Monday, July 6, 2015

Red Spinel: The Balas Ruby

Red spinel in calcite matrix. Photo ©Gery Parent on Flickr. This specimenwas photographed in the Mogok Valley in Burma. Most spinel is found in
the same mining regions where rubies are found.

Red Spinel, long called Balas Ruby, is a unique and beautiful gemstone found in the same areas where rubies and sapphires (corundum) are mined.{1} One could argue that corundum and spinel are kissing cousins, their only differentiation being the magnesium found in spinel that is absent from the aluminum oxide compound that comprises the sapphire family.

Historically, spinels were regarded as equal to the ruby. A blood red spinel called The Black Prince's Ruby takes pride of place in St. Edward's Crown, the coronation crown for Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth II of England possesses in her Royal Collection another spinel called The Timur Ruby, which has been engraved with the names and reigning dates of numerous Mughal emperors.{2}

In 2011 a remarkable spinel necklace was sold by Christie's for a staggering $5.2 million. Of tremendous historical significance, this necklace featured eleven polished spinels of varying sizes mounted on a gold link backchain.{3} Christie's estimates that the stones were mounted together at some point during the 19th century. Of course, the historical significance of this particular jewel led to its astonishing price. However, in materials alone, Christie's estimated the eleven beads to be worth as much as $2.5 million.{4}

With an unprecedented combined total weight of 1,131.59 carats, the initial estimate was over $2200 per carat.{5} And it sold for more than twice that price per carat. As brilliant as rubies, red spinel have long been prized for their beauty and hardness (8 on the Mohs Scale). The International Colored Gemstone Association (ICGA) commends spinel as a "durable gemstone that is perfect for all jewellery uses."{6} Despite such high regard by collectors and gemologists, spinel has been called by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), "History's most underappreciated gem."{7}

How is it that this beautiful stone, which commands at auction a price similar to rubies, which looks so much like a ruby, and which has a comparable brilliance and durability to the ruby, is so decidedly absent in the gemstone market?

The GIA credits the dismissal of spinel as a marketable gem to an inundation of synthetic spinels.{8} During the 1930s, synthetic spinel was mass produced in a wide variety of colors.{9} These mass produced lookalikes were mounted in fashion settings and promoted as birthstone jewelry.{10} They were known imitations, accepted by the growing middle class market, and popularly purchased and worn.

This flooding of the market, complete with trade names, may have led to what the GIA believes was a misconception about the natural origin of spinel.{11} Others cite the rarity and unreliability of spinel supply.{12} While rarity often commands higher prices, the ICGA relates that some gemstones, like spinel, slip through the cracks. "[B]eing too rare can be a drawback because so few people even get a chance to develop a fondness for the varieties in question," they report.{13}

Whatever the reason for its absence on the commercial market, I believe we're missing out. I hope to see more spinel available for sale in the coming days. It is a beautiful stone that rivals the ruby in beauty, typically sold at a fraction of the price.

~Angela Magnotti Andrews


  1. "Spinel," Geology. Accessed June 22, 2015.
  2. Christie's. "An Imperial Mughal Spinel Necklace." Sale 1382, Lot 306, sold May 18, 2011.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Spinel: collector's favourite," ICGA. Accessed June 22, 2015.
  7. "Spinel History and Lore," GIA Blog. Accessed June 22, 2015.
  8. Ibid.
  9. "Spinel," Geology. Accessed June 22, 2015.
  10. Ibid.
  11. "Spinel History and Lore," GIA BlogAccessed June 22, 2015.
  12. "Spinel," Geology. Accessed June 22, 2015.
  13. "Spinel: collector's favourite," ICGA. Accessed June 22, 2015.

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