Color-Change Spinel

If ever there was a song that summed up the plight and potential of spinel, it’s one written by Irving Berlin for the show “Annie Get Your Gun.” Its title and opening line go like this: “Anything you can do, I can do better.” The “you” in this case would be corundum and the “I” spinel.

Face it, spinel has been living in the shadow of sapphire and ruby for the entire stretch of living memory. So it is with slight trepidation that I report on still another member of this family that so expertly mimics corundum you are likely to confuse the two.

I’m talking about color-change spinel, found in Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar and solidly entrenched since its discovery in those places as a collector’s stone. Such elitist status explains why many collectors treat their knowledge of this stone as privileged information. Indeed, two gem collectors I talked to wanted me to drop plans for this “Gem Profile” and keep the gem’s existence secret. “What good is it going to do,” asked one, “for you to blab about color-change spinel to the industry at large? There isn’t enough material to meet collector demand.”

His resistance is understandable. Wider awareness of color-change spinel can only decrease already sparse supplies and increase stubbornly low prices. It is one of the chronic contradictions of the spinel market that prices for most stones are a fraction of those of the rubies and sapphires they so closely resemble. I say “most” because prices for top-grade recent-find red and pink spinel from Tanzania and Vietnam (as well as grandiose goods from Burma, that old standby for spinel) have joined those of their fine ruby and pink sapphire brethren in the Himalayan heights of precious stone value.

But prices for class A color-change spinel are far more down to earth-if not a little below sea level. Raja Shah of Color First, Tampa, Florida, who supplied us with a generous sampling of color-change gems, doubts the 2.01 carat spinel used as an exemplar stone for this “Gem Profile,” could command more than $500 per carat at retail.

Not that it’s for sale. It isn’t. This stone and a .77-point beauty sent by Simon Watt of Mayer & Watt, Maysville, Kentucky, sit securely in their owners’ private collections awaiting the find of comparable-quality companions. As Shah puts it, “Current prices for color-change spinel are an insult to their beauty and rarity.”

Now you can understand why collectors want me to stay away from this subject. “If ever a gem was a limited edition, it’s got to be color-change spinel. Yet it is scandalously affordable,” one said. “I’d hate to think other collectors waiting for the chance to own one would be outbid by somebody looking for an investment rather than a thing of beauty.” I told him this will happen whether or not I write my story. Here’s why.

THE SMALL WORLD OF COLOR CHANGE

When it comes to color-change gems, there are few choices to be made. Best-known and most popular by far among these phenomenon stones is alexandrite-a green-to-red chrysoberyl with a hardness of 8.5 that is found in Russia, Sri Lanka, and Brazil. Prices for the best stones are generally five and six figures.

Next in supply and stature among the slim ranks of color-change gems is blue to purple sapphire, which caught on with both collectors and designers after discoveries of deposits in Tanzania in the 1960s and Sri Lanka even earlier.

Third, but a viable candidate to leapfrog over sapphire in status, comes color-change garnet. A recent find in Kenya has given the world its first true-blue garnet-admittedly only in fluorescent light. But when it comes to garnet, half a blue is better than none.

Fourth in the color-change rankings-both in production and prestige-is spinel. Granted, sizes tend to be less than 1 carat, but its hardness, which is 8, is a plus. Nevertheless, the real appeal is aesthetic.

For me, spinel has a distinctive color change that only superficially resembles that of color-change sapphire. It flips from a steely Hope Diamond blue to a subtle violetish-purple that bears a strong resemblance to some of the rarest and most dramatic of all monochrome spinel hues-in this case, blues from Sri Lanka and lavenders from Vietnam.

Given the patience-straining availability of both blue and violet in normal spinel, the case for ownership of the frustratingly few specimens of the color-change variety is as potent as any that can be made for a color-change gem. At the risk of further aggravating the collectors we talked to, it seems irresponsible not to state the plain truth about color-change spinel: It is a true treasure and a true bargain. This fact begs another truth: The days of under-pricing this two-toned gem are about to end.

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