Because spinel is so vibrantly red, many were believed to be rubies, so true spinel has an unfortunately brief history and is still often considered a substitute for ruby. Many of the world's historically famous "rubies" are actually ruby red spinels, including the 170-carat Black Prince's Ruby, currently set in the Imperial Crown of England and the Timur Ruby, now adorning Queen Elizabeth's crown and weighing more than 350 carats.

The name "spinel" is believed to come from spina, the Latin word for thorn, likely chosen because of spinel's angular, thorn-shaped crystals. Some believe that the name comes from the Greek word meaning spark, possibly because spinel is usually red.