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Gem in the Spotlight: Spinel

Once "the great imposter," now just "Great"

Group of loose spinel gemstones with finished jewelry
Just a few of the many colors of spinel

“Spinel, the Great Imposter” sounds like the title of an action movie, but it could also be the title of this article. For years spinel has been confused with other gems and even today is often used as a substitute for similar looking stones. In recent years, spinel has started to move out of the shadows and be appreciated in its own right, and we can see why. Its colors rival even the best rubies, sapphires, tourmalines, and other more popular gems.

For only the 3rd time in the last one hundred years, the industry is modifying the official birthstone list. Spinel will be joining peridot as the August birthstone! This change was officially made in 2016, but only in the last couple of years have we started to see the majority of the industry get on board. If you know someone born in August, it’s time to get excited.

Gemology of Spinel

With a Moh’s hardness of 8 and good toughness spinel is a great choice for all forms of jewelry. We recommend occasional wear for rings and bracelets, but earrings and pendants are suitable for daily wear. Spinel can come in virtually any color of the rainbow which is one of the reasons why the August birthstone change is so exciting. Before, August babies were left with only the vibrant green of peridot, but now the entire color pallet has been opened up.

Spinel is arguably the most overlooked and underappreciated gemstone of all time.

Spinel was first made in a lab over 100 years ago when scientists who were trying to synthesize blue sapphire wound up creating spinel by mistake. Since then many processes have been used and perfected to create spinel in even more colors than it is naturally found in. Because of how easily it can be created in a lab, synthetic spinel has been used to imitate many other gemstones (ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, zircon, etc.). In fact, the ubiquity of synthetic spinel may be part of the reason why most people have been slow to appreciate natural spinel in its own right.

Interestingly, most lab-created spinel has a slightly higher refractive index than natural spinel, and that, along with inclusions can be used to separate the two. Natural spinel has a refractive index of 1.718 while its synthetic counterpart (depending on the process used) has a refractive index of 1.728.

In recent years, scientists have developed new techniques to synthesize sheets of optically transparent spinel. This amazing material has applications in high-energy lasers, transparent armor, and missile guidance systems. It even has the potential to make its way onto our smartphones as a super durable, glass-like covering.

History and Lore of Spinel

Purple blue and gray loose spinel gems
Purple, gray, and blue spinel

Spinel is arguably the most overlooked and underappreciated gemstone of all time. Spinel has been mined for over a thousand years, but until 1783 it was confused with more well-known stones like ruby and sapphire. One of the most famous examples of this confusion was with the Black Prince’s Ruby. This stone currently sits at the front of the Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom. When it was given to Edward of Woodstock in 1367 it was thought to be a ruby. It wasn’t for nearly 400 years that it was determined to be a red spinel all along. Stories like this have been occurring regularly for the last century, whether it is with an heirloom piece of jewelry or something found at the beach, what many people have believed to be a ruby for years turned out to be spinel.

While modern technology and gemological advances have helped industry professionals differentiate between the two, it can be difficult without the proper tools and training. Today, spinel is finally being recognized as more than just “looks like ruby but isn’t.”

A special variety of spinel called magnetite contains trace elements of iron and is naturally magnetic. This unique property made it especially valuable, and it was used hundreds of years ago in early compasses. You may even know this gem by its more common name “lodestone” which meant “leading stone,” but you may not have known that lodestone is a form of spinel.

Spinel is believed to possess healing powers related to reducing anxiety and revitalizing its wearer. The magnetic form, magnetite, is said to help bring balance and alignment to one’s internal energies calming mood swings and improving mental clarity.

Care and Cleaning of Spinel

Spinel is usually safe to be used in ultrasonic and steam cleaners, but certain inclusions can sometimes pose threats. The safest bet is to use warm soapy water and a soft-bristled brush. Or, you can always have your spinel jewelry professionally clean by a local jeweler like us. Spinel can be stored with other jewelry but like with all precious stones, it should be treated and stored with care.

Its Mohs hardness of 8 puts it on par with Topaz. It’s softer than diamond or sapphire but harder than quartz, tourmaline, and peridot. With proper care there’s no reason why a piece of spinel jewelry can’t last for generations even becoming a treasured family heirloom.

  1. Pink Spinel in Minimalist Sterling Silver Necklace front view

    Pink Spinel in Minimalist Sterling Silver Necklace

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Why Spinel?

Despite its long history spinel is relatively new to jewelry in the sense that it is only recently getting attention on its own and not just imitating other gems. This means that the prices are still relatively low for a stone of this durability, rarity, and beauty.

Spinel can be just as stunning as top-quality rubies at just a fraction of the price. Now that spinel is joining peridot as one of August’s birthstones more people will be able to see and appreciate this magnificent gem for how special it really is. Visit us today to see our unique collection of spinel jewelry or work with one of our designers to create your own original piece.

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