The story of the spinel is largely related to the fame of the gemstone ruby. The ruby was already appreciated in the Ancient Times and is one of the four precious gemstones, together with the diamond, the emerald, and the sapphire. But like the emerald is mixed up with the tourmaline (even Cleopatra made that mistake), this gemstone is often considered to be a ruby. But that magnificent gemstone deserves a title of its own!
New birthstone of August
But the acknowledgment became reality in 2016, when the American Gem Trade Association officially declared the spinel as a birthstone for the month of August, at the expense of the Sardonyx. And with that statement, this gem becomes more popular and more expensive. So my tip: buy it now, before it gets so wanted that you cannot afford it anymore.
The story of a historical spinel
The best-known spinel is the Black Prince’s Ruby, the primary focal stone, just below the Cullinan II, a very famous diamond, in the Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom. That crown is part of the Crown Jewels. For years and years, everybody thought this beautiful red gemstone was a ruby of 170 carats.
In 1783 scientists discovered that the spinel and the ruby are two different gemstones. Before this time all red gemstones were called rubies or ‘balas rubies’. The difference is rather large. Ruby consists of the mineral corundum and the red spinel is a mix of magnesium, aluminum, and chromium.
The Imperial Crown of England
The most important thing is that the beautiful red gemstone of the Imperial Crown is spinel and not a ruby. There are more mixed-up gemstones in royal crowns but this specific gem has a great history, and because of that it is called the Black Prince’s Ruby, the largest uncut red spinel in the world. It has been polished a bit, but never properly cut.
The Black Prince’s Ruby weighs 170 carats or 34 grams and this gemstone is known since 1367 when it received its name, after the English prince Edward of Woodstock, also called the Black Prince. Very likely, this famous gemstone is mined in Badakhshan (now Afghanistan and Tajikistan), where most of them from the Middles Ages come from.
Edward of Woodstock or the Black Prince
Edward of Woodstock was an English knight that fought most of his life in battles. And he was not really a chivalrous type of man. After battles, he still killed a lot of his opponents, especially when they did not have enough money to buy themselves out. Therefore he nicknames ‘the Black Prince’.
Back to the Black Prince’s Ruby that was owned by an Arab Muslim Prince of Moorish Granada, Abu Said. But his kingdom was constantly attacked by the Christian ruler of Northern Spain, Don Pedro the Cruel. Abu Said could not do anything else but surrender to Don Pedro, but the guy did not have the nickname ‘the Cruel’ for nothing. He killed Abu Said and all his servants after the surrender and on the corps of Abu Said Don Pedro found the red spinel.
The black prince obtained a spinel and not a ruby
But Don Pedro had more problems and he needed help to win the coming battles. He asked for the help of Edward of Woodstock, son of Edward III of England, but asked in exchange for the services of the red ruby. Don Pedro was in deep problems and could not refuse. The Black Prince’s Ruby went on its way to England. But records about the gemstone are not available until 1415.
Since 1415 the Black Prince’s Ruby decorated the helmets of a few kings of England, like Henry V and Richard III. There are records of the inheritance of Henry VIII that he possessed the Black Prince’s Ruby after Oliver Cromwell got hold of it somewhere in the 17th-century. Oliver Cromwell possessed quite a few Crown Jewels at the time, but he disassembled them, sold the gems and the gold was turned into coins.
Arrival in England
What happened to the Black Prince’s ruby is not clear, but when the monarchy was restored in England in 1660 the ruby was owned by Charles II, and Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838 wearing the Imperial Crown with 3093 gems decorating the crown, including the Black Prince’s ruby. And the poor queen had the carry that very heavy crown. Luckily Queen Elisabeth II had a lighter variation of that heavy hat, and with the special ruby!
The English royals thought they owned another ruby, much larger (361 carats) than the Black Prince’s ruby, and that one is called the Timor Ruby, after the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane. Also, this gemstone is actually a spinel and a very great one. All the names of the owners are engraved in this gemstone and the last name is of Queen Elisabeth II.
Oops, a little mistake
Don’t worry, not only the English royals mixed up the ruby with this beautiful gem. Empress Catherine II of Russia had a 400+ carats red spinel, which is a part of the Russian state valuables, to be seen in the Kremlin in Moskov. The ruby/spinel ‘Côte de Bretagne’ was set in the former French Crown Jewels. And the Wenzels Crown in Prague is decorated with 45 large spinels.
Although the spinel contains no corundum, like the real ruby, what makes this gemstone so special and beautiful that a lot of high classed people wanted to have it. It must have some special features that attract people.
First of all the colors. The spinel occurs in every color of the rainbow, with the red and black spinel as most favorite. There is the black spinel that stands for class and elegance, the Mahenge purple spinel is purple with a little pinkish and an exquisite luster. The Pamir spinel is a deep pink with a beautiful appearance and is very popular with gemologists. What about the fancy spinel with beautiful colors, the Lavender spinel in lavender purple colors, and the blue variety.
