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The Splendour of Spinel, part 6: A Recent Return

Spinel now holds an important place in the world of bespoke gemstone jewellery, but for a large portion of history the stone was underappreciated. Advances in the laboratory and changes in the landscape of spinel mining have brought more attention to this once unknown natural marvel.

Following the end of mining operations in the Pamir mountains, the number of western traders seeking “balas rubies” began to dwindle, despite the fact that spinel could still be sourced from locations further to the east. It was not until spinel was widely recognized as a distinct mineral in 1783 by Jean Baptiste Louis Rome de Lisle that the stone was actively and deliberately sought out by Westerners, but even then the initial demand was still low. Not long after this, spinel use underwent a grand revival in the jewellery trade when a process for producing synthetic spinel was discovered. Developed in 1883 and introduced to the market in 1902, the Verneuil method for producing synthetic corundum, also known as the “flame fusion” method, is also associated with the introduction of the first synthetic spinel gemstones. Auguste Verneuil was experimenting with ways to produce gem grade corundum in a laboratory, and in one early attempt to produce synthetic blue sapphire he added magnesium oxide powder to the mixture undergoing flame fusion; to Verneuli’s surprise, the process did not yield any synthetic sapphire and instead resulted in the formation of the first synthetic spinel crystal. Much purer than their natural counterparts, synthetic spinels became a large part of the jewellery trade in the early 1900’s along with synthetic rubies and synthetic sapphires, frequently appearing in rings and other bespoke designs. Synthetic spinel can still be found in jewellery today, but it is not used as frequently as it once was. The introduction of synthetic spinel to the market inspired a reawakening of desire for natural spinel, and the world slowly began to remember the splendour of corundum’s doppelganger.

 

A blue synthetic spinel gemstone grown with the Verneuil process (flame-fusion); Image: Gemstone Magnetism

Gradually, natural spinel gemstones began to reappear on the world stage as new sources for gem grade material were discovered across the globe. Exploration of African lands in the 1980’s revealed spinel deposits in the Tsavo region of Kenya and the Morogoro Region of Tanzania, although the crystals found at these locations typically yielded gemstones of softer colour and lower clarity. Vietnam saw the rise of ruby and spinel mining in the 1990’s following the discovery of numerous spinel deposits in Luc Yen Province. During this time spinel was also found at Malipo in the Yunnan Province of China. Russians were the first outsiders known to come upon the famed spinel mines of Tajikistan in hundreds of years, having first encountered the Tajik spinel deposit in the late 19th century, but the Soviets of this era did not see value in minerals which were not viable as ores and consequently spinel gemstones were not taken out of the Pamir Mountains until after the fall of the Soviet Union and the founding of Tajikistan as a country in the 1990’s. Following the decline of ruby mining in Tanzania’s Morogoro, miners in the region continued to explore nearby areas of Tanzania, and in 2000 these miners were drawn to Ipanko after local farmers stumbled upon fine quality spinel crystals, bringing an even greater labour force into the spinel trade. Large crystals were discovered near Ipanko in 2007, gaining further attention for the Tanzanian spinel deposits, but mining operations have since been inconsistent due to disputes between landowners. In 2016, Jewelers of America and the American gem Trade Association (AGTA) added spinel to the contemporary western birthstone list as an official birthstone for the month of August alongside peridot, greatly increasing the amount of attention directed at spinel by jewellery lovers and gemstone enthusiast.

A truly timeless gemstone, spinel certainly carries its weight in the history of coloured gems. From its introduction to the world market early in history, to the impact it now has upon contemporary jewellery designs, spinel gems have never failed to captivate those who have gazed upon them. Just like the courts of mediaeval royalty, one may purchase a spinel gemstone and own a piece of true beauty. Even if the name of this gem is new to the ear, it is impossible to ignore the splendour of spinel.  


© Yaĝé Enigmus


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