Spinel Unmasked: Get to Know ‘The Great Imposter’

Imagine being one of the pièces de résistance in the famous Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, rubbing shoulders with the Cullinan II diamond, and not being given your rightful due. Such is the case of the stunning gemstone spinel. For hundreds of years, spinel was mistaken for other colored gems, most notably ruby. But today, this Cinderella stone, with its array of spectacular colors and great brilliance, is no longer playing second fiddle. Spinel is stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight of dramatic new jewelry designs.

The Differences Between Spinel and Ruby

Up until the late 18th century, all red stones were classified as ruby. It was especially easy to misclassify spinel because ruby and spinel share such a similar appearance and are often found together in the same mines.

However in 1783, mineralogist Jean-Baptiste Louis Romé de l’Isle developed a test that identified spinel as a different mineral than ruby (and simultaneously gave birth to the science of gemology!). What was learned is that although both minerals get their red color from traces of chromium, ruby is an aluminum oxide mineral, while spinel is a magnesium aluminum oxide mineral. Ruby also has a hexagonal crystal structure, whereas spinel has a cubic crystal structure.

The Imperial State Crown

The Imperial State Crown, part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, features "The Black Prince's Ruby," which is actually a 170-carat red spinel.

Another difference is that spinel, unlike ruby, typically has the crystal shape of a well formed, eight-sided octahedron, which looks like two pyramids joined at their bases. The name spinel might actually come from the Latin word “spina,” which means “thorn,” in reference to the pointed shape of raw spinel crystals. Spinel can also form flattened crystals when the pyramids that form the octahedral shape rotate against each other as they grow.

Spinel is also singly refractive like diamond, which makes the stone remain the same vibrant color in all directions, as well as very transparent and with lots of “fire.” Ruby, meanwhile, is doubly refractive, meaning that when light enters the stone, it will split and leave the ruby as two different colors such as purplish-red or orangey-red. To see these different colors, you have to look at the ruby in different directions. 

Both ruby and spinel can fluoresce, or appear to glow, when stimulated by ultraviolet radiation such as that in sunlight. Spinel will have a more pinkish hue to ruby’s bluish hue. Some believe the name spinel comes from the Greek word for “spark,” possibly because of spinel’s magnificent fire and glow.

The Timur Ruby

The Timur Ruby, part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, is actually a 361-carat red spinel.

Like ruby, spinel can exhibit phenomena such as color change, which is a distinct change of color under different types of lighting, as well as asterism. This occurs when the stone is cut as a cabochon and a “star” appears on the dome. The two gemstones can also contain inclusions. Spinel, however, is known to contain some very interesting ones that appear in groups that resemble human fingerprints. 

Another major difference between ruby and spinel is that spinel can be found in a wide range of exciting colors, from powerful reds and juicy purples to seductive black, with the most valuable being “stoplight” red, cobalt blue, intense hot pink and vivid orange. 

As you can see, ruby and spinel are quite distinct gemstones. Without such sophisticated advancements in the science of gemology, we might never know about this magical gemstone. “The great imposter” as it’s been called might still be promoting ruby’s popularity.

Spinel’s Masquerade Through the Ages

Although spinel was not officially identified until 1783, it had been revered for centuries. It’s been said that as early as the first century B.C., red spinels were found in Buddhist tombs in Kabul, Afghanistan, while actual mining for the stones reportedly began there between 750 A.D.–950 A.D., as documented by Marco Polo.

Spinel was also prized during the Mughal Empire. Their most valued stones were deep red spinels, often called “Balas rubies,” most likely because they were found in the region of Balascia (or Badakhshan), today considered a historic region composed of parts of what is now northeastern Afghanistan, eastern Tajikistan and the Tashkurgan county in China. In fact, the mines in central and southeast Asia are said to have yielded remarkably large fine spinels, with the most famous spinels coming from Tajikistan.

The Imperial Crown of Russia

The Imperial Crown of Russia, used in the coronations of Catherine the Great through Nicholas II, features a dark red spinel weighing approximately 400 carats.

Some of these outstanding spinels passed from one supreme ruler to the next as spoils of war, mistakenly defined as rubies. As a result, several of the world’s most celebrated jeweled creations actually contain spinels.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Imperial State Crown in the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. Set within the cross-pattée just above the Cullinan II diamond, is the Black Prince’s Ruby, one of the world’s largest gem-quality red spinels. It weighs approximately 170 carats and has an irregular cabochon shape, pierced for use as a pendant, with the upper hole later plugged with a small ruby. It first appears in the historical records of 14th-century Spain and was owned by a succession of Moorish and Spanish kings. Then it was given to Edward, Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince, by Don Pedro, King of Castile, known as Pedro the Cruel, as payment for the victory at the Battle of Nájera in 1367 on his behalf. It then supposedly narrowly escaped destruction when Henry V wore it on his helmet at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Since then, many other English monarchs have cherished the gem. As part of the Imperial State Crown, it’s still in use today on formal occasions, most notably at the State Opening of Parliament, or when a monarch leaves Westminster Abbey after coronation.

Antique Imperial Spinel Necklace

This antique imperial necklace featuring spinel beads from 17th-century Tajikistan sold for more than $3 million at auction in 2019. Photo courtesy of Christie's.

The Imperial Crown of Russia, meanwhile, used in the coronations of Catherine the Great in 1762 through Nicholas II in 1896, showcases a striking dark red spinel weighing approximately 400 carats. It’s said to be the second-largest gem-quality red spinel in the world, next to a 500-carat red spinel housed within the Royal Crown Jewels of Iran, perhaps the largest collection of spinels in the world.

