Steeped in history, the Spinel has been used has been an important gemstone to both royalty and to ancient mariners for many centuries. Whilst this beautiful red stone is currently viewed as the poor relation of the Ruby, it has not always been so. “The Daily News” in 1892 referred to Spinels as gemstones that “frequently usurp the dignity of a true ruby”
In Medieval times, Spinels were known as Balas rubies – because, it is believed, that many of them originated from “Lal Badakhshan” a province in Afghanistan. However, the word Spinel starts to appear in documentation around the 16th century in a range of spellings that probably have their origins in the Latin word “Spina”, meaning “Little Thorn” – possibly because of the sharp points of the crystal.
One of the most famous Spinels is the Black Prince’s Ruby, that now forms the centre piece of the Imperial State Crown. Dating back as early as 14th century Spain, the Black Prince’s Ruby was a large red gemstone given as payment to the Black Prince, by the ruler of Seville (called Don Pedro the Cruel – yes, really!) as thanks for helping him defeat his brother Henry. Numerous battles and years forward and this beautiful stone – estimated to weigh around 140 carats – took pride of place on the Imperial State Crown.
In stark contrast to this tale, is the fact that in possessing magnetic qualities, the Spinel was used in a ship’s compass to chart voyages at sea. References to the Spinel as a “lodestone” or magnet are found in documents as early as the 16th century – although it is believed that their use by mariners dates back to at least the 11th century.
Despite the Spinels glorious history and its current beauty and similarity to the currently more expensive Ruby, it has for the past century been relatively ignored. However, the Spinels do share more than just a passing similarity to rubies. They both obtain their red hue from the element chromium and also manifest similar refractive qualities, density and hardness – with the ruby’s hardness being 9 and the Spinel’s between 7.5-8, on the Moh’s scale. In addition to this, their chemical composition is fairly similar, in that the Spinel comprises magnesium aluminium oxide and the ruby comprises aluminium oxide.
More recently, there have been signs that the Spinel is starting to receive more attention and recognition for its qualities. Whilst the Spinel’s red hue is slightly more pink than the Ruby, there are more similarities than differences between the two gemstones. Bearing in mind that the price of a Spinel is still considerable lower than the Ruby, this is probably a good time to look at buying a ring (or other piece of jewelry) with a Spinel gemstone –as an alternative to the Ruby.