Restoring the Luster to a Once-Loved Gem

New York Times, May 12, 2011

BANGKOK — 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.”