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The Chameleon of Gemstones

Lyle Sopel -

Dear Collector Friend,

 

Tourmaline, one of October’s birthstones is curiously colourful and has earned a devoted following in the gemological world. Combining a bit of a mysterious backstory, with some mesmerizing colours, this gemstone species also has some rather quirky properties. Whether you have a penchant for avocado greens, flaming reds, or deep azures, the colour scope of tourmalines can keep even the most elite collectors, lavish jewellery designers, and eager gemologist connoisseurs satisfied.

 

The Origin of Tourmaline

Tourmaline is the name given to a group of closely related minerals. These semi-precious stones have the same crystal structure, but vary in terms of their chemical composition and physical properties. It’s their complex structures — mixed crystals of aluminium boron silicate formed with elements such as iron, manganese, sodium, lithium, or potassium — each mined from different environments, and subjected to different conditions, that gives rise to tourmalines in such a dizzying range of colours. Coming in a whole host of varieties, here are some of the common mineral species known below with their associated colours:

  • Schorl: Brownish black to black
  • Dravite: from the Drave district of Carinthia: Dark yellow to brownish black Elbaite: named after the island of Elba, Italy
  • Rubellite: Red or pinkish-red
  • Indicolite: Light blue to bluish green—Brazilian indicolite variety (from indigo) Verdelite: Green—verdelite or Brazilian emerald variety

 

It’s a relatively durable gemstone with a hardness close to 7.5 Moh; that, coupled with its eye- catching colour properties, make it a favourite choice for jewellery designers and sculptors. Today, tourmaline is mined in Brazil, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Mozambique, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S.(mainly Maine and California). Its name Tourmaline comes from “toramalli” in Sinhalese (a language spoken in Sri Lanka). The word means “mixed gem” — an apt name considering tourmaline’s colour offering. The term was used by Dutch merchants mining in Sri Lanka to describe the multicoloured deposits they recovered from gem gravels.

 

The Kaleidoscopic Characteristics of Tourmaline

Tourmaline’s colour is one of its prized properties. In its purist form, its actually colourless. But the kaleidoscopic, distinctive colours so characteristic of this gemstone are courtesy of other trace elements absorbed (as mentioned above).

“From rich reds to pastel pinks and peach colours, intense emerald greens to vivid yellows and deep blues,” tourmaline’s astonishing array of colours eclipses that of other gemstones. Its vast spectrum of colours has also led to a long history of mistaken identity; tourmalines have often been confused with other gems, especially rubies, sapphires and emeralds — probably for centuries.

Two of the most striking tourmalines are known as the Watermelon and Paraiba.

The Paraiba tourmaline is an exceptional, exquisite gemstone and incredibly rare. First found in the 1980s in the Paraiba area of Brazil, this magnificent gemstone has quickly gathered admirers from around the world — from celebrities such as Emily Blunt and Salma Hayek adorning these jewels for their red-carpet outfits, to collectors, to gemologists — all mesmerized by its electrifying hues. Paraibas are characteristically vivid — most commonly in neon blue hues, but they can be in a range of greenish blue, bluish green, green, blue, and violet hues. It’s the high copper content in these stones that creates these electric colours.

True Paraiba gemstones are found only in three mines in North-east Brazil; its limited supply of course drives up the cost. But the term Paraiba has become somewhat more inclusive after other virtually identical stones surfaced in Mozambique and Nigeria. It’s still hotly debated by industry experts whether these gemstones can be classified as Paraibas.

 

Most concede it’s hard to tell the difference, but it seems there are subtle colour differences between the two, due to the quantity of copper in each. As Vivien Yakopin, end high jewellery expert of Les Facettes says, “the Mozambique tourmaline has less copper and is a touch lighter. Brazilian Paraibas are colours of blue to turquoise, while the Mozambique tourmalines have the widest ranges of colour.” The main differentiator though is the price. There’s still a plentiful supply in Africa of these stones, which means prices remain reasonable. Paraibas are much harder to come by in Brazil, which only adds to their allure. To put it into context, whereas diamonds sell for about $6,000 per carat, Paraiba tourmalines sell for about $16,000.

Watermelon tourmalines are striking in their own respect bearing the unmistakable resemblance of its namesake fruit. These tourmalines display three different colours in the same crystal — green (the skin of the watermelon), pink (the fruit) and white (the rind). Thee spectacular colours are formed over the course of its crystal formation by exposure to different minerals such as manganese and lithium.

