By logic, pink spinel should have a much wider following among jewelers. It is often mistaken for pink sapphire (just as red spinel is for ruby), but costs far less. The confusion with sapphire is compounded by the fact that it comes from the same two major gem sources, Burma and Sri Lanka. Indeed, it is usually found in the same gem gravel as sapphire.
Yet ask a jeweler to look at pink spinel and he will probably look at you like you were a weirdo. So much for logic. Many jewelers are used to thinking of spinel as cheap jack-of-all-trades birthstone simulation. Long a stalwart among mass-produced synthetics, spinel has been used for years as, among other things, a diamond, aqua and peridot stand-in. Thus when a dealer oohs and ahs over some intense pink 1-carat natural spinel and asks as much as a $500 per-carat for it, the jeweler who thinks of spinel as a pennies-per-carat manmade is quite understandably nonplussed and even angry.
“Retailers have, for the most part, only seen synthetic spinel,” says well-known lapidary Reggie Miller, Reginald C. Miller Inc., New York. “It is hard for many to believe stones they are being shown could be the natural variety. And even when they do, it is hard to believe the price.”
Actually, prices for pink spinel today aren’t all that high compared to three years ago when a small group of investment gem promoters briefly made the market in 1/2 carat red and reddish-pink spinels. “It was the only red stone left when prices for ruby went so high,” says Josh Hall of Pala International, Fallbrook, Calif. Prices which in the early 1970s had rarely topped $100 per carat for the best red stones shot as high as $1,200 per carat. Even the best pinks hit $500-$600 per carat. Then when ruby prices plummeted, the bubble also burst for spinel. Although prices are generally around 20%-30% lower today, that’s still considered too expensive by most jewelers. However, some dealers versed in pink spinel claim the stone is really undervalued.
The Rarity Factor
Spinel in general and pink spinel in particular are relatively rare stones. Jewelers, theorize dealers like Roland Naftule, Nafco Gems Inc., Phoenix, Az., may simply assume natural spinels share a commoness with the natural variety. But the abundance of synthetic spinels should not be taken as an indicator of any natural abundance. To the contrary, fine pink spinels, from a rarity standpoint, are in a class with pink topaz—which makes them far scarcer than fine pink sapphires or pink tourmalines. Enter pink spinel’s two other reasons for not finding acceptance.
When it comes to natural pink stones, pink sapphire and pink tourmaline present hard-to-beat competition. There are several reasons for this.
Lately, the trend in mass-volume gemstone use is toward cheaper stones. With pink becoming a staple jewelry color, manufacturers are experimenting more than ever with pink tourmaline. It’s plentiful and affordable. Very fine calibrated stones in sizes around 1-carat cost $75-$125 per carat when bought singly. Kindred size and quality pink spinels cost roughly three times more. But while these prices are far less than those of comparable pink sapphire (medium-intensity 1-carat pure pinks start around $800 per carat), manufacturers who cater to upper echelon jewelry buyers will skip over spinel in favor of sapphire.
All of this leaves pink spinel stranded in the middle. It’s too expensive for low-priced jewelry and too unknown for high-priced goods.
What’s more, there isn’t enough pink spinel to change the situation dramatically. As we said before, pink spinel doesn’t occur with anything remotely resembling the quantity of pink tourmaline and pink sapphire. Given this supply problem, the stone doesn’t lend itself to mass-volume usage. That’s a big stumbling block to wide acceptance. Yet all in all, scarcity, price and obscurity gang up on spinel.
Yet having said this, we still feel the stone deserves, and can support, more attention than it’s getting.
The Burma Mystique
Like ruby and peridot, pink spinel is a gem that is generally associated with Burma in its most desirable form—and thus shares the mystique of Burma origin. This mystique of place transfers onto many Burmese gems an extra aura that often translates into an extra money in the marketplace. No doubt, Burma origin played some part in catapulting red spinel to such prominence among investors and collectors in recent years.
Some of that mystique seems to be rubbing off on pink spinel also—although many dealers resist the temptation to play up Burma origin. In any case,
the best pink spinels are said to exhibit a hot pink color—typical of Burma—that makes them worth as much as $400 per carat in 1-carat sizes and $500 per carat in 3-carat sizes, according to Abe Suleman, Tuckman International, Seattle. As stones become less saturate in color or more violet and gray, prices drop. It is assumed that most spinels with deep to day-glow pinks come from Burma. Sri Lanka, by far the biggest source of pink spinel, is said to produce pastel colors, meaning that they are more subdued in color and lighter toned. (As compensation, however, Sri Lanka stones tend to be less included.) Is it any wonder that some dealers tell us they don’t stock Sri Lankan spinels?
Gemologists contest such claims.
“What dealers probably mean when they say they don’t stock Ceylonese pink spinel is that they don’t stock namby-pamby pale stones,” says eminent gemologist Robert Crowningshield of the Gemological Institute of America, Santa Monica, Calif. “The trade may be simply calling fine colors Burmese. But to us in the lab, fine color in spinel doesn’t mean any particular place. Origin is not the issue with spinel that it is with ruby or sapphire.”
Pete Flusser, Overland Gems, Los Angeles, who owns the 3.5-carat stone shown on the opposite page, says pretty much the same thing when asked to describe its origin. “Let’s just say it’s Burma color,” he insists. But whether referring to color or place, the association with Burma still carries a special connotation that gives pink spinel a place alongside equally rare, but currently more coveted pink topaz.
“Because of interest in red spinel, pink spinel has found enough of a footing in recent years to go beyond being a collector’s stone,” Suleman says. “It has earned a place in jewelry stores.”
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 3.5-carat pink spinel shown in the header image is courtesy of Overland Gems, Los Angeles.