Ruby & Spinel of Afghanistan • Balas Ruby & More

1 October 1994
By Richard Hughes
Ruby & Spinel of Afghanistan • Balas Ruby & More

This article discussed the ruby and spinel mines of Afghanistan/Tajikistan, in an attempt to shed light on one of the great gemological enigmas.

The great enigma: Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines

Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines are one of the great mysteries of gemology. Historically, rubies and red spinels have been produced from four areas: Burma, Sri Lanka, the Thai/Cambodian border (ruby only; no red spinel) and Afghanistan. While extensive accounts exist regarding the other deposits, in the twentieth century, little has been written about the rubies/spinels of Afghanistan. Indeed, many are totally unaware of the Afghan occurrences.

While the author has visited Afghanistan and has examined many rubies from Jegdalek, he has not personally visited either of the two major deposits described. Thus the following has been assembled from historical sources, with much of the primary research on inclusions in Jegdalek stones coming from the author's own research.

Notes on methodology

Whenever possible, quotations found throughout this article have been faithfully transcribed from the original source. The only corrections made have been minor changes in punctuation. As a result, readers may encounter inconsistencies in spelling, etc. My approach has been that, when doubt existed, the original would stand as printed.

Certain quotations are quite lengthy. Rather than rewriting or paraphrasing what others have found (and, in the process, claiming it as his own), the author believes that history is better served by repeating their words exactly. Hence the extensive use of quotations from the primary literature (including the original footnotes). In so doing, the danger of misinterpretation is lessened. My own thoughts on the meaning of such quotes follow. This approach allows readers to make up their own minds on the original authors' intent. [1]

Some may question the need for such extensive historical detail. I include it in an attempt to show the threads of wisdom connecting us with our past. In today's modern world it is easy to believe that anything worth knowing has resulted from recent study. Such is not the case and I hope that this article can open readers' eyes to the glories (and excesses) of human tradition and history.


Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines were mentioned in the Arabic writings of many early travellers, including Istakhri (951 AD), Ibn Haukal (978 AD), al-Ta'Alibi (961–1038 AD), al-Muqaddasi (ca 10th century), al-Biruni (b. 973; d. ca 1050 AD), Teifaschi (1240 AD), and Ibn Battuta (1325–1354 AD).

Mohammed Ben Mansur, writing in the 12th century, stated during the time of Abbaside (caliphs who ruled from 750 to 1258 AD), a hill at Chatlan was broken open by an earthquake and within a white rock in the fracture was found the 'Laal-Bedaschan' (balas ruby). Women of the neighborhood apparently tried to extract dye [2] from the red stones, and failing, threw them away. Later a jeweler recognized their value (Ball, 1931).

Map of gem localities in Afghanistan and neighboring countries

Figure 1  Major gem deposits of central Asia. Corundum is found at Sumjam (India), Hunza (Pakistan), Jegdalek (Afghanistan) and Gharan (Afghanistan/Tajikistan), as well as along the China/Tajikistan border. (Map: R.W. Hughes)

Although Marco Polo (ca 1254–1324 AD) apparently did not visit the mines, he passed nearby. In Henry Yule's definitive version of Marco Polo's travels is the following (with Yule's and Henri Cordier's notes following a translation of Polo's text):

Polo's text

Badashan is a Province inhabited by people who worship Mahommet, and have a peculiar language. It forms a very great kingdom, and the royalty is hereditary…

…It is in this province that those fine and valuable gems the Balas Rubies are found. They are got in certain rocks among the mountains, and in the search for them the people dig great caves underground, just as is done by miners for silver. There is but one special mountain that produces them, and it is called Syghinan. The stones are dug on the king's account, and no one else dares dig in that mountain on pain of forfeiture of life as well as goods; nor may any one carry the stones out of the kingdom. But the king amasses them all, and sends them to other kings when he has tribute to render, or when he desires to offer a friendly present; and such only as he pleases he causes to be sold. Thus he acts in order to keep the Balas at a high value; for if he were to allow everybody to dig, they would extract so many that the world would be glutted with them, and they would cease to bear any value. Hence it is that he allows so few to be taken out, and is so strict in the matter.*

Yule's annotations

* – I [Yule] have adopted in the text for the name of the country that one of the several forms in the G. Text which comes nearest to the correct name, viz. Badascian. But Balacian also appears both in that and in Pauthier's text. This represents Balakhshán, a form also sometimes used in the East. Hayton has Balaxcen, Clavijo Balaxia, the Catalan Map Baldassia. From the form Balakhsh the Balas Ruby got its name. As Ibn Batuta says: "The Mountains of Badakhshan have given their name to the Badakhshi Ruby, vulgarly called Al Balaksh." Albertus Magnus says the Balagius is the female of the Carbuncle or Ruby Proper, "and some say it is his house, and hath thereby got the name, quasi Palatium Carbunculi!" The Balais or Balas Ruby is, like the Spinel, a kind inferior to the real Ruby of Ava. The author of the Masálak al Absár says the finest Balas ever seen in the Arab countries was one presented to Malek 'Adil Ketboga, at Damascus; it was of a triangular form and weighed 50 drachms. The prices of Balasci in Europe in that age may be found in Pegolotti, but the needful problems are hard to solve.

No sapphire in Inde, no Rubie rich of price,
There lacked than, nor Emeraud so grene,
Balès, Turkès, ne thing to my device.
(Chaucer, 'Court of Love.')
L'altra letizia, che m'era già nota,
Preclara cosa me si fece in vista,
Qual fin balascio in che lo Sol percuoto.
(Paradiso, ix. 67)

Cordier's annotations

["…d'Ohsson translates a short account of Badakhshan by Yakut (+1229), stating that this mountainous country is famed for its precious stones, and especially rubies, called Balakhsh." (Bretschneider, Med. Res. II. p. 66.) – H.C.]

