Modified: April 2011
by Tammy Jones AJP, Pearls Graduate (GIA)
The Black Prince's Ruby has an amazing history filled with enough treachery, danger, and deceit to rival that of the legendary, supposedly cursed, Hope Diamond. While most people realize that the stone is actually a bright red spinel, not a ruby, its size and its history might surprise you.
The semi-polished stone is said to be "bead shaped," though it actually appears to be an octahedron or diamond-shaped, like a slightly distorted square turned on end. Measuring about 2 inches high and nearly that much wide, it weighs an estimated 170 carats and is said to be about the size of a chicken egg.
The Black Prince's Ruby is backed by gold foil, as most ancient gems were, and was drilled at one end to be worn on a necklace at some time during its history. Today that drill hole is covered by a small ruby, which looks like a bubble in photographs of the stone.
Now for the treachery, danger, and deceit. While the stone was probably mined in the famous balas ruby mines (spinel is an indicator stone for ruby) in Badakhshan near the Afghan border, its torrid history is recorded back to 1366, when it was stolen from the lifeless body of Moorish prince Abu Said by Don Pedro of Castile. A year later, the evil Don Pedro used the stone--willingly or unwillingly--as payment to the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock, for help against a revolt by Don Pedro's own brother.
A gap in its history leads to 1415, when the stone was nearly destroyed during the Battle of Agincourt while being worn in Henry V's gem-encrusted battle helmet.
Legend credits the spinel with saving Henry V's life by deflecting a blow while it adorned his battle helmet, and the notorious gem was passed down through several British kings over the next two hundred years until it was set in England's state crown by James I. In the mid 1600s, the Crown Jewels were disassembled and sold, and the Black Prince's Ruby is said to have been bought by a British jeweler for the modern-day equivalent of about $8. Fortunately he later returned it to the monarchy and it was set into Charles II's state crown.
The poor spinel has faced danger at least three times since then: once when nearly stolen by a rascal named Colonel Blood; once in a Tower fire in 1841 though saved by a brave police inspector; and once again during WWII in an attack by German bombers.
The Black Prince's Ruby is currently set in England's Imperial State Crown just above the 317.40-carat Cullinan II diamond and is now safely on display--hopefully--in the Tower of London.