 

The Pleochroism of Tourmaline

While their extensive colour variety is an obvious draw, there is more to their appearance than immediately meets the eye. Many tourmalines are pleochroism: “an optical phenomenon whereby gems show two or three colours when viewed from different angles” — usually light and dark shades of the same colour.

But beyond their visual beauty, these gemstones can also be handy in a more practical sense. They’re pyroelectric — meaning they can pick up small particles when rubbed or heated. Esteemed Roman philosopher Pliny refers to reddish-purple stones in this accounts “which when heated in the sun or rubbed between the fingers are said to attract straws and papyrus fibres.” Tourmaline stones spring to mind — and armed with this useful attribute, these gemstones are commonly used in devices to detect pressure variation (Source: A History of Jewels by J Anderson Black).

 

The History

The tourmaline’s background is not as set in stone as its contemporaries; its wide colour offering likely leading to misidentification time and time again.

It’s thought the first tourmaline was initially mistaken for an emerald, first discovered by Spanish conqueror, Francisco Spinoza in 1554. At the time, it was named the “Brazilian emerald” and confused with its green counterpart for many centuries. But with the advance of mineral knowledge, experts now believe it to be the first green tourmaline crystal.

Being a relatively late bloomer to the gemological market, tourmalines finally started to establish their own identity in the late 1800s. It was Tiffany gemologist George F. Kunz who put tourmalines firmly on the map; publicly gushing about newly discovered tourmaline deposits in America. The vast supply in Maine and California started to gain worldwide attention and production boomed, fuelled by the insatiable appetite of the Chinese. These newly discovered gems had caught Empress Dowager Cixi’s eye, particularly the rubellite kind (pink/red tourmalines); the Chinese market became flooded with tourmalines in engravings, ornamental figures, snuff bottles and jewellery.

 

The ‘Ethereal Carolina Divine Paraiba’

Today, tourmalines continue to be in demand in the market — but it’s namely the Paraiba and rubellite varieties that pique the most interest. The highly coveted Paraiba tourmaline is regularly in the limelight — the rarity of this stone, coupled with its neon electric blue hues, tend to cause real stir in the industry.

At a staggering 191.87ct (measuring 36.44 x 33.75 x 21.85mm), the ‘Ethereal Carolina Divine Paraiba’ is the world’s largest cut Paraiba tourmaline. Entering the Guinness world record books in 2009, this jewel was three times the size of the previous record holder. It again caused a stir in 2013 as Canadian jewellers Kaufmann de Suisse announced it had been commissioned by billionaire owner, Vincent Boucher, to create a handmade masterpiece to showcase this stunning rarity. The end result was a one-of- kind necklace inspired by the ocean known as the ‘Paraiba Star of the Ocean Jewels.’ The brilliant cut oval shaped stone was set into the necklace alongside “lavishly gem-set octopus, turtles, crabs, starfish, stingrays and seahorses. The additional gemstones alone total 1,706, including a 10.73ct brilliant canary yellow diamond, but despite the profusion of pink, blue, yellow and orange sapphires, emerald, ruby, blue topaz, amethyst, tsavorite, rubellite garnet and diamonds, the eye is inevitably drawn to the electric 191.87ct Paraiba tourmaline, which eclipses them all.”

Paraiba tourmalines also popped up at this year’s AGTA Spectrum Awards – the finest jewellery and gemstone competition worldwide. New York-based gem house, Nomad’s set of neon electric blue tourmalines totalling 53.56 cts, were named ‘Best of Show.

Recent buzz has surrounded an extraordinarily shaped tourmaline discovered in the Pederneira Mine in 2011 – “a slender blade of pink tourmaline, pierced the top of a pink-and-blue tourmaline to create a natural wonder.” Named ‘The Great Divide’ it’s reportedly being offered for sale for $1.2 million by the Astro Gallery of Gems in New York.

Audacious, show-stopping and resplendent. While some tourmalines such as rubellite and Paraiba are undeniably at the top end of the market, tourmaline’s wealth of options make it a gemstone delectable to all. Undoubtedly beauty will shine through all…after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Tilmorrow,
Art, Nature, and Beauty Always,

LYLE

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