The account of the royal monopoly in working the mines, etc., has continued accurate down to our day. When Murad Beg of Kunduz conquered Badakhshan some forty years ago, in disgust at the small produce of the mines, he abandoned working them, and sold nearly all the population into slavery! They continue to remain unworked, unless clandestinely. In 1866 the reigning Mír had one of them opened at the request of Pandit Manphul, but without much result.

The locality of the mines is on the right bank of the Oxus, in the district of Ish Káshm and on the borders of Shignan, the Syghinan of the text. (P. Manph.; Wood, 206; N. Ann. des. V. xxvi. 300.)

[The ruby mines are really in the Gháran country, which extends along both banks of the Oxus. Barshar is one of the deserted villages; the boundary between Gháran and Shignán is the Kuguz Parin (in Shighai dialect means "holes in the rock"); the Persian equivalent is "Rafak-i-Soumakh." (Cf. Captain Trotter, Forsyth's Mission, p. 277.) – H.C.]

Henry Yule, 1920, The Book of Ser Marco Polo

The famous Moorish traveller, Ibn Battuta (Batuta) (1325–1354 AD), mentioned the following:

People generally attribute the lapis-stone [lapis lazuli; Arabic lazward] to Khurasan, but in reality it is imported from the mountains of [the province of] Badakhshan, which has given its name also to the ruby called badakhshi (pronounced by the vulgar balakhshi)…

H.A.R. Gibb, 1971, Vol. 3, The Travels of Ibn Battuta

In 1832, James Prinsep published a fascinating paper in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. This contained abstracts of three different oriental works, translated into English by Raja Kalíkishen, [3] some of which covered the ruby/spinel deposit of Badakhshan:

Dodecahedral Corundum or Spinelle Ruby
Persian: lâl; Hindu: manik? or lâl.
"The mine of this gem was not discovered until after a sudden shock of an earthquake, in Badakshan*, had rent asunder a mountain in that country, which exhibited to the astonished spectators a number of sparkling pink gems of the size of eggs. The women of the neighborhood thought them to possess a tingent quality, but finding they yielded no coloring matter, they threw them away. Some jewellers, discovering their worth, delivered them to the lapidaries to be worked up, but owing to their softness the workmen could not at first polish them, until they found out the method of doing so with mark-i-shísá, marcasite or iron pyrites. This gem was first esteemed more than the yaqút, [4] but as its color and hardness were found to be inferior to the latter, it became less prized."…

In a manuscript history of Cashmír and the countries adjacent, by Abdúl Qádir Khan, Benares, 1830, is the following description of the manner of extracting rubies from the Badakshan mines: it professes to be taken from an oral account by Mirza Nazar Báki Bég Khán, a native of Badakshán, settled at Benares.

Having collected a party of miners, a spot is pointed out by experienced workmen, where an adit is commenced. The aperture is cut in the rock large enough to admit a man upright: the passage is lighted at intervals by cotton mashúls placed in niches; as they proceed with the excavation, the rock is examined until a vein of reddish appearance is discovered, which is recognized as the matrix of the precious gem. This red colored rock or vein is called rag-í-lál, or, the vein of rubies; the miners set to work upon this with much art, following all its ramifications through the parent rock. The first rubies that present themselves are small, and of bad colour: these the miners called piadehs (foot soldiers): further on some larger and of better colour are found, which are called sawars (horse soldiers); the next, as they still progress in improvement, are called amirs, bakshis, and vazirs, until at last they come to the king jewel, after finding which, they give up working the vein: and this is always polished and presented to the king. The author proceeds to describe the finest ruby of this kind that had ever fallen under his observation. It belonged to the Oude family, and was carried off by Vizir Ali; he was afterwards employed in recovering it from the latter: it was of the size of a pigeon's egg, and the color very brilliant; weight, about two tolas; there was a flaw in it, and to hide it, the name of Julál-ud-dín was engraved over the part; hence the jewel was called the lál-i-jaláli. A similar ruby to this, but considerably larger, is in the possession of Runjit Sinh, and has the names of five emperors engraved upon it.

* The Manaif-ul-ahjár dates this occurrence "350 years ago," but the date of the work is not given: the lâl is not mentioned by Zakarya. Since the above was written, Mr. H.H. Wilson has favored me with a sight of another work on jewels, entitled Khawás-ul-hejár, translated by himself, in which the lâl is treated of under the name of balaksh (Balakshan being synonymous with Badakshan). This leaves no doubt as to the origin of the word Balas…

James Prinsep and Raja Kalíkishen, 1832

 The inscriptions mentioned on the ruby owned by Ranjit Singh ('Runjit Sinh') suggest that this was the Timur ruby now in the personal collection of the British monarch (see box).

Badakhshan ruby/spinel: Myth or reality?

From the historical record, it is clear that the Badakhshan mines were of great importance during the period from 1000–1900 AD. While it is impossible to speculate about ruby, it is safe to say that, based on the numerous historical accounts, the Badakhshan mines were the source of many of the finest early red spinels in gem collections around the world, such as those in the crown jewels of Iran, the collection in Istanbul's Topkapi, Russia's Kremlin and Diamond Fund, and England's Tower of London.

Unfortunately, in modern times, such mines are largely overlooked. Twentieth-century gemologists persist in the belief that the only source of big red spinels is Burma (Kammerling, Scarratt, et. al, 1994). This is not based upon any particular evidence, such as inclusion studies; for these studies do not exist, either for Burma spinels or for those from Badakhshan.* Instead, it simply rests upon the belief that what is today, has always been.

