Both tourmalines and spinels come in a kaleidoscope of hues and were venerated as imperial stones, but somehow still rank low in consumer awareness. With the gems’ recent stratospheric rise in popularity and esteem with jewellers, it’s high time to showcase their illustrious history and bedazzling beauty.
A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find showpieces featuring spinels and tourmalines in fine jewelry stores, much less the major international maisons. The tide has changed, especially in the past five years. Today, it would be surprising today to see the absence of the two gemstones in the high jewelry collections of eminent brands. Tourmaline is the new darling of the industry, while the rarer spinel still makes a regular appearance – for good reason, as these gems have a lot going for them.
Both are durable, brilliant, and relatively affordable; come in a cornucopia of colors; and boast a royal heritage and cultural significance many other gems can only dream of. Esteemed fine jeweler Caratell is one Singapore firm that has featured spinels and tourmalines strongly, and imaginatively as three-dimensional art pieces, in its recent collections. With insight from Caratell’s managing director Michael Koh, also a jewelry designer and trained craftsman with over 20 years of experience in the trade, we break down the various factors that make the terrific twosome so appealing and worth your money.
The spinel, which has a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale, comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors ranging from intense ‘stop light’ red and hot pink, to all shades of blue and purple, to even grey and black. The most precious hues, according to Koh, are those as red as ruby from Burma’s famed Mogok Valley; and as blue as sapphire, especially the amazing color of Vietnam’s Luc Yen mine cobalt blue spinel. And by cobalt blue, it refers solely to the colour and not the trace element cobalt. The spinel also occurs in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tajikistan, Madagascar, and Cambodia. One of the signature properties of the spinel is that it is singly refractive – light enters the crystal and only bends in one beam (instead of splitting into two), so it tends to be more brilliant than the sapphire and ruby, says Koh. The spinel, diamond, and garnet are the only few better-known gems that are singly refractive.
The Jeweler’s Take
“The spinel’s good hardness allows for daily use; it has excellent fire and beauty that is worth admiring; and it is not over-abundant unlike quartz and amethyst. It is also one of the gemstones that requires little or no treatment, unlike rubies and sapphires, which are almost 90 per cent heat-treated. A good spinel with a good color and size are hard to come by, yet it is not as costly as ruby. There is a saying that if life is fair, the spinel should be worth more than the ruby,” adds Koh.
Red spinels have been mistaken for rubies since antiquity, as both look alike and were found in the same regions. It is not until modern times that technology advancements in gemology could differentiate the two.
Says Koh, “During the medieval period, red spinel was known as Balas ruby, with the name Balas deriving from an ancient word for Badakhshan, a province in the north of Afghanistan. Based on historical accounts, Badakhshan mines were the source of many of the finest early rubies and red spinels. Many famous ‘rubies’, such as the 170-carat Black Prince Ruby on the Imperial State Crown of England and the 352.5-carat Timur Ruby, were later discovered to be spinel.”
The Insider’s Tip
According to Koh, a good investment-worthy spinel must have the right hue, tone, and saturation. The preferred color would be ruby-red or the cornflower blue of sapphires, while stones with a tint of grey or brown are not favored. Although four to five carats would be a good size, he says a Burmese red spinel of more than 10 carats is more easily available than a two-carat cobalt blue spinel from Vietnam.
The cut has to bring out the best of the gem, but it shouldn’t be too deep where the top face may not represent its carat weight, nor too shallow that it is see-through. A fine spinel also has to be free from any kind of treatment. It is not common for the spinel to exhibit color change properties, but there are some that change from blue to purple, which make them highly sought-after.
The Spinel Search
Jeweller Michael Koh describes his seven-day expedition to Vietnam’s Luc Yen mine in 2013.
“Luc Yen is in the far north of Vietnam and it took us a day’s ride from Hanoi to reach the village nearest to the mining area. The roads were rocky and twisting, and we had to traverse through mountains. It was almost dark when we arrived, and we were lucky to find a ‘hotel’ that had power supply.
The constant rain made our expedition extremely difficult and dangerous. We had to avoid places that experienced landslides, which lengthened our journey to the mine. As the locals did not speck English, we had a hard time trying to communicate with them especially in gem terminology. With limited equipment to identify gemstones, we had to rely on our field experience and gem knowledge. We were surprised to see fake stones mixed in with real gemstones, such as rubies, sapphires, spinels, and tourmalines.
Finally seeing the legendary vibrant blue spinel gave us a real sense of achievement. The rough blue spinel wasn’t that difficult to identify as some of them come in perfect octahedron shape, but most of them were less than a carat size and very included, which made them unsuitable to be cut into gemstones. The biggest from that mine was a three-carat blue spinel.”
Tourmaline has a hardness of 7 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale, and occurs in a wide array of hues, including pink, blue, green, red, brown, and orange. The gemstone derives its name from the Sinhalese language, and means “mixed gems”. What’s most interesting about tourmaline, according to Koh, is that it may exhibit bi- or even tri-colors (called watermelon tourmaline), and the cat’s eye phenomenon.
There are several main varieties of tourmalines. “The most expensive and valuable is the neon-blue Paraiba tourmaline, which was first discovered in the Brazilian state of Paraiba in 1989. With its unique color and neon effect that is unlike any other gemstone, the Paraiba tourmaline became extremely popular in a very short time due to low supply, and prices soon rocketed sky high. Fortunately, a new mine was found in Mozambique in early 2000, producing Paraiba-like tourmalines with the same properties as the Brazilian ones,” says Koh.
The rubellite, which displays a lush pink or rich crimson, is another beloved variety. It is distinguished from other red and pink tourmalines by the way it behaves in daylight and artificial light – it holds its color when the light source is changed. The indicolite is a variant that displays a light to dark saturated blue, while chrome tourmaline has an intense emerald green hue.
Apart from Brazil, important deposits of tourmaline are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Burma, Sri Lanka, the U.S., Madagascar, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Nigeria.
The Jeweler’s Take
“This is a fun stone for jewelry designers to play with, as it comes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. With an excellent cut, it can exhibit maximum brilliance. The most popular are the Paraiba and rubellite, followed by indicolite and chrome,” says Koh.
Tourmaline may be seen as an up-and-coming stone in general, but it is historically much revered by the Chinese. Explains Koh, “Empress Dowager Ci Xi of the Qing Dynasty was a fan of pink tourmalines; vast quantities were shipped from overseas to be created into exquisite jewelry and snuff bottles for her. It was said that, on her deathbed in 1908, she demanded a pink tourmaline from the Pala mine in southern California to be placed on her finger. There is also a beautiful story of how Ci Xi loved a pair of watermelon tourmaline earrings so much that she wore it everyday. It was buried with her, but unfortunately her tomb was robbed.”
In addition, he says that the Chinese have used tourmaline to carve and engrave figures for centuries. Some are even still on display in museums, which is a testament to the durability of the stone. The culture also has an especially strong affinity with the rubellite, as it is an auspicious color and said to be able to ward off evil.
The Insider’s Tip
According to Koh, it is always nice to own a Paraiba, but many do not understand that a good one has to have that radiant, neon glow that is caused by a high concentration of copper. Not all tourmalines from Paraiba have the said effect, and that factor affects the price. “In fact, 95 per cent of Paraiba tourmalines are heat-treated to remove any red coloring caused by the presence of manganese. It is rare to find one blue Paraiba that is not heat-treated and yet emit the neon effect,” he adds.