To make it more complicated… the transparent variety has been confused with the diamond and is also called ‘spinel-diamond’.
The different colors are caused by impurities in the stone, like iron, chromium, vanadium, and cobalt. The gemstone is transparent to opaque with a vitreous luster. The hardness is 8 on the scale of Moh and that means that it is very suitable to use in jewelry. It does not break easily. It can survive being weathered from the rock it originated, fell into the river, and deposited as small particles, for you to find.
In the Ancient Times, the spinel was called ‘carbuncle stone’, and later when people thought it was a ruby that name disappeared. The name spinel comes either from the Greek word for a spark or the Latin word ‘spinella’, meaning ‘arrow’, a reference to the sharp edges and the pointed crystals of this gem.
The luster of the spinel is fabulous. Watch a spinel under light and you see what I mean. You see a network of thousands of crystals in the shape of needles (like rutile quartz) and the needles reflect light from specific directions. When the reflections form a six-ray star you call it a star spinel. It is rare, very rare. Sometimes it has a chatoyance effect, then the reflection looks like a cat-eye.
Large ones are rare and star spinels are very very rare and pricy. In Ancient Times people mined rather large spinel crystals in Gorno Badakshan in modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, especially red and pink varieties. Also in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, they were found, but there were mostly not larger than 2 carats and only a few have a gem quality. Nowadays you find them in mines situated all over the world.
Although I stated that large spinels above 2 carats are hardly mined, there are pink ones with a weight of 100 carats. In 1986, they found one of 5,1 kilogram. Another feature to mention is that from 2000 on people mined spinels with an unusual pink of blue color; it seems like they are glowing. You find those ones, especially in Myanmar, Tanzania, and Vietnam.
The Samarian Spinel is the largest spinel in the world (until now) and it weighs 500 carats or 100 grams. And if you want to look for yourself… in the British Museum, you can see 2 spinels, one of 355 carats and the other one of 520 carats.
You have quite a few crystal forms and the spinel has a cubical shape with 8 edges, an octahedron. You can compare it with two pyramid shapes glued to each other at the base. The spinel crystals are mostly well-formed, also when you find them in nature.
It is curious, I know, but the spinel occurs too in another form, in flattened crystals. Actually, crystals in this shape are in the beginning octahedron, but during their growth, they rub against each other, and although it is rather hard (Moh’s scale: 8), they become more flattened. And they are also called ‘twinned crystal’.
And some more features
The spinel is connected with the zodiac sign Scorpio. This gem is also called ‘the sone of immortality’, because it is innovative and rejuvenating. Therefore every woman should love this gem and wear it more frequently! Besides that, it gives mental and physical strength, perseverance, and courage in a difficult situation, such as a divorce or dismissal. It offers new perspectives and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. The spinel attracts success and prosperity. And last but not least the gemstone is anti-inflammatory and has a positive effect on forgetfulness, teeth, and the spine (the name!)
Spinel can be cleaned with a steam cleaner, but not with an ultrasonic cleaner. Although this gemstone does not discolor quickly, it is important not to keep it unnecessarily long in sunlight or in water.
When a gemstone has a high value there are always people who see the point of imitating the gemstone and making money with it. It’s just a crime since the buyers think they buy the real gemstone and not a fake one.
But there is no point in copying this gemstone since the value is not that high and probably the process of copying is more expensive than the value of a real one. But synthetic spinels exist, but they were accidentally produced in the mid-1800s. This fake stone looks like glass, but they are much stronger than glass under pressure, and these synthetic copies are used for commercial and military use.
History’s most underappreciated gem
During my research for this blog, I read somewhere that spinel is the most underappreciated gem in the world. From the Ancient Times on the gemstone mines sold these gems to the royals and privileged customers, and nobody recognized it as a spinel, but they thought it was a ruby or sapphire.
Every gem is valued by the deepness of the color of the gemstone and how deeper the color the more you have to pay. Another thing is the rareness of the gemstone; the rarer the stone the higher the price. The same goes for the luster and appearance of the gem. Considering all these features, it should cost even more than ruby or sapphire does. But that is not the case.
People don’t know the beauty of this gem, and what people don’t know, they don’t buy. Some even think that there is no real equivalent for the synthetic variety available!
But now the spinel is the birthstone of August, there is a big chance that it becomes more popular and the prices will rise. And remember… this gem has fewer inclusions than the so-called precious stones and as a result, it has more brilliance when it is faceted.
So my tip for today: buy a spinel set piece of jewelry now, before the price goes sky-high.
There are more birthstones and even August has another official birthstone, called the peridot. If you want to know more about birthstones and other well-known stones ask for my free e-book, with a lot of information and fun facts about those gems. Just let me know where I can send it to.
Hug, Florence from FlorenceJewelshop