The Story of Spinels
By Antoinette Matlins, PG, FGA
Spinels are among the most regal of gems, adorning crowns and royal regalia throughout history. Yet most people admit they don’t know much, if anything, about the spinel, including how to pronounce it (spin-ELLE). Yet millions of people have seen these sparkling stones, in the crown jewels and art objects of museums around the world, including the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Green Vaults in Dresden and the Tower of London. The problem is they are often not described as spinels.
Image above: A striking, lustrous, indigo-blue spinel crystal measuring almost 3/4", set atop contrasting snow-white marble from the Hunza Valley of Pakistan. Public domain art via Wikimedia Commons.
Spinels have a fascinating history, especially with regard to how often they have been incorrectly identified throughout the centuries. Historically, it’s important to note that the source of the finest spinels was Mogok, Burma (now known as Myanmar), known for centuries to also produce the finest rubies and sapphires. To further complicate matters, since the start of man’s fascination with gemstones, color was the primary indicator of a stone’s identity — for example, the word “ruby” comes from the Latin rubeus, which meant “red.” Thus, red gemstones were often called “ruby” even when they were not. Furthermore, the most sought-after spinels occur in beautiful shades of red and blue. So, where we have red and blue stones found in a location known for fine rubies and sapphires, you can begin to see how easy it might have been to think that all of them were rubies and sapphires.
In the case of historical gems, it’s also easy to understand how identification errors could have been perpetuated over the centuries; identification was rarely questioned by the owners for the simple reason that their identities had been “known” for centuries! What many don’t realize is that the scientific study of gemology didn’t begin to blossom until the late 1800s, and it was not until the mid-1900s that advances in chemistry, physics and instrumentation made it possible to go beyond superficial characteristics to more accurately determine a stone’s true identity. Once 20th-century gemological examination of some of the world’s most important historical gems determined that many were spinels, rather than rubies or sapphires, keen interest in spinels was born, at least among those with the knowledge to appreciate what they were.
In 1836, it was reported that Maharajah Ranjit Singh (then the owner of the Koh-i-Noor diamond) was visited by an Austrian noble who noticed a large uncut “ruby” of about 2 square inches set into the pommel of the maharajah’s saddle! The noble was told that it was the celebrated Timur Ruby, which had belonged to Tamerlane, who conquered India in 1398-1399, and that it had once adorned the famous “Peacock Throne” of the Mogul period (it has an inscription dating it to 1153). During the Mogul period it was stolen by the Persians but made its way back to India. It remained there until it was presented to the British along with the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the history of which is so closely entwined with that of the Timur Ruby that they have remained together for almost seven centuries. Today, they sit beside each other among the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.
Interestingly, from the time of the Moguls the Timur was referred to as a “balas ruby,” suggesting that even then it was understood that balas rubies were somehow different from other rubies. The Timur is perhaps the oldest known spinel described as a balas ruby, and weighing 352.2 carats, it also ranks as one of the largest. The Timur is not, however, the most famous. That distinction goes to the 170 carat Black Prince’s Ruby, which has a nearly 700-year history. It was referenced during a battle in 1367, at which the “Black Prince” (Edward, Prince of Wales and son of Edward III of England) was given this “ruby” by Don Pedro, King of Castile, at the Battle of Najera. There was subsequently much speculation about the stone, including a highly questionable report that it was worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, but whatever transpired after 1367, the gem did not resurface until the coronation of Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. A new crown had been commissioned for the occasion, and the Black Prince’s Ruby was set into the cross at the front, where it stayed until becoming the centerpiece for yet another crown, made in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
Having discussed the oldest and the most famous, we cannot ignore the largest balas ruby. That record is held by an exceptionally fine, uncut spinel weighing 414.3 carats, mounted atop the Russian Imperial Crown, commissioned by Peter the Great for the coronation of Empress Catherine in 1724. What made this crown unusual was that it featured only one colored gemstone — a spinel of “peerless beauty and of greater size than a pigeon’s egg” — and it was, without doubt, the most remarkable “ruby” of its time, albeit a red spinel! The other gems in the crown were diamonds and pearls.
Spinels Now Fetching Stellar Prices At Auction
Today, this lovely gem has finally begun to enjoy the recognition and admiration it deserves for its own intrinsic beauty. Yet despite a surge in popularity, the spinel's rise to its rightful place among rare and desirable gems has been stalled by the unfortunate belief that they are synthetic, when in fact they are the rarest and loveliest of all gems in nature.
This negative association probably dates from 1910, when synthetic spinels entered the marketplace, making it easy to fake virtually any gemstone. Synthetic spinels had the beauty and brilliance of real gems and were inexpensive to make, so it didn’t take long before they replaced glass, plastic and other materials used in the costume jewelry market. Unfortunately, at the same time, they became the gem of choice for unscrupulous sellers, and most of the people who were cheated in the early 1900s, and whose "fine, rare rubies and sapphires" were passed on as heirlooms, never knew. As gemology began to play a more important role though, those who inherited the pieces learned the truth: All too often the imposters were inexpensive synthetic spinels. In the absence of knowledge about natural spinels, this led to a widespread reputation that all spinels were synthetic — a very difficult reputation to overcome.
It has only been in the past few decades that spinels have taken center stage as beautiful, natural gemstones. In fact, at a time when many other gems, including diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, are routinely treated in some way to improve their appearance, desirability and price, spinels remain one of a handful of gemstones that are not routinely treated (although we are beginning to find some treated spinels entering the market; we recommend obtaining a report from a respected gem-testing laboratory if purchasing a spinel today).
Natural spinels are increasingly sold by prestigious jewelers around the world, so they are becoming rarer and more costly. A bright moment occurred with the discovery of a new source in Madagascar, but supply there has also dwindled, and a continuing supply of beautiful natural spinels seems unlikely. The primary source now seems to be major auction houses. In the fall of 2015, a rose-colored 50.13 carat spinel, known as the “Hope” spinel, sold at Bonham’s Auction for 1.4 million dollars, almost four times higher than its pre-sale estimate of $300,000. This rose-hued gemstone was set in a brooch that once belonged to famous gem collector, Henry Philip Hope, and set a new world record price of $30,000 per carat (almost double the previous record of $16,000 set in 2013). Such activity seems a clear indicator of growing recognition for the merits of this gem, as well as the rarity of spinels of significant size, rare color and high clarity.
Spinels remain well priced. In comparison to natural, untreated rubies, sapphires, emeralds and natural pearls, they offer excellent value. Shades of yellow and orange — colors now coming into vogue — offer truly exceptional value. Experts predict that the cost of spinels is destined to go much higher. So if this gemstone intrigues you, our advice is, don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today!