While evidence for the existence of the Badakhshan mines is not direct, it is substantial. As proof, we have the name balas ruby, which is apparently derived from an ancient word for Badakhshan, we have numerous detailed accounts of the mining, we have spinels with Arabic inscriptions and we have historical names, such as the Timur ruby. Circumstantial? Indeed. But if circumstantial evidence was of no value, the world's jails would be empty.

*Occasional photos of inclusions in Burmese and Sri Lankan spinel have been published. But since no in situ collecting has been done at the Badakhshan mine, and little in Burma, it is impossible to say whether similar inclusions will be found at each deposit. Remember, rutile silk has been found in rubies from virtually every deposit except Thailand/Cambodia. Similar inclusions are often found in stones from different mines.

 In 1836, Captain John Wood began an epic journey to trace the headwaters of the Oxus river. He did attempt to visit the ruby mines in Badakhshan, but due to inclement weather was unsuccessful. The following is his account:

The ruby mines are within twenty miles of Ish-kashm, in a district called Gharan, which word signifies caves or mines, and on the right bank of the river Oxus. They face the stream, and their entrance is said to be 1,200 feet [366 m] above its level. The formation of the mountain is either red sandstone or limestone largely impregnated with magnesia. The mines are easily worked, the operation being more like digging a hole in sand, than quarrying rocks…. The galleries are described as being numerous, and running directly in from the river. The labourers are greatly incommoded by water filtering into the mine from above, and by the smoke from their lamps, for which there is no exit. Wherever a seam or whitish blotch is discovered, the miners set to work; and when a ruby is found it is always encased in a round nodule of considerable size. The mines have not been worked since Badakhshan fell into the hands of the Kunduz chief, who, irritated, it is supposed, at the small profit they yielded, marched the inhabitants of the district, then numbering about five hundred families, to Kunduz, and disposed of them in the slave market. The inhabitants of Gharan were Rafizies, or Shiah Mohamedans, and so are the few families which still remain there.

John Wood, 1841, A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus

A mention of the Badakhshan mines was made by Pandit Manphúl, in a report dated 1867. His report is important for, unlike most others, he seems to have examined actual specimens. Manphúl said:

The Ruby Mines are situated in Ishkásham, bordering on Shighnán…. The Ruby mines have not been worked for the last twenty years and upwards. They were then given up in consequence of the labour spent on them not having been sufficiently rewarded; whether the mines had been exhausted, or whether the workers were unskilful, or managed to steal the more precious stones, is not certain. The present Mír, who had one of the mines worked last year (a.d. 1866), at my request, made over to me some of the best specimens brought to him. They are not the best of their kinds, unless the one encased in a nodule turn out to be so. The Mír, depreciating the skill of the present workers, who are natives of the country, and, according to an established usage, labour for nothing, is anxious to secure the services of competent miners… It is believed that the mines are still stealthily worked by the people living near them, with, or without the countenance and connivance of the servants of the Mír charged with their management. The mines are known to have yielded rubies of six different colours, viz. red, green, white, yellow, violet, and rosy. The specimens with me are white, violet, and rosy.

The ruby (lál) has given Badakhshan a lasting celebrity in the world of Oriental poetry.

The Sohanmakkhi* also comes out of the Ruby Mines.
* [Query, corundum?]

Pandit Manphúl, Badakhshán and the Countries around it (see Yule, 1872)

Valentine Ball (1881), Irishman extraordinaire, former head of the Geological Survey of India and author of Tavernier's Travels in India, also remarked on the mines, under the topic of spinel:

Afghanistan. – In the year 1879 the so-called ruby mines of the late Amir of Afghanistan, Shir Ali, which are situated near the village of Jagdalak in Kabul, were visited by Major Stewart of the Guides. Two specimens of stones, called yakut by the natives, and samples of the matrix, were forwarded to the office of the Geological Survey for examination. The stones proved to be spinel, and the matrix a crystalline micaceous limestone. Major Stewart* states that the Amir kept a strict guard over the mines and only allowed particular friends of his own to work them.

Badakshan. – The balas ruby mines of Badakshan are situated on the banks of the Shighnan, a tributary of the Oxus. They have been known by reputation for very many centuries, and the name balas is derived from Balakshan, another form of writing the name of the country or from Balkh the capital town.** This may possibly be the origin of the common mistake made in English works on precious stones, namely, that these mines are situated in Balochistan!…
* Prog. As. Soc. Bengal, 1880, p. 4.
** Prinsep J., Jour. As. Soc. Bengal, Vol. I, p. 359

Valentine Ball, 1881
A Manual of the Geology of India,
Part III: Economic Geology,
pp. 429–430

Ball claimed that the Jegdalek [Jagdalek] stones were spinel. While spinel could possibly also occur there, a later analysis reported by FR Mallet (1887) proved that the two specimens collected were, in fact, rubies.

An early mention of the rubies of Badakhshan is found in the writings of the Spaniard, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who visited the court of Timur, [5] at Samarkand in the years 1403–1406 AD.

The lord [Timour] caused all the Meerzas and nobles in the land of Samarcand to come to this festival; amongst whom was the lord of Balaxia, which is a great city, where rubies are procured; and he came with a large troop of knights and followers.

The ambassadors went to this lord of Balaxia, and asked him how he got the rubies; and he replied that near the city, there was a mountain whence they brought them, and that every day they broke up a rock in search of them. He said that when they found a vein, they got out the rubies skilfully, by breaking the rock all round with chisels. During the work, a great guard was set by order of Timour Beg; and Balaxia is ten days journey from Samarcand, in the direction of India.

