Just as East Africa is the brave new world of gem mining today, America was her counterpart a century ago.
Certainly, the discovery of tourmaline in southern California in 1898 touched off as much excitement in the international jewelry market as did the discovery of tanzanite and tsavorite in the 1960s. Ironically, Tiffany, which played a major role in elevating the two East African unknowns to front-rank gems, played an equally important role in the success of California tourmaline. Tiffany then, as later, was among the world’s most adventuresome jewelry stores, always alert to new beautiful gem discoveries for which it could negotiate exclusive or near-exclusive distribution rights.
How it did so with California tourmaline would make an interesting movie, one filled with as much action and intrigue as any about the state’s far more famous gold rush.
So let’s return briefly to those days of yesteryear when gemologists (Tiffany anyway) were expected to act like Indiana Joneses in the line of duty.
A San Diego Saga
It is a tribute to the beauty of California tourmaline that around 1902 Tiffany went through so much to get it. At that time, and for a long time after, California was to tourmaline what De Beers is to diamonds. Between 1898 and 1914 especially, California’s San Diego County was unrivaled for production of this gem (although stones were reported from, among other places, Brazil, Burma and Ceylon). Indeed, close to 100 tons of gem and ornamental tourmaline came from one mine, known as the Himalaya in Mesa Grande, an amount estimated to comprise at least 80% of the area’s entire output in the pre-war period.
Tiffany controlled the lion’s share of this tourmaline. And it gained control in a most ungentlemanly manner. One of its employees, gemologist J.L. Tannenbaum, jumped the previous mine owner’s claim. Or so a 1904 Court judgment against Tannenbaum suggests.
From the first time he laid eyes on the new California tourmaliness in 1898, Tannenbaum seems to have been a man possessed. By 1902, when he could not find the exact whereabouts of the new deposit, he decided to go to San Diego himself. As Indiana Jones might have done, Tannenbaum concealed the objective of his travels, pretending instead to be a consumptive looking to buy a mountain cabin for his health. And, he might have added, for his wealth. Not surprisingly, he found an ideal rest site near the Himalaya tourmaline mine.
In no time at all, the “tubercular” began to work the Himalaya mine, provoking a lawsuit from its owner, Gail Lewis (whom Tannenbaum maintained had improperly filed his mine claim). Eventually, Tannenbaum had to pay Lewis $40,000 to make him relinquish title to the mine. However, this legal setback turned out to be a down payment on a gravy train. According to various accounts, the 1902-1910 production from the entire Mesa Grande district was worth somewhere between $750,000 and $800,000. Since more than 80% of this material came from the Himalaya mine, it is safe to say Tannenbaum and his backers (presumably Tiffany) profited handsomely from the deal.
The Sino/San Diego Connection
California tourmaline had friends in high and far places. The most important of them was Empress Tzu Hsi of China. Her love of carved tourmalines made China one of the underpinnings of the turn-of-the-century tourmaline market. When news of California’s prodigious tourmaline production made its way to her court, she immediately sent emissaries to various mining districts. The resulting Sino/San Diego tourmaline pacts contributed heavily to prosperity there, so much that when the Chinese government collapsed in 1912, it took the whole tourmaline market with it.
Ironically, the importance of San Diego tourmaline mining today is once again tied, at least in part, to a strongly revived market for tourmaline carvings. Cutters like Gerhard Becker, Idar-Oberstein, West Germany, have earned world renown for their beautiful bird and animal tourmaline figures, many of which use California material.
For sure, tourmaline mining in California is nothing like it was around 1910 when rapid mining had already exhausted most of the area’s surface riches and forced development of far more expensive underground workings. After World War II, the far cheaper cost of production in Brazil catapulted that country to its current No. 1 status as far as tourmaline output goes.
But California has longevity and lore going for it. After all, says miner Bill Larson, Pala International Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., “There aren’t many gems for which America can claim such historical leadership in terms of mining.”
In the Pink
Besides providing carving material, San Diego County is still an important locality for facetable tourmaline. As the photo on the opposite page shows, the color variety is wide. But, basically, California tourmaline comes in shades of pink, which vary from mine to mine. The famed Himalaya mine on which Larson has held leases since 1978, was extraordinarily bountiful until May 1985. Since then, production has been spotty. Nevertheless, the mine has given Pala International a two-year backlog of fine pinks and bi-colored stones—suitable for both cutting and carving.
At its best, the color of better Himalayan stones is a hot bubble-gum pink. Usually, the color is a softer pastel pink. Occasionally, some California pinks will boast a purplishness that makes them easily mistakable for superb rhodolites. But no matter which shade of pink you buy, these stones are almost invariably included, even the blue ribbon ones. In general, expect to pay $100-$150 per carat for vibrant, jazzy pink stones with minimal inclusions in 5- to 10-carat sizes.
Unique to the Himalaya Mine, says Cynthia Marcusson of Pala International, are eye-clean, bi-colored grass-green/burgundy-pink tourmalines. Almost always cut in pencil-like rectangles (due to the composition of the original rough), the best of these stones will cost jewelers $125-$175 per carat in 5- to 10-carat sizes.
Last, and unfortunately least, there are a few beautiful, hard-to-describe green tourmalines from California. Don’t get your hopes up about ordering them. Supplies are exceedingly thin and will be thinner once jewelers know the few around almost never cost more than $100 per carat in sizes up to 5 carats.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The California tourmaline shown in the header is courtesy of Pala International, Fallbrook, Calif. The top stone is 5.15 carats; the middle stone is 5.83 carats; and the bottom stone is 3.77 carats.