Another example is the Timur ruby, a 361-carat red spinel, unfaceted and polished, that’s also part of the United Kingdom’s Crown Jewels. It’s named after the ruler Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire, and inscribed with the titles of five of its previous owners. It was reclassified as a spinel in 1851 and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift. It was then set into a necklace by Garrard in 1853.

Spinel Offers Sublime Alternative to Pricier Gems

Spinel continued to be used in jewels throughout the 1800s and 1900s, but when people learned it wasn’t ruby, the gem lost favor, earning the moniker at times of “the poor man’s ruby.” Modern technology also added to spinel’s case of mistaken identity. When it was discovered that spinel could be created in a lab, the synthetic version went into widespread use as an imitation for other gems in things such as birthstone and class rings. Spinel became synonymous with synthetic, and because the gem is so rare, many newer generations didn’t even know spinel was a natural stone. 

Cartier Pink Spinel Ring

This ring by Cartier featuring a 20.18-carat pink spinel sold for more than $328,000 at auction in 2019. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Today, as demand for an alternative to rare, large and expensive rubies is increasing, spinel is coming into its own. After all, although red spinel is generally rarer than ruby, it can be found in larger sizes and is less expensive. Also, with an 8 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, spinel is nearly as durable a gem as ruby for jewelry. And for those concerned about gemstone treatments, spinel crystals are typically very clean and not routinely treated to improve their appearance. This is in contrast to a fair percentage of rubies that are heat-treated to better their color and/or clarity.

Spinel, of course, also provides that glorious spectrum of shimmering colors with numerous hues and tonalities. These are often less expensive than other gemstones of similar color (think black spinel for black diamond), and they come from a variety of sources. Tajikistan, for instance, is known for producing the finest reds; Myanmar, hot pink and reds; Sri Lanka, pinks, blues and purples; Brazil, a rare green; Vietnam, pinks, deep reds, vivid blues, lavender, violet, violet-blue and purple; and so on. Tanzania also provides a variety of bright colors, including a discovery in 2007 of a pinkish- to orangey-red variety. This might well turn out to be a good alternative to pink diamonds, especially since a major source, the Argyle Mine in Western Australia, is soon set to close.

Van Cleef & Arpels Coeurs Enlaces Bracelet

The Van Cleef & Arpels "Coeurs Enlacés" bracelet highlights three cushion-shaped pink spinels. Photo courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Rarer above five carats, most fine-quality rough spinel is cut to non-standard sizes to save weight, which allows for eye-catching jewelry designs; however, spinel is also often fashioned into the popular cushion and oval shapes. Either way, when expertly cut, spinel exhibits a captivating brilliance, exceptional clarity and a vitreous luster.

Spinel Takes Center Stage in Stunning Jewels

For these reasons and more, spinel is perhaps the perfect muse for designers, serving as a source of inspiration to dream up the most beautiful jewelry creations. Perhaps that’s why spinel was named a birthstone for August in 2016, and why spinel jewels are fetching such high prices at auction.

At the November 2019 Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale at Sotheby’s, a Cartier ring with a cushion-shaped pink spinel weighing 20.18 carats set between calibré-cut emeralds and brilliant-cut diamonds sold for more than $328,000, more than double the high-end of its pre-auction estimate.

Piaget Sunlight Journey Necklace

Piaget's "Sunlight Journey" necklace uses red spinels to depict the flaming sunset as night falls. Photo courtesy of Piaget.

Christie’s had an even more impressive sale. At its Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence sale in New York in June 2019, an antique Imperial necklace, estimated for $1 million–$2 million, sold for more than $3 million. The necklace is strung with seven tumbled spinel beads from 17th-century Tajikistan, as well as pearls, and dangles a pear-shaped cabochon emerald drop.

Acclaimed jewelers such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Piaget, meanwhile, have highlighted spinel in several breathtaking collections. For Van Cleef, spinel is a “prized material,” which lends its “intense radiance and crystalline essence” into the Maison’s High Jewelry collections. The “Le Secret” collection, for instance, features a “Coeurs enlacés” bracelet centered on three cushion-shaped pink spinels totaling 31.17 carats, which are nestled among pink and yellow sapphires, rubies, spessartite garnets and colorless diamonds.

Piaget Sunlight Journey Cuff Watch

Piaget's "Sunlight Journey" cuff-watch radiates colorful beams of red spinels and pink sapphires from a central purplish-rose spinel. Photo courtesy of Piaget.

Drawing inspiration from the Amalfi Coast, Piaget’s “Sunlight Journey” collection uses spinels and other gemstones to tell the story of the path of the sun during the day and the mood it creates. A necklace representing the flaming sunset as night begins to fall showcases a cushion-shaped yellow diamond in the company of red spinels and yellow and colorless diamonds, while a cuff-watch radiates colorful beams of red spinels and pink sapphires from a central purplish-rose spinel.

With its rarity, fabulous provenance and myriad of wonderful qualities, spinel is truly an extraordinary gemstone, perfect for jewelry lovers of all types. That’s why we at Jogani are thrilled to offer natural spinels in several hues. Once viewed, spinel’s arresting colors, luminosity and depth of beauty have the ability to truly touch the beholder. As more people experience it, spinel is finally earning its rightful place in the world of gems.

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