CR Markham, 1859
Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the
Court of Timour, at Samarcand, A.D. 1403–6

Bauer (1904) describes both the Jegdalek and Badakhshan deposits. Of the latter, Bauer said:

The ruby mines of Badakshan were famous in olden times, and they supplied some of the vast store of treasure amassed by the Great Mogul. They are situated in Shignan, on the bend of the Oxus river, which is directed to the south-west, in latitude about 37°N. and longitude 71.5°E. They lie between the upper course of the Oxus and its right tributary the Turt, near Gharan, a place the name of which is said to signify "mine," sixteen miles [26 km] below the town of Barshar, in the lower, not the higher, mountain ranges…

It is possible that the rubies and spinels which have recently come into the market through Tashkent, and which, according to the merchants, were mined in the Tian-Shan Mountains, are in reality from these same mines. There is no reliable information as to the existence of ruby mines in the Tian-Shan Mountains or in Tibet, so that the 2000-carat ruby recently received by Streeter, and said to come from Tibet, may also have been found in these mines on the Oxus.

Max Bauer, 1904, Precious Stones


Afghan miners drilling the limestone for rubies at Jegdalek, Afghanistan. (Photo: Gary Bowersox)

Figure 2  Afghan miners drilling the limestone for rubies at Jegdalek, Afghanistan. (Photo: Gary Bowersox)

There is little mention of the Badakhshan mines after Bauer, possibly because they lie on the border of, or inside, Tajikistan, a region of the former USSR little visited by foreigners. Barthoux (1933) discussed the mines, stating that they lay near the village of Siz, in the area of Ghâran, on the right bank of the Oxus. He reported that huge, translucent, purplish pink octahedrons ('le rubis balais') over 20 cm in size were extracted at that locality. Almandine garnet was said to occur on the left bank. Barthoux also stated that a more important occurrence of ruby was at Jegdalek ('Djagdalik'). The larger pieces were mostly massive, but smaller pieces showed traces of "p {1011}, a {0001}, d {1120} and e {2243}." They were found with spinel and most were pink in color. Also occurring with the rubies were humite, chondrodite, phlogopite, fuchsite, rutile, sphene, hematite and pyrite (Barthoux, 1933; trans. for the author by Olivier Galibert, June 3, 1994).

After Barthoux, discussion of Afghan rubies was restricted to the Jegdalek mines. During the Soviet occupation, mining of all Afghan gem and mineral deposits was controlled by the state (Boa, 1987). However, since many mines lay in inaccessible areas, such mining became an important source of income for the rebels. With the Soviet pullout, modern exploration and exploitation might become possible, thus increasing the output from Afghanistan.


Streeter (1892) did mention a ruby of 10.5 cts brought to England from mines at Gandamak, about 20 miles (32 km) from Jegdalek. Due to the proximity of these localities, it is possible that the stone actually came from Jegdalek. Griesbach (1892) reported rubies 20 miles (32 km) west of Tatang in a coarse, micaceous marble.

Gary Bowersox reported that gem-quality ruby had been found northeast of Kabul (Koivula, 1987). No further details are available. Ghaggi has also been reported as a source of ruby. About 1986, American dealer Dudley Blauwet purchased a large, euhedral yellow sapphire crystal said to have originated from Dharipiche, Kunar Province, northeastern Afghanistan (pers. comm., Sept. 19, 1994).


In the late 1980s, large reddish spinels were reported from the Pamir mountains of what is now Tajikistan. One 532-ct rough yielded cut gems of 146.43 and 27.81 cts (Bancroft, 1989, 1990). It is not known if the mine that produced these specimens is the same as the Badakhshan mine described above (Peter Bancroft, pers. comm., June, 1994). Ruby was also reported in eastern Tajikistan, near the border with China, in the early 1980s (Bank and Henn, 1990; Henn et al., 1990). The mine is said to be located at Turakuloma, some 40 km northwest of Murgap, at 4500 m above sea level, in a mineralized zone of marbles. However, this deposit is far from the Afghan border.


The above accounts clearly describe two separate mines for ruby and/or spinel. One, located at Jegdalek (spelled variously, Jagdalak or Jegdalek), 51.5 km (32 miles) east of Kabul, and another further north in Badakhshan, on the banks of the Shignan, a tributary of the Oxus (Amu Darya), near Gharan, just north of Ishkásham. According to Alexander Fersman (1946–47), noted Russian mineralogist/gemologist, "From the mines at the mouth of the Kuga-Lial River, the East for a thousand years has been getting its red stones – bright rubies and pinkish-red spinels, called lal." [6] Gary Bowersox has told the author that the Afghan name of the Badakhshan mine is Kuh-i-lal ['the place of ruby/spinel'] (pers. comm., July 1, 1994). Undoubtedly the localities described by Fersman and Bowersox are identical.

Political difficulties and rugged terrain make Afghanistan a difficult country to explore, and Tajikistan is no better. Until someone manages to visit the Badakhshan mines, and lives to tell the tale, we must be content with mere speculation.

Characteristics of Afghanistan ruby (Jegdalek)

Nothing exists in the literature regarding the gemological characteristics of rubies or spinels from Badakhshan, primarily because no twentieth-century eyewitness accounts exist of the mines. In addition, gemological descriptions of the important specimens of history, such as the Timur ruby and the Black Prince's ruby, have never been published.

