The state of Hawaii is composed of many islands, seven of which are inhabited. I have to admit that, until I got to visit the state this past January, I would not have been able to name those islands–O’ahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai, Lanai, Molokoi, and Ni’ihau. Most people know about O’ahu. How many have heard of Ni’ihau? With a population of about 160, it is a well kept secret and deserving of the name, the Forbidden Island.
Ni’ihau has been a privately owned island since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair bought it from King Kamehameha IV for $10,000 in gold. Her great-great grandsons, Bruce and David Robinson, own the 70 square mile island now, and they have kept the island isolated and pristine. The families that live on the island today are descendants of the original families that lived there in the 1800s. The people have their own dialect of the Hawaiian language. They live a lot like their forebears. This is one place where not much has changed.
The people of Ni’ihau are well known for the beautiful shell leis they create. Families have unique patterns that they use in their jewelry. Artists use the tiny shells that wash up on the beach, including the highly sought after Kahelelani shell. The sale of these leis, bracelets, and earrings is a major source of income for the Ni’ihau people. Prices are determined by the rarity and quality of the shells as well as the skill of the artisan. When I was on Maui, I bought a beautiful bracelet that came with its own certificate of authenticity. I was told that, in the past, there were “copy-cats” who undersold the true artists. So the certificate is important. Be wary of shell jewelry that seems poorly made or is extremely inexpensive.
My shell bracelet from Ni’ihau.
If you are planning to go to Hawaii, I would encourage you to learn about the history of Hawaii. It’s loaded with interesting characters like Captain Cook (not Hook), Queen Emma (wife of King Kamehameha IV), and even Elizabeth Sinclair (an amazing pioneer from Scotland, who ended up owning an island!) I loved learning about all the King Kamehamehas (there were five of them) and their wives. Two royal women, Queen Kapiolani and Princess Lili’uokalani, can be credited with popularizing shell jewelry. They traveled to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, where they wore their long leis and made quite the splash!
Formal photos of Hawaiian queens, wearing leis. Photos courtesy of the Hawaiian Historical Society
I have some very good news for all of you born in August. Just recently, the American Gem Trade Association and Jewelers of America announced that SPINEL has been added to the birthstone list as an alternative to peridot. Not everyone is a fan of peridot’s yellowish-green color, and the gem stone has a narrow range of hue. Spinel, on the other hand, comes in almost every color of the rainbow! The most prized color is red. Pink and blue are two other popular hues. So, because spinel is a relatively unknown gemstone and because changes to the birthstone list don’t happen often, it seemed important to write about it.
Many people have never heard of spinel. It was recognized as a separate mineral about 200 years ago, but, until then, red spinel was often mistaken for ruby. Some famous gems, like the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is set in England’s Imperial State Crown, are actually red spinel. Those who have heard of it often associate it with something “cheap” or “common.” Synthetic (aka man-made) spinel has been used for years to make the stones for high school class rings because it’s inexpensive to produce in lots of different colors that mimic birthstones like emerald, ruby, and sapphire. Synthetic spinel is also used as the top, bottom, or both of a “triplet” that substitutes for a natural gemstone.
Natural spinel is a beautiful mineral made of magnesium, aluminum, and oxygen. It’s colorless unless a trace element such as chromium, iron, or cobalt makes its way into the recipe. Chromium leads to a pink or red spinel. Iron and cobalt lead to violet and blue spinels. A combination of trace elements produces orange or purple spinels. These colors need no enhancement, so spinel is rarely heat-treated or irradiated. It’s a fairly hard gemstone, scoring 8 on the Mohs Scale, and it forms in the cubic crystal system. These qualities mean that spinel is hard enough to take a good polish and easy enough to cut and facet. And the gem is usually eye-clean when it comes to inclusions.
Spinel is traditionally associated with Asia–especially Myanmar, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. More recently deposits have been found in Tanzania and Madagascar. Large crystals are quite rare, so the value goes up exponentially, not only for great color but also for size. While not as expensive as fine ruby or pink sapphire, natural spinel is not an inexpensive gem. Red spinel would cost approximately 30% of the cost of a similarly sized ruby. And pink spinel would be about 85% of the cost of a same size pink sapphire. It’s not easy to find spinel in a jewelry store. Maybe that will change now that it’s a birthstone, but, up until now, it’s been more of a collector’s stone.
So, take heart all of you who longed for another birthstone! It’s spinel to the rescue!! Ask your jewelry store for a peek at its spinel. Here’s a peek at ours.
1.28 carat pink spinel