As a young man, spinel was the first gemstone aside from diamond that I was aware of, only because that was the choice of blue gemstone for my high school class ring. It was a beautiful medium blue color and I thought it was perfect. Little did I know about gemstones like sapphires, rubies, and emeralds that were worth much more. As fine jewelry became my career, I discovered a world of gemstones. However, I keep getting drawn back to that first spinel and how pretty it was.
Now you might be wondering, what is a spinel? This would be an excellent question because spinels are gemstones that would normally not be seen in an average jewelry store. Because so few people know anything about spinels to have much demand, most jewelry stores don’t stock them.
Spinels fall into the hardness range of 7.5 – 8 on the Mohs scale, the same as emerald. Even though they have the same hardness as emerald (and other beryls like aquamarine), spinels are not brittle like members of the beryl family. This makes the spinel more desirable in jewelry like rings which would take more abuse on a daily basis.
Spinels come in a variety of colors such as red (the most desirable), pink, blue (cobalt blue is next most desirable), purple, dark green, brown, and black. Historically, most spinels were found in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Afghanistan, and Myanmar (Burma). Now gemstone quality spinels are being found in Luc Yen (Vietnam), Mahenge (Tanzania), Tsavo (Kenya) and Madagascar.
Until the discovery and identification of spinels in 1783 by Jean Baptiste Louis Rome de Lisle, red spinels were mistaken for rubies. In fact the 170 carat center stone in the British Imperial State Crown (known as the Black Prince’s Ruby) and 350 carat stone known as the Timur Ruby, also part of England’s crown jewels, are both actually blood red spinels! The largest spinel known is a 500 carat masterpiece known as the Samarian Spinel which is part of the Iranian crown jewels. It was captured from India in the 17th century and was also thought to be a ruby, but was determined to be otherwise.
Demand for red spinel has increased dramatically in the last few years as supply has dropped. This has caused the price for red spinel to rise almost as quickly as rubies have over the same time period. Also, since the popularity of black diamonds have also increased in jewelry, more jewelers are using black spinel as a less expensive alternative.
Because spinel is not a common stone, most are cut in non-standard sizes in order to save weight. Oval and cushion shapes are most common, but not in calibrated sizes. Lesser quality spinel is found in calibrated sizes, usually in ovals suitable as center stones in rings.
When shopping for gemstones, keep spinel in the back of your mind. You could save yourself some money.