The situation at Jegdalek is somewhat better. Material has filtered out throughout the 1980s. In the early part of that decade, the author acquired a number of faceted and rough specimens from Jegdalek. The following is based on his first-hand studies, supplemented by those of Bowersox (1985), Barthoux (1933), Beesley (1986), Brückl (1937) and Themelis (1988).


Afzali (1981) has reported the Jegdalek mine to lie in Kabul province at 34° 26' N, 69° 49' E. For those who read German, the most complete description of the mine is that of Brückl (1937). The rubies are said to occur embedded in a regionally-metamorphosed marble cut by granitic intrusions of Oligocene age.

Table 1: Properties of Jegdalek (Afghanistan) ruby

Color range/
• Near colorless to a deep red, often slightly purplish, strongly fluorescent. Violet stones are seen on occasion.
• Ruby is found embedded in a regionally metamorphosed marble cut by granitic intrusions of Oligocene age.
Crystal habit • Most crystals are hexagonal prisms (short or long) with development of rhombohedron and pinacoid faces. Spindle-shaped bipyramids are also sometimes seen.
RI &
n [epsilon] = 1.762; n [omega] = 1.770      Bire. = 0.008
Specific Gravity ~4.00
Spectra Visible region
• Strong Cr spectrum (similar to rubies from other localities).
Fluorescence UV
• Strong red to red-orange fluorescence (LW stronger than SW).
Other features May be dyed or heat treated.
Inclusion types
• Calcite; rhombs
• Phlogopite mica; books
• Rutile; prisms and knee-shaped twins
• Garnet
• Chondrodite
• Apatite
• Pyrite
• Spinel
• Graphite
• Hornblende
• Dolomite
• Primary negative crystals.
• Secondary healed fractures are common. They occur in a variety of patterns and thicknesses.
• Iron oxide stains are common in cracks (these may be removed during heat treatment).
Growth zoning • Straight, angular growth zoning parallel to the faces along which it formed; irregular 'treacle'-like swirls in other directions. Distinctive are the blue color zones intermingled in most stones, similar to Vietnamese rubies. Growth zoning is extremely sharp and prominent.
Twin development • Growth twins of unknown orientation.
• Polysynthetic glide twinning on the rhombohedron.
Exsolved solids • Dense zoned clouds of (often, but not always) tiny particles (probably rutile), parallel to the hexagonal prism (3 directions at 60/120°) in the basal plane.
• Boehmite, long white needles along intersecting rhombohedral twin planes (3 directions, 2 in one plane, at 86.1 and 93.9°).

Color range

Rubies from Jegdalek are only rarely encountered in faceting quality, but when clean can be magnificent. In terms of color, Jegdalek rubies resemble most the gems of Vietnam, Burma and Sri Lanka, being strongly fluorescent and often of a slightly pinkish or raspberry-red hue similar to rubellite tourmaline. A small percentage are of violet hue.

Solid inclusions

Various types have been found in Afghan rubies. Common are colorless blocks displaying rhombohedral cleavage, most likely of calcite. Inclusions of calcite are not surprising, considering the fact that Jegdalek rubies are found in a marble matrix, just as in Burma. Transparent plates and books of hexagonal outline are also seen. Due to their anisotropic character between crossed polars and prominent basal cleavage, they are most likely mica. Other platelike inclusions consist of irregular distorted shingles which are opaque and black or slightly gold in color. These also display a somewhat micaceous appearance. Additional solid inclusions seen were rounded colorless grains of low relief and, in one specimen, corroded blocks of a yellow color. Several specimens examined by the author contained deep red-orange prisms of square outline and submetallic luster. Some were knee-shaped twins with obvious reentrant angles, indicating rutile.

Famous balas rubies: Blood-red souvenirs of conquest

Among the most storied stones of history are the large balas rubies found in museums and gem collections throughout the world. The Diamond Fund in Russia has a number of representative examples. Noted Russian gemologist/mineralogist, Alexander Fersman, remarked "…in the Diamond Fund these spinels have a significant place. One of such stones, weighing 100 carats, speaks to us of the sands of Ceylon, but the majority of them come from Afghanistan, from the mountains of the province of Badakhshan. In old Russian manuscripts it was called 'lal Badakhshan.'" (Fersman, 1946, p. 374).

Prominent among spinels in the Diamond Fund is the massive red orb atop the Imperial Russian Crown. This crimson colossus tips the scales at 414.30 cts (Twining, 1960). A rather fanciful description of this stone's history has been given by Yevdokimov (1991). It was said to have been found by Chun Li, a Chinese-mercenary member of Timur's army that looted Samarkand. Unfortunately for Chun Li, he failed to turn in some of the booty, and so was exiled in slavery to the ruby mines of Badakhshan. Finding the stone, he crept away in the night and made his escape. But his attempt to present it to the Chinese emperor was thwarted when a palace guard found the stone and killed him for it. This guard was similarly killed when a jeweler he tried to sell the stone to, informed on him. Thus the gem passed to the emperors. In 1676, the ruby was purchased "at a pretty price" from emperor Kon Khan by Nikolai Spafari, at the behest of Alexei Mikhailovich, second tsar of the Romanov dynasty. Upon the ascendancy of Catherine II ('the great') to the throne in 1762, she had the stone mounted on the top of her crown, where it remains today (Yevdokimov, 1991).

