The Mysterious Spinel: collector’s favourite
Spinel is the great impostor of gemstone history: many famous rubies in crown jewels around the world are actually spinels. The most famous is the Black Prince’s ruby, a magnificent 170-carat red spinel that now adorns the Imperial State Crown of England in the British Crown Jewels after a long history: Henry V even wore it on his battle helmet! The Timur ruby, a 361-carat red spinel now owned by Queen Elizabeth, has the names of some of the Mughal emperors who previously owned it engraved on its face: an undeniable pedigree!
In Myanmar, where some of the most beautiful colours are mined, spinel was recognised as a separate gem species as early as 1587. In other countries the masquerade went on for hundreds of years. Spinels were most often referred to as ‘balas rubies’, which may have referred to their colour or their country of origin.
So what is the great secret of spinel? The answer is that spinel is in many respects the equal of ruby and sapphire. Though ruby is slightly harder (9 on the Mohs scale), spinel contains fewer inclusions than ruby, and spinel has greater fire and brilliance. Spinel is never heated or treated in any way; indeed, there is no known treatment for improving the color or clarity of spinel. In fact, the main factor preventing the spinel from achieving greater recognition is its rarity. Fine spinels are now rarer than the rubies they used to imitate. Strangely, they are also more affordable: in the gem world, being too rare can be a drawback because so few people even get a chance to develop a fondness for the varieties in question.
In addition to beautiful rich reds, spinel can be found in a range of gorgeous pastel shades of pink and purple. Of particular interest is a vivid hot pink with a tinge of orange mined in Burma. It is one of the most spectacular gemstone colours seen in any species at all. Spinel also comes in beautiful blue tones called cobalt spinel, but these are very, very rare.
Spinel is also mined in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Tadzhikistan, part of the former Soviet Union.
Famous Spinel Gemstones
World-famous spinel gemstones include the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is a 170 carat red spinel set into the English state crown and displayed in the Tower of London.
The Samarian Spinel is believed to be the largest fine spinel in the world. It is a red 500 carat gemstone that is part of the Iranian Crown Jewels.
The Mogul Names Necklace is comprised of eleven red spinel gemstones amounting to a total carat weight of 1,131.59 carats. It sold for $5.2 million at a Christie’s auction in 2011.
The Russian Imperial Crown is adorned with a red 398.72 carat spinel gemstone. It forms an integral part of the Moscow Kremlin Armory State Diamond Fund collection.
Lastly, the 352.5 carat “Timur Ruby”, which was believed to be the largest ruby until 1851, is actually a spinel. It is named after the Turko-Mongol ruler, Timur and is now part of the Crown Jewels of England.