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 colours 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 colour 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 colours. 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 colours seen in any species at all. Spinel also comes in beautiful blue tones called cobalt spinel, but these are very, very rare.
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