Brands build on spinel’s burnished reputation
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Private jeweller Lauren Adriana has used spinels in her designs since launching her business a decade ago, but faced “a real battle” at the outset. “Even today, you get people who’ve never heard of them but, back then, people . . . didn’t understand where they fell on the spectrum of value and desirability,” says the London-based designer. “It’s been a process of education to get people to understand what they are and why they’re special.”
Adriana, who makes 30-40 one-off pieces a year, mainly for the US market, has noticed “a huge 180 on people’s opinion” of spinels in the past couple of years, which she thinks is driven by jewellery houses, such as Cartier, using the stones.
The French brand’s latest high jewellery collection, Beautés du Monde Chapter III, unveiled this week, includes a white gold, spinel and diamond necklace. It features nine pear and oval-shaped vivid purplish pink spinels totalling 27.79 carats, and red to pink spinel beads.
Auction houses are also reporting rising interest in the gem as consumer appreciation grows.
Spinel is, in the words of the Gemological Institute of America, “the great imposter”. Historically found in the same locations as ruby, it was mistaken for that stone for centuries until being identified by French mineralogist Jean-Baptiste Louis Romé de Lisle as a different gem in the late 18th century. It is a stone long prized by royalty: the 14th-century Black Prince’s Ruby that adorns the British Imperial State Crown is actually a red spinel.
The gem, which has been mined in countries such as Tajikistan, Myanmar and Tanzania, offers a wide colour spectrum, including pink, blue and lavender. Red spinel is highly valued, with the coveted “Jedi” spinels having a neon pinkish red hue.
Jean Ghika, global director of jewellery at Bonhams, says the rising price of ruby in the past decade or two, tied to the rarity of the best examples, has helped drive interest in red spinel from people “wanting a similar optical effect but something which is at a keener price point”. She says the world auction price per carat record for ruby is $1.22mn, achieved by Christie’s in 2015 for the Crimson Flame, compared with $29,232 for spinel, achieved when Bonhams sold the 50.13-carat Hope Spinel for£962,500 the same year.
Uni Kim, a specialist in Sotheby’s jewellery department in Hong Kong, agrees there is growing interest in “underestimated” spinel but says buyers are attracted by the stone’s hue range, which is different to ruby. She says spinels tend to have fewer inclusions than Burmese no-heat rubies and can have a “mesmerising” brilliance. “They’re polished up and they’re crystal clear . . . they effectively sparkle like diamonds,” says Adriana.
Kim says there are collectors seeking spinels and that prices for good pieces, particularly the best quality red spinels that are getting harder to find, are “steadily increasing”. Sotheby’s sold a ring with a 25.88-carat Tanzanian red spinel for SFr478,800 ($520,000), above the high estimate, in November.
“Collectors and buyers will continue to understand and appreciate the beauty of the spinel, so I see that prices will gather momentum,” says Ghika.
She adds that interest in spinel is led by the Asian market, where buyers not only appreciate red gemstones, as they regard the colour as auspicious, but also understand the stone. Half of the top-selling spinel lots at Bonhams over the past 15 years have gone to Asian clients, including a Louis Vuitton ring (2014), set with a 20.03-carat red spinel, which fetched HK$3,377,500 ($430,000) in 2021. Ghika says the use of spinel in contemporary high jewellery is helping to fuel the gem’s success in the secondary market.
Pierre Rainero, image, style and heritage director at Cartier, says that, while the house has used spinels “for ever”, thanks to its longstanding interest in Indian jewellery, today there is “better comprehension” from clients.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s a specific request for spinels but, when we propose pieces with spinels, we now face a much better understanding and appreciation of the stone,” he says. He attributes this understanding to wider improvement in global jewellery culture, with jewellers seeking to use different colours and stones.
Stefano Cortecci, gem master at Pomellato — which used 24 grey spinels totalling 44.5 carats for the Summer Storm Cascade Gris earrings in last summer’s La Gioia di Pomellato high jewellery collection — says demand for spinel is rising because today’s customer “needs something different”.
“They are much more sophisticated than before, so a sophisticated stone like spinel represents something new for them,” he says. He adds that spinel is “quite different” to other materials and that its breadth of shades allows the Milanese brand to represent different aspects of nature in its designs.
Adriana, who started collecting spinels 20 years ago, has sourced rare and precious spinel for a couple of clients as “an investment stone” and hopes to see more of these requests coming through as the stones are “just as important” as rubies and sapphires.
“If you ask most jewellers what their favourite stone is, they will say a spinel . . . and everyone [else] has finally woken up to how lovely they are,” she says. “Something about them is more magical than any other gemstone.”