Written by Modern Jeweler On May 2, 2013.
It is custom in India for a child to wear “baby bracelets” on both its right and left hands for the first year of its life. Composed of gold and black gems, this color combination is widely believed to ward off evil.
Kuntal Shah, president of Oscargems in New York, remembered this cultural fact of life in her native country when she chanced upon an enormous surplus of black spinel rough in 2005. “I decided to start making baby necklaces of alternating 14k or 18k gold and micro-faceted black spinel beads,” she says. “The response was spectacular. I sold thousands of gold and spinel baby bracelets at $50 to $60 retail.”
As luck would have it, black gems became a global fashion fixture and Shah began showing black spinel at gem and jewelry shows in this country-where she took the opportunity to talk it up with designer clients such as Alison Osborne, Hastings, Nebraska. “The moment she showed me some faceted black spinels, I knew this was the black gem I was looking for,” Osborne says.
That’s high praise from Osborne, a black gem aficionado who uses dark gems frequently in her designs. “I have a deep fondness for black gems and I am always on the lookout for new ones,” she continues. “Among my favorites are black labradorite and black tourmaline. But I am making widest use of black spinel at the moment.”
With enthusiastic customers like Osborne, it is hardly surprising that black spinel is Shah’s number one seller this season. Whether it will continue to be her top-seeded stone remains to be seen. But the fact that Osborne plans to stay with the gem whether or not the fashion dress code remains black and white suggests this gem has enough staying power to soon earn staple status.
And fashion is only one of the factors working on its behalf.
When one thinks of black gems, two choices usually come to mind: black onyx and black diamond. Of the two, black onyx is by far the most popular and affordable. Over the last decade, however, black diamond has carved a deep niche that it has never had before, especially in irradiated jet-black form.
Nevertheless, if supply is great enough (and Sri Lanka, Tasmania, and Burma are current producers), black spinel could leap-frog over both of them to assume new leadership in this color category. The main reason: It is a best of both worlds choice that guarantees it future importance to jewelers.
In smaller sizes, black spinel offers the luster of diamond for a price just slightly to the north of onyx. Shah micro-facets her beads and smaller calibrated stones to emphasize their diamond-like appearance.
In larger sizes, the similarity to diamond is not so strong. But stones still have “high facet definition and sharpness they never have with onyx,” says Osborne.
The end result is the best bargain in blackness the gem world has ever known. And, unlike onyx and diamond, black spinel is not treated. “The color is a gift from nature,” says Shah. So is its ability to shine like diamond.
One of black spinel’s biggest beauty secrets is its hardness-eight on the Mohs scale, enough to give it “superior luster when polished,” says Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Washington. “Because black onyx is less dense and hard, it can’t take as good a polish. Black spinel gives you an absolutely smooth black surface.”
These virtues encourage dealers like Braunwart and Shah to facet stones with everything from conventional to checkerboard arrangements. Yet most stones cost under $5 per carat, often under $2 per carat in small sizes.
True, black onyx is readily available for $2 to $5 per stone, depending on size, but Braunwart is convinced many jewelers will resist the temptation to be onyx-wise and spinel-foolish. “The large difference in quality should outweigh the small difference in price,” he says.
If Braunwart and Shah are right about black spinel’s future, this variety of spinel could do wonders for the breed as a whole.