The Black Prince's ruby, a historic red spinel set in the Imperial State Crown and displayed in the Tower of London. A ruby, set in gold, is secured to the top of the spinel. (Photo: S. Greenaway, reproduced with the kind permission of H.M. The Queen. Crown Copyright reserved)

Figure 3  The Black Prince's ruby, a historic red spinel set in the Imperial State Crown and displayed in the Tower of London. A ruby, set in gold, is secured to the top of the spinel. (Photo: S. Greenaway, reproduced with the kind permission of H.M. The Queen. Crown Copyright reserved)

The Black Prince's ruby is perhaps the most famous balas ruby in existence. Since its story has been told so many times before (see Hughes, 1990) I will not tell it again. Less well-known among spinels, but no less interesting, is the Timur ruby, or Khiraj-i-alam ('Tribute to the World'). The last of the great nomad kings to overrun the world, when not conquering far-off lands, Timur [also known as Shah Qiran; b. 1336?; d. 1405] made his base at Samarkand, where legendary feasts and orgies were held (Collins, 1968).

The Timur ruby weighs 352.5 cts and is currently in the private collection of Queen Elizabeth II. The stone carries several Persian inscriptions written in Arabic, the longest of which reads: "This is the ruby among the twenty-five thousand jewels of the King of Kings, the Sultan Sahib Qiran." According to legend, the spinel is said to have passed into his hands when he sacked Delhi in 1398 and, after the usual pillage and extortion, was later obtained by Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of the Punjab.' The British annexed the Punjab in 1849. Along with the province, they also "annexed" both the Koh-i-Nur diamond and the Timur ruby, which were later presented to Queen Victoria (Twining, 1960).

The Timur Ruby. Currently in the private collection of the British Queen, the idea that it was once in the possession of Timur has now been debunked (Stronge, 1996).

Figure 4 The Timur Ruby. Currently in the private collection of Queen Elizabeth II, the idea that it was once in the possession of Timur has now been debunked (Stronge, 1996).



Both primary and secondary liquid inclusions are seen, the latter being responsible for the lack of clarity which most of these rubies display. Irregular, liquid-filled cavities with jagged edges (much like those in Colombian emeralds) are also found. However, the cavities of the Jegdalek rubies are somewhat thicker. The fingerprints and feathers which fill these stones often show a ragged appearance, as well, with coarse tubes that can easily be confused with the flux inclusions in flux-grown synthetic rubies.

Growth zoning

Color zoning in Jegdalek rubies is extremely sharp and narrow, forming in the typical hexagonal pattern when viewed parallel to the c axis. The most distinctive feature of Jegdalek rubies are the small spots or zones of a sapphire-blue color. At times, these blue zones may be hexagonal in outline while in other cases they consist of narrow bands, but all show a sharp division between red and blue. Similar blue zoning is seen in Vietnamese rubies and in Burmese rubies from Mong Hsu.

Twin development

Rhombohedral polysynthetic twin lamellae are seen in most specimens, inevitably accompanied by long white boehmite needles meeting at 86.1/93.9°.

Exsolved inclusions

While exsolved rutile needles have not been found, clouds of tiny exsolved particles of what may be rutile have been seen. The lack of true silk means that star rubies are not produced. Cabochons may show a silvery sheen, though, from reflection off the particles. Exsolved boehmite needles are common at the junctions of intersecting rhombohedral twin lamellae.


R S end dingbat


The author would like to give thanks to those who have assisted with this article. First, to Bob Frey, a prince of a man, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in both editing and helping the author locate obscure references. May all his dreams come true. Secondly, to Paul Picus, of rapier wit and red pen, whose advice has been a constant source of joy. And finally, to Gary Bowersox, American-born, but doubtless an Afghan in a previous lifetime.


