Before, the art to recognise and identify precious gemstones was not an easy task. Only some privileged gemstone connoisseurs had the chance to practice it.
After the discovery around 1300 of the Marco Polo routes, which linked for the West to the East overland, there was no real market for gemstones. Only rich merchants, supported by powerful Kings, could travel to the East and developed a long-term relationship with the Maharajas of India.
One of most famous merchants at the end of the 17th century was Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French businessman, who lived in Antwerp and was an advisor of French King Louis XIV. He was one of the only Western persons who had contact with the powerful Maharaja’s to search the most beautiful gemstones for the French Sun King.
India was till the 18th century, the only source of precious gemstones. Diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and all kind of coloured gemstones were in the possession of these Indian Maharaja’s.
Not only was the travel from the West to the East, an expensive occupation, but the knowledge of gems was very basic. Only the eye of the connoisseur could distinguish the different qualities in gemstones.
So, red to reddish gems were identified as “a kind of” ruby and called a ruby spinel, spinel ruby. But the most beautiful ones, with an intense red colour but nearly a ruby, were named ruby balais. These deep coloured red spinels were even accorded a value as a precious stone.
Witness the famous “Ruby of the Black Prince” which has decorated for centuries the English Crown, or one of the oldest gemstones of the French crown, “the Côte de Bretagne”, were two splendid spinels and for a long time identified as a ruby balais.
Even later, it was not always easy to distinguish them because, in the 19th century, new mines in Burma, Siam and Sri Lanka were discovered where in the same mine rubies and spinels were found.
Only in 1830, the study of precious stones -better known as mineralogy- was developed for the first time. From then on, mineralogists could separate the corundum (the family of the rubies) from spinel, they knew there was a difference in composition and hardness. The spinel and the ruby balais lost its importance as a precious gemstone and became more affordable.
The growth of a large, prosperous middle class in Great Britain in the 19th century occasioned a great demand for all the lesser-known gemstones as peridot, spinel, garnet and tourmaline. Many Victorian pieces of jewellery, worn during the day, were set with spinels and other semi-precious gemstones.
The red colour of the spinel has always been the most popular and best known, but many other colours exist: natural coloured blue, yellow, pink and orange, are also a good alternative in a precious ring. Most spinels don’t need to be colour enhanced, because of their natural intense colour. By judging the spinel by its colour there is no doubt that this gemstone has an interesting history.
Which famous semi-precious gemstone belongs to the most fabulous collections in jewellery history? Only the spinel does
Text ©World Luxury Jewellers.
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