Spinel Gemstones: Ancient Beauties


The transparent red spinel gemstone has been mistaken for a ruby for hundreds of years due to its blazing crimson glow. In the early days, jewels were simply categorized by color rather than crystal structure.

3.00 ct. t.w. Black Spinel Oval Ring in Sterling Silver. #897189

In fact, many celebrated sets of crown jewels include red spinels that were initially believed to be rubies. One prestigious example is the Black Prince's Ruby, the centerpiece gem in the front cross of the United Kingdom's Imperial State Crown. This resplendent 170-carat jewel was presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince, in 1367 by a Spanish king and was identified as a red spinel in 1783.

This highly publicized identification of a well-known jewel gave rise to the fascinating field of gemology, leading many other misidentified gems to be reexamined. Another famous piece of the English Crown Jewels, the Timur Ruby, is a 361-carat red spinel, with ancient Persian engravings bearing the names of its owners dating back to 1612.


Origins of Spinel

Red spinel was originally sourced from the famed Badakhshan mines located along the border of Afghanistan. For this reason, they were sometimes known as Balas rubies, Balas being the ancient name for Badakhshan. The highest quality spinels emerge after the rock around them weathers away, and they're found by sifting through deposits of alluvial sediment formed by rivers. These days, spinel gemstones are most frequently produced from alluvial deposits in Southeast Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Cambodia. They are also still mined in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and some regions of Africa such as Madagascar, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Some experts speculate that the name spinel might derive from the Latin word for "thorn," inspired by the sharp edges found on some crystals, or from the Greek word for "spark," referring to the blazing red color of the gemstone. In Burma, spinels are so esteemed for their perfection that they are said to be "nat thwe," which translates to "polished by the spirits."

The gemstone obtained more recent cultural significance when, in July 2016, spinel was named a birthstone of August by the American Gem Trade Association and the Jewelers of America, sharing the spot with peridot. This grants jewelry shoppers seeking gifts for people born in August a wider array of choices due to the many different colors of spinel. In addition to their association with late summer, spinel also signifies love and devotion.


Spinel Gemstone Qualities

Like tourmaline, garnet, topaz, and quartz, spinel is an allochromatic gemstone, meaning it's colorless but appears to be colored due to subtle impurities in the stone. Spinel gemstones are highly prized for their vibrant color and impeccable luster. Spinel shares the trace element chromium with rubies and emeralds, which is why they shine just as brilliantly, even though they are less common.

Spinel also comes in a dazzling array of colors, from pink to green to black. One variant with an especially dramatic shade of red-orange has the name flame spinel. More recently, interest has been growing in the unusual gray spinel. The most sought-after colors, however, are sapphire blue and, of course, ruby red. Red and blue spinels with sufficient quality for use in jewelry are rare, however, even more so than rubies or sapphires. Simple popular demand dictates that rubies and sapphires sell for a higher price, despite the comparable quality and increased scarcity of spinel gemstones.

Spinel is particularly well-suited to use in jewelry due to its exceptional resistance to both physical and chemical weathering. It exhibits high tenacity and measures an 8 on the Mohs hardness scale. Spinel is so durable that it's most often discovered after the igneous rock it forms within weathers away. This durability allowed famous red spinel such as the Black Prince's Ruby to pass from monarch to monarch through centuries of war, fire, and catastrophe. And this is no exaggeration—records show that Henry V wore the Black Prince's Ruby to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Applications of Spinel

This rare and hardy gemstone is suitable for almost any jewelry application but is especially eye-catching in rings, bracelets, necklaces, or earrings. Spinel gemstones are usually faceted and presented in an oval, round, or cushion cut. With its brilliant color, spinel frequently comes set in white or yellow gold jewelry designs. While red spinel is especially prized for its deep, rich shade, spinel gemstone jewelry also comes in pink, purple, green, yellow, brown, blue, and black tones. Because of their long history as treasured gems, red or blue spinel are often found in high-quality estate pieces.

What to Look for in Spinel

When shopping for spinel jewelry, there are several qualities to be on the lookout for. First and foremost, if you're looking to make an impact, it's important to keep in mind that spinel of vivid blues and reds are the most valued, although the many other shades are also attractive. Clarity is also worth consideration, as examples of spinel free from inclusions are rare. Another crucial quality is the cut since the proportion of the cut determines the brilliance of the gem. And finally, size is a factor. Despite the larger scale of the more historical examples, spinel gemstones above 5 carats are rare in the modern jewelry market.


Spinel Care & Cleaning

Spinel jewelry pieces are remarkably easy to maintain. Simply wash your spinel jewels in warm, soapy water when necessary. With the high durability of these gemstones, taking care of your spinel jewelry often comes down to how you wear and handle it. Always ensure your jewelry is the last thing you put on, even after makeup and perfume, and the first thing you take off. This prevents smudging the gemstones or getting the piece snagged on clothing. It's also recommended that you keep your items in jewelry boxes for extra safety when not being worn. And don't forget to keep photographs of your jewelry for reference in the unfortunate event that they are lost or stolen. So often, favorite pieces of jewelry are so unique and indescribable, which is, of course, what makes them such an irreplaceable part of a collection for years to come.


FAQs About Spinel Gemstones

What is the difference between a ruby and a red spinel?

While the two gemstones seem very alike visually, they have entirely different mineral compositions. Ruby is an example of a corundum mineral, while spinel is composed of magnesium aluminum oxide. The confusion is understandable, as both gems contain trace amounts of chromium, which grants them their vibrant color, and both tend to form in the same geological conditions.

Is spinel more durable than ruby or sapphire?

No. While spinel is extremely durable, rubies and sapphires are tougher, with a 9 on the Mohs hardness scale.

What types of spinel is the rarest?

The wide diversity of spinel makes the few gem-quality specimens all the more sought after. Vibrant red, blue, or pink hues are in particularly high demand, and larger spinel specimens with higher clarity and few inclusions are uncommon and thus incredibly valuable.