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The Splendour of Spinel, part 5: Mysterious Marvels

The spinel mines of central Asia produced many of the world's greatest spinels, and by extension some of history’s greatest “rubies”, but among the world’s most prized “ruby” and spinel gemstones are those which have more mysterious origins. 

One such treasure is the Timur “Ruby”. Long regarded as one of the world’s largest rubies, this stone is like many famous rubies of history in that it is actually a massive red spinel. The 361 carat gemstone is similar to many other large spinel baubles in its shape and cut, having been polished from the rough without much attempt to alter the stone’s silhouette. It is not clear where the gem originated, but the spinel mines of the Pamir mountains, which would have once bordered the ancient Mughal homeland of Transoxiana, could be the place from where this marvel was first unearthed, yet this is not certain. The Timur Ruby gets its name from the Turkic ruler Timur, who is commonly associated with the gem. Founder of the central Asian Timurid Empire, the Turko-Mogol conqueror Timūr Gurkānī ruled his lands from 1370 to 1405 C.E. It was in 1398, during his conquest of India when Timur invaded Delhi, that he supposedly acquired the Timur Ruby. From Timur, the gem is said to have been passed to his son Mir Shah Rukh, and then to his grandson, Mirza Ulugli Beg. Despite the long standing nature of this belief, research from the 1990’s has suggested that Timur never owned the gemstone, and so it is not clear where the story for this spinel actually begins. By the start of the 17th Century, the stone had come into the possession of Persian ruler Shah Abbas I, who is believed to have taken ownership of it through wars with the Timurids. It was in 1612, when Abbas gave the gem to the Mughal Emperor Janangir, who then famously engraved his name upon the spinel along with the name of his father, Akbar the Great, hoping that the act would help his name live on in history; of course, the nearly eternal nature of the Timur Ruby has without a doubt kept Janangir’s name alive long after his death. Over time the Ruby made its way into the possession of subsequent Mughal Emperors, including Shah Jahan who also inscribed his name upon the gem and used it as an ornament on the Peacock Throne, a prized symbol of office for the Mughal rulers which also famously held the Koh-i-Noor, Shah, and Akbar Shah diamonds.

The Timur Ruby was passed down by the Mughals until it was held by Farukhsiyar, who was the final Indian monarch to inscribe his name on the stone. In 1739, Delhi was invaded and occupied by the Iranian forces of Nader Shah Afshar, founder of the Afsharid Dynasty, who then seized the Timur Ruby along with the Peacock throne and many other Mughal treasures. The gem’s new owner is said to have freed the Timur Ruby, which he called "Ayn al-Hur" (English: "Eye of the Houri”), and the Koh-i-Noor diamond from their settings in the Peacock Throne so that he could wear them on his personal armband. It was also Afshar who marked the spinel with one of its largest inscriptions; in English, Afshar’s inscription reads: “This is the ruby from among the 25,000 genuine jewels of the King of Kings, the Sultan Sahib Qiran (Timur), which in the year 1153 (1740 C.E.) from the jewels of Hindustan (India) reached this place.” In the year 1747, Afshar was assassinated, after which one of his commanders, Ahmad Shah Durrani, attempted to seize power. Durrani was unsuccessful and only managed to secure some of Afshar’s jewels, including the Timur Ruby and Koh-I-Noor Diamond, which were then partly used to help fund the founding of his new domain, the Kingdom of Afghanistan. It was Durrani who was the last person to inscribe their name upon the spinel. The Timur Ruby and Koh-I-Noor then fell into the possession of Durrani’s grandson Shah Suja, who brought the stones with him to the Punjab region of India in 1810 while living in exile. It was in Punjab where Suja was forced to relinquish ownership of the gems in 1813 by the Lion of Punjab and first ruler of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The stone was passed down to Singhs successors until 1849 when the East India Company seized the gem and the Koh-I-Noor from Maharaja Duleep Singh during their invasion of Punjab.

By 1851, the Timur Ruby had arrived in England where it was displayed at the Great Exhibition  along with the Koh-I-Noor; it was during this same period that the gem was reclassified and its identity as a red spinel was confirmed. Following the end of the Great Exhibition, the East India Company gifted the Timur Ruby to Queen Victoria, who then held it as part of her personal jewels. In 1853, the spinel was set into a necklace flanked by other large red spinels, and this necklace was also modified shortly thereafter to interchangeably hold the Koh-i-Noor diamond as well. Following the death of Queen Victoria, the necklace became part of the British Crown Jewels, and it was lengthened in 1911 but has since seen little use. Today the Timur Ruby and its necklace can be seen with other crown jewels in the Tower of London.


The Timur Ruby necklace; Image: Lotus Gemology

Like the Timur Ruby, the Samarian Spinel is a legendary spinel gemstone for which the birthplace is not certain. This spectacular gem, which has a small hole in it and has been polished from the rough in a manner like that of many other large spinels, weighs in at over 500 carats, and it is regarded as the largest spinel gemstone in the world. The Samarian spinel is said to have been in the possession of the Mughal Empire along with the Timur Ruby when they were both taken from Delhi in 1739 by the Afsharids, but it is not clear how the stone came to be with the Mughal rulers, and the lack of Mughal inscriptions on the stone suggest that it may never have spent time in Delhi. Nevertheless, the gemstone was a part of the Iranian treasure horde by the 19th Century. It was sometime during the rule of Nasser-ed-Din Shah (1848-1896 C.E.) that he told his court physician about the origins of the spinel, and this was documented in the physician’s diary; according to Shah, the spinel had once hung from the neck of the biblical golden calf which is detailed in the story of Moses and the israelites, and this is what the hole in the gem was used for. It was from Shah’s story that this spinel gets its name, a reference to the city of Samaria which once existed in ancient Israel. If the stories are true, then this spinel gemstone may have origins which reach as far back as 1000 B.C.E., and this would only add further difficulty to the task of determining where the gem was first unearthed. The spinel’s hole was eventually covered with a small diamond, and the gem has remained in Iran until the present day, where it is still a part of the Iranian Crown Jewels.


The Samarian Spinel; Image; Navrang India

In the final instalment of this series, read about the recent history of spinel gems and spinel mining.

© Yaĝé Enigmus

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