Spinel (Molecule of the Month for March 1997)
Spinel is the great imposter of gemstone history: many famous rubies in crown jewels around the world are actually spinel. The most famous is the Black Prince's Ruby, a magnificent 170-carat red spinel that currently adorns the Imperial State Crown in the British Crown Jewels after a long history: Henry V even wore it on his battle helmet! The Timur Ruby, a 352-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 Burma, where some of the most beautiful colors are mined, spinel was recognized as a separate gem species as early as 1587. In other countires the masquerade lasted for hundreds of years after that. Spinels were most often referred to as "balas rubies" which may have referred to color or to country of origin.
Now treasured for its own sake, spinel is a favorite of gem dealers and gem collectors due to its brilliance, hardness and wide range of spectacular colors. In addition to beautiful rich reds, spinel can be found in a range of beautiful pastel shades of pink and purple. Of particular interest is a vivid hot pink with a tinge of orange that is mined in Burma that is one of the most spectacular gemstone colors in any gem species. Spinel also comes in beautiful blues which are sometimes called cobalt spinel, but these are very very rare.
Because spinels made in a laboratory are often used for imitation birthstone rings, many people think "synthetic" when the hear the name "spinel." They have never even seen the real thing.
In fact, the main thing holding back greater recognition for spinel is rarity. Fine spinels are now more rare than the rubies they used to imitate. Strangely, they are also more affordable: in the gem world, too rare can be a drawback because so few people even get a chance to grow to love these gem varieties.
In addition to Burma, now known as Myanmar, spinel is mined in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Tadjikstan, part of the former Soviet Union.
Spinel is a durable gemstone that is perfect for all jewelry uses. It is most often faceted in oval, round, or cushion shapes and is not currently found in calibrated sizes due to its rarity.
Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)
Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for March 1997 )