Russian drinking vessel with balas rubyRussian drinking vessel with balas ruby

What are Balas Rubies and Ruby Spinels?

For centuries, balas rubies were prized by royalty. Learn what happened after gemologists identified these gems as red spinels instead.

11 Minute Read

HomeLearning CenterGemologyAn Introduction to GemologyWhat are Balas Rubies and Ruby Spinels?
cushion-cut spinel - Afghanistan
In the past, a gem such as this cushion-cut, 1.5-ct spinel from the Badakhshan region in Afghanistan may have been considered a balas ruby. Photo courtesy of and Jasper52.

Rubies are Red, Sapphires are Blue, Spinels are Both

Spinels are beautiful, durable gemstones that occur in various colors, including deep reds that rival rubies and cobalt blues that rival sapphires. Unfortunately, that rivalry with corundum — the mineral species that includes rubies and sapphires — hasn’t always favored spinel. For centuries, red spinel was considered a type of ruby: a “balas ruby.”

How Does Modern Gemology Distinguish Ruby and Spinel?

Gemologists now distinguish spinel and corundum as distinct gem species. Chemical formulas and crystal structure define gem species. Corundum, for example, has a chemical formula of Al2O3 and a hexagonal crystal structure. Ruby is the red variety of corundum, and the presence of chromium impurities creates its red color. All other varieties of corundum are called sapphires, with various impurities creating other colors like blue, purple, and pink. Colorless corundum, without impurities, is considered white sapphire.

Spinel has a chemical formula of MgAl2O4 and an isometric crystal structure. Various impurities

International Gem Society

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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