Master of Disguise
Spinel, which comes in many colors, has often been mistaken for other gemstones. The Black Prince’s “ruby" — set at the front of the British Imperial State Crown — is actually a red spinel! Called a “balas ruby,” the name comes from Balakhshan (Badakhshan), a historic area extending from today’s northeastern Afghanistan into Tajikistan that has produced magnificent red and pink spinels for centuries.
Until recently, spinel was an underappreciated gem with little consumer recognition. Increasing demand for ruby alternatives rekindled appreciation for spinel’s rich red color and history. In ancient times, southeast Asia’s mines yielded exceptional large spinel crystals, which became the treasured property of kings and emperors, often passing through many hands as spoils of war.
Spinel, like garnet and diamond, is singly refractive, with the same physical properties in all crystal directions. It belongs to the cubic crystal system, and its characteristic crystal shape is an octahedron, which looks like two back-to-back pyramids. Well-formed spinel crystals are fairly common in nature.