louis XV was particularly lavish, not only holding the Cote-de-Bretagne along with numerous other gemstones, but also holding the famous French Blue diamond, which would later achieve world recognition under a different name, the “Hope Diamond”. The insignia of Louis XV was held by the French Royal Family until the French Revolution during the reign of Louis XVI, during which it was stolen and dismantled sometime after. The Cote-de-Bretagne was later found in London and eventually made its way back to Paris where it can still be viewed today within the galleries of the Louvre.

The Côte-de-Bretagne shown in its current setting; Image: The Louvre

Although the spinel mines of the Pamir mountains produced significant amounts of high quality gemstones, this source disappeared from the world stage for some time. During the end of the Middle Ages, trade along the Silk Road was disrupted by the international instability which plagued this era and consequently fewer traders were venturing into the areas which surrounded the Tajik spinel mines. This drop in demand encouraged miners to decrease the scale of their operations and eventually halt mining altogether. Following this turn of events, locations like Ceylon (a.k.a Sri Lanka) and Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) became the world's most active sources for spinel due to how easily European ships could reach these countries, as it was during this period when Western fleets would begin to dominate world trade.

A red spinel gemstone from Myanmar; Image: SkyJems

Read on to learn about magnificent spinel treasures which have somewhat mysterious origins in the next part of this series.

© Yaĝé Enigmus

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