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.