Spinel: The Comeback Queen

Earlier in February of this year, The New York Times ran a story on the gemstone spinel, which has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1980s due to its brilliance, hardness, and its extensive palette of vibrant colors.[1] Why this special interest in spinel now? Perhaps because it has been gaining ground in the past several years as the next important stone in the market, featured in settings with such exalted gems as rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and even diamonds.

Other reasons involve the physical properties of spinel. It is a relatively hard stone rating an 8 on the Mohs scale, so it can be worn daily in rings and bracelets. Because it is singly refractive, gemstone-quality spinel colors appear purer and more intense than their rivals. And unlike rubies and sapphires, which may be heat-treated to enhance the color, the spinel’s color is natural.

Many collectors are also taken with spinel’s fascinating history as a gemstone. In northern India, rubies and red spinels—similar-looking stones—were found in the same mines. So, for over half a thousand years before a testing procedure was developed for spinel in the late 18th century, ruby and spinel were confused as the same stone. (In fact, the test for spinel established the modern science of gemology).

This circumstance has led to some interesting discoveries. The best-known example resides in the Tower of London: The Imperial State Crown. Among its large featured stones is the Black Prince’s Ruby, believed to have been the stone King Edward III gave to his son Edward, Prince of Wales (1330-76), and passed down through monarchs to the present day. This ruby is actually a 170-carat, uncut polished spinel.

The Imperial State Crown 1917. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust. Acc. RCIN 31701.

In 1851 the East India Company presented Queen Victoria with a 352.5-carat, uncut polished stone: the Timur Ruby. Named for one of its previous owners, the great 14th-century Persian military commander Amir Timur (1336-1405), the stone was thought at the time to be the largest known ruby. It was soon identified, however, as a spinel.

Detail. The Timur Ruby Necklace 1853. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust. Acc. RCIN100017

Russia’s Imperial Crown is one of the few pieces of crown jewelry remaining in Russia’s State Depository of Treasures. Commissioned for the coronation of Catherine the Great in 1763, the crown passed through 8 members of the Romanov family until the execution of Nikolai II in 1917. Its largest feature is a 398.72-carat, ruby-red spinel surmounting the cap. Though not exhibited since 1922, the crown is a prominent element in many contemporary portraits of the queen.

Detail. Catherine II, by Alexey Petrovich Antropov, before 1766, State Hermitage Museum. Public Domain.

Although all of the above examples include red spinels, today’s gemstones offer a range of hues, from fiery orange to intense red, vibrant pink, through shades of purple, violet, and blue to blue-green. Quality spinels can rival rubies and sapphires in sparkle and clarity at relatively more affordable prices.

Visit llyn strong to discuss using spinels in your next piece of statement jewelry.

Custom made 18k rose gold ring with two round and one cushion cut Sri Lankan grey spinel totaling 6.35 carats surrounded by .46 total carats of F VS diamonds.

[1] Kathleen Beckett, “Spinel: ‘The Great Impostor’ No More,” The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2020.

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