Spinel, with its palette of gorgeous hues, has been mistaken for so many other gemstones across its history that it is often nicknamed ‘The Master of Disguise’. Appreciation for Spinel has been growing in recent years, so much so that in 2016 it became the newest addition to the official birthstones list, joining Peridot in August. Let’s take a closer look at Spinel's fascinating history and its tremendous variety of colours.
We often procrastinate when we have to deliver bad news, but imagine how difficult it must have been to tell the monarch of the day that the beautiful Ruby in the British Crown Jewels was not a Ruby at all, but a lesser-known gem - a Spinel! The ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’, as it is known, was initially set into King Henry V’s helmet, and saved his life when an axe struck his helmet in the battle of Agincourt in 1415. This only goes to show how certain gemstones are far more robust than the precious metals into which they are set. For hundreds of years, Spinels have been mistaken for Rubies. The ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’, which is now set in the British Imperial State Crown, was thought by Henry V to be a Ruby but is actually a 170ct Spinel. The ‘Kuwait Ruby’, another piece in the British Crown Jewels, is also a Spinel, weighing a massive 352ct.
It is easy to understand why Spinel has been mistaken for Ruby for so long. In fact, until the late 19th century, there was no distinction between Ruby and Red Spinel, as they look almost identical and are often found in the same localities. They also share the same desirable visual properties, as well as a similar chemical structure, and both even obtain their red colour from chromium. This is how Spinel earned its title as ‘The Master of Disguise’. Nowadays, distinctions can be made by comparing the hardness of the two gemstones. Ruby registers 9 on the Mohs scale, while Spinel registers 8. Ruby also has a slightly higher refractive index. Most Spinels also have the ability to glow in natural daylight (fluorescence) but with a more pinkish hue than Rubies. Red Spinel is rarer than Ruby, but unlike the latter can be found in large sizes. These big red stones were often referred to in ancient texts as Balas Rubies, which referred to the Badakhshan region in the far north Afghanistan - still an active gem producing region. According to historical records, Badakhshan produced the biggest and most spectacular Spinels. Some of these jewels were owned by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, Henry VIII of England, and Peter the Great of Russia.
Spinel’s name is believed to have derived from the Latin word ‘spina’ meaning ‘thorn’ and refers to the fact that its crystals are often shaped like the thorns of a rose bush. Along the same theme, its vivid colours are often very similar to those seen in a rose garden. Pure Spinel is white and, as with many gem families, its impurities provide us with an array of different colours, making it an allochromatic gem. The main colouring agents in Spinel are iron, chromium, vanadium and cobalt. Not only can this precious gem be found in beautiful rich Ruby reds, but a tiny amount has also been found in electrifying blues. You can also find a range of pastel colours of purples and pinks. One of the most spectacular gemstone colours, vivid hot pink with a hint of orange, can be found in Spinels mined in Burma.
Relatively speaking, Spinel is a newly recognised gemstone compared to many others, so there is very little folklore surrounding it. There is a historical reference to its use as a talisman to protect the wearer from fire. As Spinel contains the magnetic mineral magnetite, many believe it was used to help ancient mariners with navigation. In 2005, while conducting a scientific study at the University of Chicago, Denton Ebel (Assistant Curator of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History), along with Lawrence Grossman (a Professor in Geophysical Sciences), discovered that the environment in which certain Spinels were formed proved that it was the impact of an asteroid some 65 million years ago that ended the dinosaur era. Now treasured in its own right, Spinel is a favourite of many gem dealers and gem collectors. It has fantastic brilliance with a vitreous lustre, and as it is very durable and tough, it makes it an ideal gem to set into jewellery. It is mined in Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Tanzania, Madagascar, Australia, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, the United States and Russia.
It is also possible to find Black Spinel, a jet black opaque variety that comes with a feeling of impeccable quality. This black variety is quoted by many in the trade as an imposter for Black Diamond. Still, Black Spinel will often outperform a Black Diamond in terms of both surface cleanliness and scintillation, and a Black Spinel will provide an almost identical lustre to a Black Diamond under normal conditions. Generally, you are much more likely to find a larger carat weight of Spinel than you are of Diamond. Technically speaking it is the purity of the lack of colour that created the finest black gemstones, and here Spinel often scores higher than Black Diamond, as the latter tends to be more of a very deep dark brown or a darkish green than a pure black. You will rarely find a Black Spinel with any pits or crevices on its crown or table facets, but only the finest Black Diamonds are immaculate. The most exceptional qualities of Black Spinel are being unearthed in both Thailand and Vietnam.
Some of the most beautiful Spinels in the world come out of the Mogok region in Myanmar (Burma). At the end of September 2019, Gemporia’s Steve Bennett, David Troth and Jake Thompson were lucky enough to visit this area. You might think there is nothing exceptional about this, as we have visited mines all over the world. But Mogok has been closed to almost all foreign visitors for many years now. In 1942, while Japan was invading Burma, many locals took refuge by digging holes in their gardens and hiding underground. It is said that many of them found precious stones during this time, and while the invasion continued, were busy mining for the future wealth of their families. Three years later, Britain regained control, and in 1948 Burma was granted its independence and mostly closed its doors to the world. Known locally as ‘Rubyland’, Mogok is also home to some of the finest Sapphires and Rubies in the world. With demand for Spinel on the rise at the most recent Tucson and Hong Kong gemstone fairs, being among the very few outsiders to ever visit this source has helped us understand how scarce and valuable these jewels are becoming. You can read all about this remarkable trip here, and you can even join us on the trip by watching our documentary about the visit here.
Spinel is a beautiful, collectable and often underappreciated gemstone, but its star is rising, and we feel privileged to have so many different styles of jewellery in our vaults that feature this unique jewel. You can begin your Spinel journey by clicking the button below, where your perfect Spinel piece is just moments away.
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