Spinel is the great impostor of gemstone history: many famous rubies in crown jewels around the world are actually spinels. The most famous is the Black Prince's ruby, a magnificent 170-carat red spinel that now adorns the Imperial State Crown of England in the British Crown Jewels after a long history: Henry V even wore it on his battle helmet! The Timur ruby, a 361-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 (now known as Myanmar), where some of the most beautiful colors are mined, spinel was recognised as a separate gem species as early as 1587. In other countries the masquerade went on for hundreds of years. Spinels were most often referred to as 'balas rubies', which may have referred to their color or their country of origin.
Now treasured for its own sake, spinel is a favourite of gem dealers and collectors on account of its brilliance, hardness and wide range of spectacular colors. In addition to beautiful rich reds, spinel can be found in a range of gorgeous pastel shades of pink and purple. Of particular interest is a vivid hot pink with a tinge of orange mined in Burma. It is one of the most spectacular gemstone colors seen in any species at all. Spinel also comes in beautiful blue tones 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 they hear the name spinel. Often enough, they have never even seen the real thing.
In fact, the main factor preventing the spinel from achieving greater recognition is its rarity. Fine spinels are now rarer than the rubies they used to imitate. Strangely, they are also more affordable: in the gem world, being too rare can be a drawback because so few people even get a chance to develop a fondness for the varieties in question.
In addition to Burma, spinel is mined in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Tadzhikistan, part of the former Soviet Union.
Spinel is a durable gemstone that is perfect for all jewellery uses. It is most often faceted in oval, round, or cushion shapes and is not currently found in calibrated sizes due to its rarity.