Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

In the Black

Black spinel has risen in popularity over the past several years due to its attractive price point and bright sparkle.

By Brian Bossetta
Black spinel and diamond pendant from Syna.
Though one of earth’s toughest stones, spinel has been known to soften hearts and encourage passion. And while the gem ranges over a rainbow of colors, it is black spinel — believed to heal broken relationships and ease sadness — that is rising in popularity.
   Closely resembling the black diamond, yet selling at a fraction of the cost — $10 per carat compared to $100 per carat for its black diamond equivalent — black spinel is being used as a substitute for black diamonds in jewelry. That is the driving factor behind its current emergence, according to Todd Wolleman, president of Leo Wolleman Inc. in New York City, the oldest operating colored stone house in the U.S. The stones have been appearing most frequently in necklaces, Wolleman notes, but also in rings, earrings and bracelets.

Like a Diamond
   Black spinel, though less hard than the diamond’s scale-topping 10, measures 8 on the Mohs Hardness Scale. There is also little cleavage in spinel, which makes chipping or scratching the stone less likely. Forming as cubic crystals in the earth, only spinel, garnet and the diamond are singly refractive, which refers to the similar way they bend light entering the gemstone. Most gemstones are doubly refractive, separating a beam of light entering the stone into two.
   And, like a diamond, when fashioned into jewelry, spinel is faceted or cut. “Faceting spinel, as with a diamond, unleashes the gem’s brilliance,” Wolleman says. The majority of the world’s spinel — which is rarer than onyx, belongs to its own species and is not part of a larger gem family — is mined in Africa and Thailand, as well as Myanmar, formerly Burma, and Sri Lanka.
   When cut and polished, the opaque black spinel looks identical to black diamonds, according to Amar Jyoti Jain, president of Fine Gems Inc., a supplier of precious and semiprecious gemstones in New York City. “You can’t tell the difference.” And black spinel cuts, Jain explains, are similar to diamond cuts, with rounds and ovals being popular spinel shapes. “Up until about ten years ago, nobody really knew about black spinel,” Jain says. “The black diamond was popular, but black spinel has been catching on for those who can’t afford diamonds.”

An Alternative to Spinel
   A gem that is similar in appearance and color to black spinel is black onyx, which is cabochon-shaped, or shaped and polished, as are most stones that measure 7 or less on the Mohs scale. Onyx, though aesthetically comparable to spinel, is the softer stone, with a Mohs hardness of 6.5. Black spinel is also a more stable stone than black onyx because black spinel is untreated and its deep black hue is the color that nature, not man, gave it. While many gems are treated, there is no artificial method for enhancing the natural color of black spinel. On the other hand, black onyx — which is mined primarily in South America, but can also be found throughout other parts of the world, including the U.S., India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Madagascar — is an agate that has been dyed black.
   Black onyx, like black spinel, is experiencing a bit of resurgence of its own, according to Joseph Gil, owner of Akiva Gil Company, an importer and cutter of colored gemstones in New York City. “Black onyx was very popular in the 1970s,” Gil says. “It’s never really lost its popularity but there seems to be a little bit more demand for it now.”
   Roland Naftule, vice president of the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO), says black onyx was also fashionable during the 1950s, especially in school rings and beads. In style at the turn of the twentieth century as well, black onyx was worn during periods of mourning, Wolleman said, and is also prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian jewelry.
   Another difference between black onyx and black spinel, Gil points out, is that black onyx is often used in men’s jewelry, particularly in cufflinks, and was frequently used in Art Deco jewelry in the 1920s. “It still makes for a beautiful piece of jewelry that is not too expensive,” he says. Unlike diamonds and spinel, which are priced per carat, onyx, Gil says, is priced per piece and usually costs around $10 for a single stone.
   Lapidary artist Larry Woods, of Jewels from the Woods, a direct wholesale gem importer and gem cutter in Blanco, Texas, says most of his work with black onyx is in carvings. “In mainstream jewelry, black onyx is mostly used in men’s signet rings and for inlay work as accents with or around diamonds,” Woods says, “primarily in rings.”
   Celebrities wearing black spinel is another likely reason for the rise in the gem’s popularity, according to Naftule, who says that he has seen many trends come and go during his lifelong career in the colored stone industry. “Maybe if black spinel becomes really popular and fashionable with movie stars, it won’t be an affordable diamond substitute any more,” Naftule says. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2014. To subscribe click here.

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