RESTORING THE LUSTER TO A ONCE-LOVED GEM
Twenty years ago, during a break from studying geology at the University of Odessa, Vladyslav Y. Yavorskyy hitchhiked across Ukraine to a mine in the Pamir Mountains of current Tajikistan.
Known as Badakhshan, the region, located along the old Silk Road, once produced some of the most illustrious gemstones in history — rubies, emeralds, aquamarines and lapis lazuli.
After two weeks of examining the mine’s geology, Mr. Yavorskyy returned home with about 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds, of raw spinel, a stone beloved by connoisseurs but largely unknown to the general public.
“They were like white marble rocks — not gem quality, nothing precious, but an incredible geological sample,” said Mr. Yavorskyy, who began dealing gems in 1987 when he arrived at college. “I was hooked.”
After finishing his studies in 1992, Mr. Yavorskyy spent several years visiting the old Soviet gem mines of Russia and Siberia, making a living as an independent dealer. In 1999, he moved to Bangkok and opened a gem-cutting business, which he still operates today. Despite spinel’s low profile, he was drawn to it, as opposed to more commercial stones like ruby, sapphire and emerald.
Quirky and rare, spinel appealed to Mr. Yavorskyy for its translucence, brilliance and kaleidoscopic range of colors. Excluding green and yellow, it comes in almost every shade imaginable, including metallic gray, hot pink and an exceptionally rare cobalt blue, although it is most often associated with a bright red hue, much like ruby.
That may explain why, for centuries, the two were considered doppelgängers — in antiquity, spinel was known as balas ruby, derived from the word Badakhshan. The stone appears in the world’s greatest gem collections, often a victim of mistaken identity.
The 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby, a centerpiece of the British Crown Jewels, is, in fact, a red spinel octahedron, most likely from the mines of Badakhshan. So is the 352.5-carat Timur Ruby in the British royal collection.
Over the centuries, spinel lost its cachet. Why it started to fall from favor remains unclear, but the real killer came in 1847, when the French chemist Jacques-Joseph Ebelmen first synthesized spinel, paving the way for it to be used in signet rings as a cheap substitute for ruby and aquamarine.
Intent on restoring the gem’s dulled luster, Mr. Yavorskyy initially found the spinel trade tough going. “I bought a huge parcel but it was impossible to sell,” he said. For all the money tied up in the investment, there was “almost nothing coming back.”
Then, in August 2007, Mr. Yavorskyy’s tenacity was rewarded by a dramatic reversal of fortune. The discovery of a deposit of jumbo-size pinkish red spinel crystals in the district of Mahenge in Tanzania started a rush for the gem and inspired a flurry of striking new designs that highlighted its transparency and versatility.
“Spinel is a very rare stone, very beautiful, and it’s now starting to get its due,” said Richard W. Hughes, a gem expert in Hong Kong and co-author of “Terra Spinel,” a coffee table book published in February. Full of photographs taken by Mr. Yavorskyy, the book documents the dealer’s 20 years of travels to spinel mines in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Tajikistan, Vietnam and Tanzania.
Mr. Hughes said spinel’s rediscovered allure had drastically changed its price. “I had never heard of people paying more than $3,000 per carat for it, but when Mahenge came out, they started asking $10,000 per carat and I even saw someone asking $18,000 per carat,” he said.
Beyond its value, spinel has much going for it. It is a hard stone — registering 8 on the 10-point Mohs scale of hardness, just below ruby and sapphire — making it suitable for setting in a ring. It is also bright. “It’s gorgeous, and it’s got a high refractive index, so it has a lot of brilliance,” said Shane McClure, director of identification services at the Gemological Institute of America Laboratory in California. “It makes a very good gemstone. It’s got a lot of things that ruby has going for it.”
Two things that distinguish spinel from ruby make it especially desirable to buyers: For the most part, the stone does not require, or accept, treatment, unlike the enormous volume of heat-treated rubies on the market, and the U.S. government’s ban on importing Myanmarese jadeite and rubies does not apply to spinel, lending the red variety a clear advantage in the U.S. market.
Still, consumers’ knowledge of spinel remains scant. “What you hear a lot is: ‘Spinel is my favorite gemstone but my customers don’t understand it,”’ said Jonas Hjornered, an associate of Mr. Yavorskyy’s in Bangkok.
At the high end, however, spinel has many devotees. James de Givenchy, a New York designer, fell in love with the gem before the Tanzanian strike brought it to the fore. In his five-year-old collection for Sotheby’s Diamonds, he has incorporated spinels — cut to look “like red mirrors” — to attract a new, more daring customer. “They’re so much brighter than pavé rubies,” he said.
Other jewelers have also caught spinel fever. Adeleh Petochi, co-founder of Eclat, a manufacturer based in New York, began using spinel in 2005, when she was able to buy huge lots of the gem.
“People like us — we’re stone people — are very attracted to spinels, but we can’t buy that kind of merchandise anymore because prices have gone up so tremendously,” Ms. Petochi said.
More recently, spinel has earned a following among some unexpected players in the jewelry business. The pearl jeweler Mikimoto, for example, has historically used diamonds and sapphires to accent its cultured pearls, but this year, the company chose a few neon-bright spinels for a collection introduced at the Baselworld jewelry fair in March.
At Harry Winston, where diamonds have always been king, spinel featured prominently in the house’s November 2010 Court of Jewels collection, including a vivid 84-carat blue spinel that had members of the gem trade buzzing.
The furor over the stone does not surprise Evan Yurman, son of the jeweler David Yurman and an accomplished designer in his own right. A passionate collector of spinel, he uses lavender and pink stones in couture pieces that he describes as “evening jewelry.”
“Spinel has this mystical quality of being alive at night,” Mr. Yurman said. “It feels like an antique gem; it speaks of the world that’s come before it.”