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Spinel  -  The Great Impostor

By  Judith Anderson  GG, CGA

Several gemstones look so much alike that it is difficult to separate them with just a visual examination.  Blue and red spinel serve as excellent examples of the errors that can occur with "sight identifications":  they have often been mistaken for sapphires and rubies.  Some of the world's most famous rubies,  including two magnificent gems set in the Crown Jewels of England,  were actually identified as spinel early in this century. 18kt rose gold ring with red spinel.

The "Timur Ruby",  otherwise known as the "Tribute of the World", was presented by the East India Company to Queen Victoria as a fine ruby.  Further gemological testing proved this 361 carats specimen to be a fine red spinel,  possibly of Afghanistan origin.  Another magnificent spinel in the Crown Jewels is known as the Black Prince Ruby.  At 170 carats,  the Black Prince Ruby rests in the front center of the Imperial State Crown, signifying its importance.

18kt gold ring with a red spinel and two diamonds.

Although spinel has long been mistaken for other gemstones,  it has been recognized as a separate gem species since 1587 when the Burmese King appointed a court dignitary known as the "Lord of the Mines of Rubies, Sapphires and Spinels".


Because spinel was often mistaken for other jewels,  it has few legendary attributes or associations with magical powers.  One tale, however, describes spinel as useful in detecting persons with supernatural powers.  Clairvoyants were found guilty as charged,  if,  when approached with a spinel wrapped in paper,  they began to shake.

Platinum ring with falmne red spinel and baguette diamonds.

The name spinel is thought to have originated from a Greek word meaning "spark",  perhaps referring to the bright red and orange color it often displays.  Spinel occurs in all colors,  often in subdued hues or with a slightly grayish overcast.  Pure red is the most popular spinel color and is caused by traces of chromium in its molecular structure.  Chromium is also the coloring agent in ruby and pink sapphire.  Violet colors are attributed to traces of manganese, while iron accounts for the blue hues,  similar to sapphire.
A cushion-cut fiery red spinel.

Since red spinel is singly refractive and ruby doubly refractive  (splitting an incoming beam of light into two weaker beams of light),  the primary red color in spinel can appear purer and more intense than the reds seen in many rubies.  The limited supply and thus rarity of spinel accounts for its status as one the gem world's best kept secrets,  and yet it is far more affordable than its look-a-like,  ruby.   Top grade red spinels often sell for a fraction of the cost of a ruby of comparable size and quality.  Furthermore,  red spinels are generally available with better clarity grades than rubies.


18kt gold ring with winged women and red spinel. Besides beauty and brilliance,  spinel boasts durability,  having a hardness of 8 1/2.  Spinel's hardness is only surpassed by diamonds, rubies and sapphires.   Thus,  spinel can be worn daily in rings and bracelets.

Spinels are often found in the same mines as ruby.  Myanmar (formerly Burma) has always been recognized as one of the sources of the finest red spinels;  other mines  (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Brazil, Thailand and Australia)  have been known to produce fine pink, orange, blue and violet spinels.


Whether your fascination with gems is due to their beauty,  rarity,  durability,  history or legends, red spinel offers an affordable choice with great beauty and durability.


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