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Spinel Gemstone

We all  hate  doing  nasty  jobs  and  often  procrastinate when we have to deliver bad news,  but who can imagine how difficult it must have been  telling  the  Queen  of  England  that  her beloved  Ruby  in  the  crown  jewels  was  not  a  Ruby at all, but a lesser known gem; a Spinel! 

Spinel is a robust and strong gem for gents to  wear. The  “Black  Prince’s  Ruby”,  which  was set into Henry V’s helmet, saved his life when his helmet was struck by an axe in the battle of Agincourt in 1415. This only goes to show how  certain  gemstones  are  far  stronger  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 (hence its name); but it 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  Spinels  were  mistaken for Rubies 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  similar  chemical  structure, and both even obtain their red colour  from chromium. This is how red Spinel obtained  its title as “The Master of Disguise”. 

Nowadays,  distinctions  can  be  made  through  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 actually 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 Badakshan  in Northern Afghanistan - still an active gem-producing  region.  According  to  historical  records,  Badakshan  produced  the  biggest  and  most spectacular “Rubies”. Some of these gems  were owned by the Mongol conqueror, 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 an English rose garden. Pure Spinel  is  white  and,  as  with  many  gem  families,  its  impurities provide us with an array of different  colours. 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; a very small amount has 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.

Though most Spinels on the market don’t have  prefixes,  several  trade  names  do  exist.  Flame  Spinel (also known as Rubicelle) as the name  suggests is a vivacious orange to orangey red  gem.  Ceylonite  (also  known  as  Pleonaste)  is  an opaque dark green Spinel, and Gahnite (also known as Zinc Spinel) is a blue to bluish green  Spinel.

Because  this  crystal  is  a  newly  recognised  gemstone  there  is  little  folklore  and  legend  surrounding  its  powers,  although  it  has  been  associated with sorcerers and alchemists alike.  There  is  reference  to  its  use  as  a  talisman  to  protect  the  wearer  from  fire,  and  as  Spinel contains the magnetic mineral Magnetite, many believe it was used to help ancient mariners with navigation.

In  2005,  whilst  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, United States and Russia.

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A stunning Spinel ring from the Tomas Rae range.