Gemstones and Birthstones: The Black Prince’s Ruby (Not)

The rubies seen with diamonds in the gold crown and scepter above are real, but not the most famous Black Prince’s ruby. The real Black Princes ruby is the most famous ruby of all time but not a ruby! Fun stuff! This famous “ruby” can be seen in the British Imperial State Crown, below.

Gemstones and Birthstones: The Black Prince’s Ruby (Not)

Photo: C Squared Studios/Getty Images

This crown — used at the monarch’s coronation and on other formal occasions — is paved with diamonds and gemstones. But the three largest are the Stuart Sapphire (a large ovalish cabochon-cut sapphire), The Cullinan II, the second largest stone cut from the Cullinan, the largest diamond ever found, and the Black Prince’s “Ruby.” This beautiful, “irregular cabochon” (it looks like it might have tumbled straight from the river like this) is actually a red spinel. (170 carats of spinel!) The small lighter red area near the top is not a reflection in the image. It’s a hole that was once drilled in the stone so it could be worn as a pendant. The hole is now filled with a smaller ruby cabochon set in gold.

Gemstones and Birthstones: The Black Prince’s Ruby (Not)

Photo: duncan1890; Getty Images

You’d think someone called “the Black Prince” would have all sorts of dastardly deeds to his name. Unfortunately for the storyteller in some of us, no. Or at least no one is talking about them. Officially he was Edward, Prince of Wales (1330-76), son of Edward III who, it’s believed, was given the spinel/ruby by the King of Castile in 1367. Edward, the Black Prince, died before he could become king. “He had the customary fine presence of the Plantagenets and shared their love of jewels,” according to the Britannica online. No kidding!

So why was this stone called a ruby? Mineralogy was a long way in the future at the time this stone was found. It was red, it was hard, it was brilliant, and it was found in the right place (probably in the gem-rich gravels in southeastern Asia). Good enough. Eventually, as science improved, the stone was identified correctly, although it is still known as “The Black Prince’s Ruby.”

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing on gemstone and jewelry topics for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of Birthstone Romances under the name Liz Hartley.

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