  • Afzali, H. (1981) Les resources d'hydrocarbures, de métaux et de substances utiles de l'Afghanistan: aperçu génerál. Chronique de la Recherche Minière, No. 460, pp. 29–49, RWHL*.
  • Ball, S.H. (1931) Historical notes on gem mining. Economic Geology, Vol. 26, pp. 681–738, RWHL*.
  • Ball, V. (1881) A Manual of the Geology of India, Part 3: Economic Geology. 1st edition, Calcutta, Geological Survey of India, 4 Vols., Vol. 3, 663 pp., RWHL*.
  • Ball, V. (1893) A description of two large spinel rubies, with Persian characters engraved upon them. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 3rd Series, No. 3, pp. 380–4-500, Reprinted in Gemological Digest, 1990, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 57–68, RWHL*.
  • Bancroft, P. (1989) Record Russian spinels. Lapidary Journal, Vol. 43, No. 4, p. 41; RWHL.
  • Bancroft, P. (1990) Spectacular spinel. Lapidary Journal, Vol. 43, No. 11, February, p. 25; RWHL.
  • Bank, H. and Henn, U. (1990) New sources for tourmaline, emerald, ruby, and spinel. ICA Gazette, April, p. 7; RWHL.
  • Barthoux, J. (1933) Lapis-lazuli et rubis balais des cipolins afghans. Comptes Rendus de l'Academie des Sciences de France, Vol. 196, 10 Avril, pp. 1131–1134; RWHL.
  • Bauer, M. (1904) Precious Stones. Trans. by L.J. Spencer, First published in German in 1896; English edition reprinted in 1968 by Dover (2 vols.) and 1969 by Charles E. Tuttle Co. (1 vol.), London, Charles Griffen and Co., 647 pp.; RWHL*.
  • Beesley, C.R. (1986) Pakistan's emeralds: A trickle becomes a stream. Jewelers' Circular-Keystone, February, pp. 359–3–465; RWHL.
  • Boa, M.K. (1987) Kalashnikovs provide cover to smuggled Afghan gems. Bangkok Gems and Jewellery, November, pp. 5–14; RWHL.
  • Bowersox, G.W. (1985) A status report on gemstones from Afghanistan. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 192–204, RWHL*.
  • Bretschneider, E. (1887) Medieval Researches from Eastern Asiatic Sources. Reprinted 1967, Barnes & Noble, New York, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 2 Vols., Vol. 1, 334 pp.; RWHL.
  • Brückl, K. (1937) Die Minerallagerstätten von Östafghanistan. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, B-Bd 72, Abt. A, H 1, pp. 1–97, RWHL*.
  • Collins, R. (1968) East to Cathay: The Silk Road. New York, McGraw-Hill, 128 pp.; RWHL.
  • Fersman, A.E. (1946–47) Jewels of the Russian Diamond Fund. Gems & Gemology, trans. by Marie Pavlovna Warner, Vol. 5, Part I: No. 8, Winter, p. 363, 372–376; Part II: No. 9, Spring, pp. 403–405; Part III: No. 10, Summer, pp. 432–434; Part IV: No. 11, Fall, pp. 467–470; RWHL.
  • Gibb, H.A.R. (1971) The Travels of Ibn Battuta. Trans. by C. Defrémery and B.R. Sanguinetti, Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 3 Vols., Vol. 3, see p. 571; RWHL.
  • Henn, U., Bank, H., et al. (1990) Rubine aus dem Pamir-Gebirge, UdSSR. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Gemmologischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 201–205, RWHL*.
  • Hughes, R.W. (1990) Corundum. Butterworths Gem Books, Northants, UK, Butterworth-Heinemann, 314 pp., RWHL*.
  • Kammerling, R.C., Scarratt, K., et al. (1994) Myanmar and its gems – An update. Journal of Gemmology, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 3–40, RWHL*.
  • Koivula, J.I. (1987) Gem News: New ruby locality in Afghanistan; heat-treated pink sapphires [from Sri Lanka]. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 23, No. 3, p. 176, RWHL.
  • Mallet, F.R. (1887) A Manual of the Geology of India, Part 4: Mineralogy. 1st edition, Calcutta, Geological Survey of India, 179 pp., RWHL*.
  • Markham, C.R. (1859) Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the Court of Timour, at Samarcand, A.D. 1403–6. London, Hakluyt Society, see pp. 163; RWHL.
  • Prinsep, J. and Kalíkishen, R. (1832) Oriental accounts of the precious minerals. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 1, pp. 353–363; RWHL*.
  • Streeter, E.W. (1892) Precious Stones and Gems. 5th edition, London, Bell, 355 pp., RWHL*.
  • Stronge, S. (1996) The myth of the Timur ruby. Jewellery Studies, Vol. 7, pp. 5–12; RWHL*.
  • Themelis, T. (1988) Blue spot on ruby. Lapidary Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, April, p. 19; RWHL.
  • Twining, L. (1960) A History of the Crown Jewels of Europe. London, B.T. Batsford, 707 pp.; RWHL.
  • Wood, J. (1841) A Journey to the Source of River Oxus. 2nd ed., 1872, reprinted 1976, Oxford Univ. Press, London, John Murray, 280 pp.; RWHL.
  • Yevdokimov, D. (1991) A ruby from Badakhshan. Soviet Soldier, No. 12, Dec., p. 71–73; RWHL.
  • Yule, H. (1872) Papers connected with the upper Oxus regions. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 42, pp. 438–513, 2 maps; RWHL.
  • Yule, H. and Cordier, H. (1920) The Book of Ser Marco Polo. Reprinted by Dover, 1993, London, Murray, 3 vols., 462; 662; 161 pp.; RWHL*.

