Column: The story behind the Black Prince’s ruby

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Portrait for the Coronation of Queen Victoria by George Hayter (detail), wearing the new Imperial State Crown made for her by the Crown Jewellers Rundell and Bridge, with 3093 gems, with the Black Prince’s Ruby at the front. (Public Domain photo)

Portrait for the Coronation of Queen Victoria by George Hayter (detail), wearing the new Imperial State Crown made for her by the Crown Jewellers Rundell and Bridge, with 3093 gems, with the Black Prince’s Ruby at the front. (Public Domain photo)

Commentary by Susan Schube

In 1367, Edward of Woodstock (aka The Black Prince) received a huge ruby from Don Pedro of Seville in payment for a victorious battle. This gem, which is approximately the size of a hen’s egg, has been part of the English crown jewels since that time and is mounted in the Imperial State Crown, above the Cullinan diamond.

When gem testing methods were developed about 150 years ago, what was discovered, and what Prince Edward never knew, is that the “ruby” is actually a magnificent 170-carat red spinel. Until that time, spinels were believed to be a different variety of ruby, often referred to as balas rubies.

The largest deposits of spinel are in Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma). Minor deposits occur in a few other countries, including the U.S. Spinels are bright, glittery gems (except for the black variety) and occur in many colors. The blues tend to be slightly grayish, but the reds are gorgeous. These gems do not scratch easily but are prone to chipping on the girdle edge, so care while wearing a spinel ring is recommended.

Spinels are usually fairly small – a 30-carat gem is considered a big stone. The British do seem to have a monopoly on sizeable spinels. In addition to the Black Prince’s ruby, the Crown Jewels also boast a necklace containing the “Timur Ruby,” a 361-carat red spinel set with diamonds. Two spinel specimens, each weighing 520 carats, are exhibited in the British Geological Museum in London.

Back to the Black Prince – the spinel was supposed to be partial payment for Edward’s expertise as a military leader. Don Pedro of Seville was not particularly trustworthy and never paid the rest of the bounty. While Don Pedro has faded into history, Edward of Woodstock will always be famous for his association with a red spinel.

Susan Schube is a bench-trained jewelry designer and owner of Avalon Jewelers/Gallery on Main Street in Zionsville. She can be reached at susan@avalonjewelers-gallery.com.

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