What is spinel? This is an ode to the most under-hyped, but stunningly gorgeous stone around – Spinel! Spinel is often confused with Ruby, and found in a rainbow of hues, it’s a stone that deserves its moment in the spotlight.
To demystify this mysterious stone, we went straight to the source. We sat down with Johannes Orstadius – Founder of GemGroup Sweden, serious spinel expert, and our favorite Colored Gemstone Dealer around.
The GemGroup team is what we call a 'mine-to-market' vendor - meaning they source stones directly from the mining areas they originated from for full traceability.
Before we chat spinel, tell us a bit about you and your company GemGroup
GemGroup Sweden, or Ädelstensgruppen as we're called in Swedish (try to pronounce that!), is the only company in Sweden that specializes in wholesale trading and production of exclusively colored gemstones. Most other here companies focus mainly on diamonds.
I started the business when I was 15, and now 12 years later and with two wonderful partners, we’re the biggest company in Sweden doing only colored stones. We specialize in morganite and aquamarine for our larger clients and gems like spinel for our single-stone sourcing. We travel around the World and source most of our stones directly from local mines and lapidaries. Our focus is on excellent cut quality – we cut about 75% of all stones ourselves, and purchase the other 25% already cut. We run lapidary operations both in Central Stockholm and in Sri Lanka - right at one of the world's best sources of sapphire and spinel.
The three partners in the company – myself, our Cutting Manager (an excellent cutter in Sweden), and a Gemologist are all incredibly passionate about this business and love what we do.
What is Spinel?
A colored gemstone that was mistaken for rubies and sapphires for over 1000 years, spinel comes in countless colors, is stunningly brilliant and lustrous, and is one of the rarest colored gemstones around. Despite all this obvious appeal, spinel costs much less than its more well-known cousins, ruby and sapphire.
Why do you love Spinel?
So many colors to choose from
Spinels range from deeply saturated tones to very light pastels, and they come in countless different hues: red, lavender, blue, pink, purple, and black.
And the best part: spinels are one of the few stones that require no special treatment. Other colored gemstones are often treated to intensify the color and improve clarity, but spinel looks vivid and bright entirely au naturel.
Lucia Unheated Purple Spinel and Diamond Ring
Spinels (except red) are famous for their exceptionally fluid, shifting colors. Spinels that look steely blue-grey in daylight can look metallic violet indoors. And pink spinels can radiate lavender in certain light conditions.
Every hue is blended – the colors are magnetic, unusual, and almost difficult to describe with words. Like the metallic-looking blue-violet-grey spinels from Sri Lanka – you have to see them to believe them!
All in all, spinels are a gem with personality – with constantly oscillating hues and so much visual interest.
A less expensive version of Ruby
Red spinel can look very similar to ruby, and they often look even better because of their stronger luster (light reflected from the surface of the gem) and brilliance (light reflected from interior of the gem). Spinels are also much rarer than rubies but amazingly, they cost much less.
Spinel is rising in price, however, as demand continues to grows. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if spinel surpasses the price of ruby soon. So, considering their rising values, and their generally better brilliance, I would recommend a spinel for clients torn between the two.
One detail to consider: the nicest red spinels usually have a touch of pink. So, if you’re looking for a deep dark red hue, a ruby would be the better choice.
Too Rare for Mass-Production
It’s basically impossible to mass-produce spinels. The colors shift so much in different light conditions and the hues differ massively between sources. That means big-box companies and mall stores can’t offer consistent, high-quality spinels because they’re impossible to purchase on a bulk basis.
So, spinel is quite special because you must go small and local to find them. It’s a perfect stone for artisans, independent designers, and specialized retailers like Gem Breakfast.
Electric Magic Teal Spinel & Diamond Ring (Sold, reach out to commission something similar)
Spinel already has a good hardness of 8, but beyond the rating, our cutters report that spinels behave in a very durable way during cutting. They find spinels seem more durable than other stones of a similar hardness.
Personal taste over rigid conditions
All the other colored gemstones (sapphires, rubies, morganite, tourmaline, etc.) have a fixed set of conditions that determine the price – basically, the more saturated the stone, the higher the value. But for spinel, these conditions don’t apply.