Further Reading

  • Ball, V. (1894) [Engraved spinel ruby]. Athenæum, No. 3454, 6th January, not seen.
  • Barbaro, J. (1873) Travels to Tana and Persia. ed. by E.D. Morgan and C. H. Coote, London, Hakluyt Society, pp. 53–60; not seen.
  • Bariand, P. (1979) The Wonderful World of Precious Stones in their Natural State. London, Abbey Library, 112 pp., RWHL.
  • Chardin, J. (1988) Travels in Persia: 1673–1677. Reprint of the 1927 Argonaut Press edition, Mineola, NY, Dover, 287 pp.; RWHL.
  • Clément-Mullet, J. (n.d., ca.1982) Essai sur la Minéralogie Arabe. Reprint of 1868 ed., Amsterdam, APA-Oriental Press, 406 pp.; RWHL*.
  • Conolly, E. (1840) Note of discoveries of gems from Kandahar. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 9, No. 98, pp. 97–106; RWHL.
  • Drummond, H. (1841) On the mines and mineral resources of Northern Afghanistan. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 10, No. 109, pp. 74–93; RWHL.
  • Fersman, A.E. (1954–61) Ocherki Po Istorii Kamnya [Gems of Russia]. Moskva, Izdatelstvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 2 Vols., 370, 370 pp.; not seen*.
  • Griesbach, C.L. (1881) Report on the geology of the section between the Bolan Pass in Baluchistan and Girishk in Southern Afghanistan. Memoirs, Geological Survey of India, Vol. 18, Pt. 1, not seen.
  • Griesbach, C.L. (1885) Afghan field notes. Records, Geological Survey of India, Vol. 18, Pt. 1, pp. 57–67 (see also 1886, Pts. 1 & 4; 1887, Pts. 1 & 4); not seen.
  • Griesbach, C.L. (1892) The geology of Safed Koh. Records, Geological Survey of India, Vol. 25, Part 2, p. 71; RWHL.
  • Gübelin, E.J. (1982) Gemstones of Pakistan: Emerald, ruby and spinel. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 123–129, RWHL*.
  • Hayden, H.H. (1911) The geology of northern Afghanistan. Memoirs, Geological Survey of India, Vol. 39, Pt. 1, pp. 1–97; not seen.
  • Herbordt, O. (1925) Über nutzbare lagerstätten in Afghanistan. Zeitschrift für Praktische Geologie, Vol. 33, not seen.
  • Herbordt, O. (1925/26) Über die aussichten Afghanistans als bergbauland. Intern. Bergwirtsch, not seen.
  • Heron, A.M. (1930) The gemstones of the Himalayas. Himalayan Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 21–28; RWHL.
  • Holland, T.H. (1898) A Manual of the Geology of India – Economic Geology: Corundum. 2nd ed., Pt. 1, Calcutta, Geological Survey of India, 79 pp.; RWHL*.
  • Hutton, T. (1846) Notes on the geology and mineralogy of Affghanistan. Calcutta Journal of Natural History, No. 6, pp. 562–611; not seen.
  • Jameson, N.M. (1843) On the geology, zoology, etc. of the Punjaub, and of a part of Affghanistan. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 7, pp. 192–226, not seen.
  • Koivula, J.I. and Kammerling, R.C. (1989) Examination of a gem spinel crystal from the Pamir Mountains. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Gemmologischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 38, No. 2/3, pp. 85–88; RWHL.
  • McLachlan, K. and Whittaker, W. (1983) A Bibliography of Afghanistan. Cambridge, Menas Press Ltd, geology, pp. 13–53; RWHL.
  • Rossovsky, L.N. and Konovalenko, S.I. (1980) [Gemstones in the pegmatites of Hindukush, southern Pamirs and western Himalayas] in Russian. In Gem Minerals (Proceedings of the XI General Meeting of IMA, Novosibirsk), ed. by V.V. Bukanov et al., pp. 52–62; not seen.
  • Sersen, W.J. (1991) Gemstones and early Arabic writers. Gemological Digest, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 34–40, RWHL*.
  • Stewart, G. (1880) [Ruby mines of Afghanistan]. Proceedings, Asiatic Society of Bengal, p. 4; not seen.
  • Torrens, H. (1842a) On a cylinder and certain gems, collected in the neighborhood of Herat by Major Pottinger. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 11, pp. 316–321, not seen.
  • Torrens, H. (1842b) On the gem and coins, figured as Nos. 7 and 8 in the preceding plate, and on a gem belonging to the late Edward Conolly. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 11, pp. 137–145; not seen.
  • Trinkler, E. (1928) Afghanistan. In Petermann's Mitteilungen, Gotha, Justus Perthes, No. 196, not seen.
  • USSR Diamond Fund (1972) USSR Diamond Fund Exhibition. Moscow, 54 pp. + 66 color plates; RWHL.
  • Wilber, D.N. (1962) Annotated Bibliography of Afghanistan. 2nd edition, New Haven, CT, Hraf Press, geology, pp. 13–47; RWHL.
  • Wolfart, R. and Wittekindt, H. (1980) Geologie von Afghanistan. Berlin, Gebruder Borntraeger, not seen.
  • Yule, H. and Burnell, A.C. (1985) Hobson-Jobson. Ed. by William Crooke, reprint of 1903 ed., London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1021 pp. (see Ava, pp. 40–41; Balass, p. 52; Capelan, p. 159; Ceylon, pp. 181–190; Coromandel, pp. 256–258; Corundum, p. 259; Tenasserim, p. 914); RWHL.

About the Author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard's Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology.

Author's Afterword

This article was based in part on an excerpt from my 1997 book, Ruby & Sapphire. The article was published in 1994 in the Journal of Gemmology (Vol. 24, No. 4, October, pp. 256–267). Since publication, we have learned a great deal more about the spinel mines of both Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It appears that red/pink spinel mines exist on both sides of the border. In addition, violet spinels are coming from Zo Valley and pink spinels from Parwara in the Sar-i-Sang area of the Afghan portion of Badakhshan.


  1. All footnotes attached to quotations are those of the original authors, and are indicated with symbols (*, **). My own footnotes are at the bottom of the page and are numbered. – RWH  [ return to article ]
  2. Lapis lazuli, also from Badakshan, was an important source of pigment in ancient times (viz. ultramarine, which is made by crushing lapis). Thus the actions of these women are understandable. However, corundum and spinel, unlike lapis, are colored by impurities. Thus their streak, and their color when crushed, is colorless.  [ return to article ]
  3. The information was extracted from three books, of different eras: 1, the Ajáib-ul-makhlukát o Gharáib-ul-moujudát, an ancient Persian work on natural history, written by Zakarya, a native of Kufa, date unknown; 2, the Aqul-i-ashreh, a work on science, by Mahomed of Berar, An. Hej. 1084 (AD 1673); and 3, the Jawáhir-námeh, a modern anonymous compilation, containing much useful matter in a condensed form: it was probably written at one of the native courts, either Delhi or Hyderabad, since it mentions the opening of [then] recent mines in India (Prinsep and Kalikishen, 1832). [ return to article ]
  4. Yaqut is a Persian-Arabic term for corundum. Ancient Arab mineralogists placed all colors of ruby-sapphire under yaqut (Prinsep, 1832). [ return to article ]
  5. Tamerlane is an English corruption of Timur i leng ('Timur the lame'), as Timur was crippled in battle when about 27 years old (Collins, 1968). [ return to article ]
  6. Lal is the Persian word for balas ruby. In Chinese, it is la (Bretschneider, 1887). [ return to article ]
  7. RWHL = References contained in the personal library of Richard W. Hughes

    * = References of particular merit [ return to References ] 

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