This is the second post of our two part tourmaline series. If you missed the first post, here it is!
Tourmalines come in a wide variety of exciting colors. In fact, tourmaline has one of the widest color ranges of any gem species, occurring in various shades of virtually every hue.
Elizabeth Gage carved tourmaline, diamond and cultured pearl brooch.
All gems in the tourmaline family are mixed crystals of aluminum boron silicate that also contain elements such as iron, manganese, sodium, lithium or potassium. Tourmaline was first discovered in Brazil in 1554 by Francisco Spinoza. He recorded that he had found the first “Brazilian emerald.” While Brazil has lots of emeralds, he really found the first recorded green tourmaline crystal.
Tourmaline’s crystals were often confused with emerald and it was not until the 19th century that the gem was classified as tourmaline. Brightly colored Sri Lankan gem tourmalines were brought to Europe in great quantities by the Dutch East India Company to satisfy a demand for curiosities and gems.
Many tourmaline color varieties have inspired their own trade names:
- Rubellite is a name for pink, red, purplish red, orangy red, or brownish red tourmaline, although some in the trade argue that the term shouldn’t apply to pink tourmaline.
- Indicolite is dark violetish blue, blue, or greenish blue tourmaline.
- Paraíba is an intense violetish blue, greenish blue, or blue tourmaline from the state of Paraíba, Brazil.
- Chrome tourmaline is intense green. In spite of its name, it’s colored mostly by vanadium, the same element that colors many Brazilian and African emeralds.
- Parti-colored tourmaline displays more than one color. One of the most common combinations is green and pink, but many others are possible.
- Watermelon tourmaline is pink in the center and green around the outside. Crystals of this material are typically cut in slices to display this special arrangement.
Selma Hayek wearing Martin Katz’s paraíba tourmaline and diamond earrings.
Some tourmalines also show a cat’s-eye effect called chatoyancy. Cat’s eye tourmalines are most often green, blue, or pink, with an eye that’s softer and more diffused than the eye in fine cat’s eye chrysoberyl. This is because, in tourmaline, the effect is caused by numerous thin, tube-like inclusions that form naturally during the gem’s growth. The inclusions are larger than the inclusions in cat’s eye chrysoberyl, so the chatoyancy isn’t as sharp. Like other cat’s eyes, these stones have to be cut as cabochons to bring out the effect.
Cat’s Eye Tourmaline, photo courtesy of GIA.
Gemologists use a tourmaline’s properties and chemical composition to define its species. The major tourmaline species are elbaite, liddicoatite, dravite, uvite, and schorl.
Most gem tourmalines are elbaites, which are rich in sodium, lithium, aluminum, and sometimes—but very rarely—copper. Because of the nature of pegmatites, different gem pockets within one pegmatite body can hold tourmaline crystals of very different colors. Or one pocket can produce a variety of differently colored tourmalines. As a result, many mines produce a variety of gem colors. Another feature of gem pegmatites is the scattered distribution of pockets within them. For miners, working a pegmatite consists mostly of excavating barren rock until the work results in the occasional and sudden reward of a rich pocket full of spectacular gem crystals.
Elbaites offer the widest range of gem-quality tourmaline colors. They can be green, blue, or yellow, pink to red, colorless, or zoned with a combination of colors.
Some of the most important gem tourmalines are mixtures of dravite and uvite. They’re often brown, yellowish brown, reddish brown, or nearly black in color, but sometimes they contain traces of vanadium, chromium, or both. When present in the right concentrations, these impurities produce rich green hues that rival those of tsavorite garnet and, occasionally, even emerald. Dealers sell these gems as chrome tourmaline, even though they’re not always colored by chromium.
Varity of colors of tourmaline, photo courtesy of GIA.
The bright yellow gems some dealers call “savannah” tourmalines are also mixtures of dravite and uvite. Their coloring element is iron.
Schorl is typically black, and rich in iron. It forms in a wide variety of rock types. It’s rarely used as a gem, although it has been featured in mourning jewelry.
Taffin’s silver and 18k rose gold, multi-colored tourmaline necklace.
The confusion about the stone’s identity is even reflected in its name, which comes from toramalli, which means “mixed gems” in Sinhalese (a language of Sri Lanka). It’s a term Dutch merchants applied to the multicolored, water-worn pebbles that miners found in the gem gravels of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It’s easy to understand why people so easily confuse tourmaline with other gems: Very few gems match tourmaline’s dazzling range of colors. From rich reds to pastel pinks and peach colors, intense emerald greens to vivid yellows and deep blues, the breadth of this gem’s color range is unrivaled. Brazilian discoveries in the 1980s and 1990s heightened tourmaline’s appeal by bringing intense new hues to the marketplace.
Hemmerle’s tourmaline, sapphire, oxidized silver and white gold earrings.
One of the earliest reports of tourmaline in California was in 1892. In the late 1800s, tourmaline became known as an American gem through the efforts of Tiffany gemologist George F. Kunz. He wrote about the tourmaline deposits of Maine and California, and praised the stones they produced.In spite of its American roots, tourmaline’s biggest market at the time was in China. Much of the pink and red tourmaline from San Diego County in California was shipped to China because the Chinese Dowager Empress Tz’u Hsi was especially fond of the color. There, craftsmen carved the tourmaline into snuff bottles and other pieces to be set in jewelry. The miners became so dependent on Chinese trade that when the Chinese government collapsed in 1912, the US tourmaline trade also collapsed. China still has a strong demand for pink tourmaline.
Empress Dowager Tz’u Hsi with what appears to be a large pink tourmaline, along with a number of pearls, adorning her headdress. Image: Chinese School/Bridgeman Art Library/Getty
As China’s consumption of luxury goods has slowed down, the tastes of its wealthy consumers have become very focused. The customer is looking for the next big affordable ‘thing,’ a gemstone that is not a ruby or colored diamond but is still used by high end designers. These conditions have perfectly positioned pink tourmaline to satisfy the demand once reserved for pricier colored gemstones.
Tiffany & Co. 18k white gold 32.05 carat rubellite and diamond bracelet.
The first gemstone I ever bought was a rubellite tourmaline. I love all of the various colors.
What about you?