Most notably, one of the most sought-after spinel colors is grey - a color that many people have traditionally avoided in other gemstones. This trend has turned the market upside down in a way! Thanks to the popularity of grey spinels, grey sapphires have risen in price to sometimes be as expensive as blue sapphires! This is something that traders would never have imagined 20 years ago.
Where do you source Spinel from and why?
We source nearly all our spinels from Sri Lanka for a few reasons:
Sri Lankan spinels are crisper and more brightly colored than other spinels around the world.
Sri Lankan spinels along with a few rough crystals
Less Harmful for the Environment
In Sri Lanka, the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA) is responsible for issuing mining licenses to mining groups. The vast majority of licenses are given to small-scale artisanal mining groups (8-16 people), and only a handful of licenses are given to mechanized mining operations. Artisanal mining operations are much less disruptive to the environment than mechanized mining.
Also, Sri Lanka has a strict set of regulations that miners must follow. Once a mining group gets a license, they pay a deposit and are assigned a plot of land. They go ahead with the mining, and when they’re done about 6 months later, they must refill all the holes and reinstate the land back to its original state to get their deposit back.
If they don’t refill the land, their deposit money is used by the government to restore the land themselves. They’ve done an excellent job creating and enforcing these regulations to protect the environment.
Small-scale mining in the Ratnapura region, Feb 2017
Better Working Conditions and Wages
Sri Lanka is probably the best country for setting and enforcing social and environmental sustainability regulations. Their cutting and mining practices stand out quite distinctively from the other mining and lapidaries (gem cutters) around the world.
The lapidaries in Sri Lanka are quite small (often family-run), local workshops that take good care of their employees. We pay about three times more for gem cutting in Sri Lanka vs what we would pay in areas like India. And those higher prices translate to some extent to better wages and better conditions overall for lapidary workers.
And for the sale of rough stones, Sri Lanka has long-standing traditions that govern profit sharing between the members of small mining groups. Their practices seem to work well for everyone in the group.
What's a Spinel sourcing trip like for you?
Once we arrive in Sri Lanka, we head out from Columbo (the capital city) and start our multiple-hour journey to either Ratnapura or Beruwala (a city along the Sri Lankan west coast) depending on the stones we’re looking for.
If we’re looking for smaller gems or rough (uncut) stones, we go to Ratnapura. For larger and very specific colored gemstones, we tend to prefer Beruwala.
Once we arrive, we meet with local suppliers and other lapidaries to choose our stones. We usually sit for 4-5 hours and look through stones from all the local suppliers before making our final choices.
Buying gemstones from local suppliers in Beruwala, Sri Lanka
Fun Facts about Spinel
For most of human history, red spinels were mistaken for rubies and many were placed in famous royal jewels. The Crown of Catherine the Great holds the second-largest spinel on Earth – 398 carats. It was classified as a Ruby for centuries before spinel was discovered as a distinctive stone.
Another famous spinel-ruby mix-up: a ‘ruby’ necklace made for Queen Victoria in 1871. It was named The Timur Ruby but was later discovered to be a 361-carat red spinel.
What is Spinel Used For?
Sapphire vs Spinel
Two of our favorite colored gemstones, sapphires and spinel look incredibly similar. They both come in every hue and tone under the rainbow and are a stunning and unique diamond alternative.
While both spinel and sapphire and very durable and strong enough for everyday wear, sapphires are a touch harder, ranking 9 on the Moh's hardness scale, whereas spinel ranks a 7.5 to 8. Either one is a great option for an engagement ring or treat-yourself ring that you plan to wear regularly.
Sapphires are usually heat treated to intensify their color, whereas spinel are rarely treated in any way - what you see is what you get! This is a draw for those who love the natural magic of an unaltered gemstone.
Spinels are known for their color-shifting qualities - they can shift completely between colors in different light! While color-change sapphires exist as well, they're more rare and usually more expensive.
The other difference - sparkle. Spinels are singly refractive (like diamonds) so are known for their intense, light-catching sparkle. You won't miss the shine factor in a sapphire either but spinels win in this department!