In 1912 the National Association of Jewellers overhauled the birthstone list for the American market. Among the changes the group made was the selection for October. Beryl, which had for centuries been the month’s most widely accepted representative, was out, tourmaline was in.
At the time, some believed commercialism was behind the jewelers’ decision. Yet we would wager the jewelers’ group was prompted in its choice by nationalism as well. From a standpoint of quality, and perhaps quantity, America was then the pre-eminent producer of tourmaline—not just California pinks but also Maine greens. And given the fact that green and golden beryl was what was replaced, we would venture to say that Maine was uppermost in the jewelers’ minds. One look at a fine apple-green Maine stone explains why.
Sorry to say, that New England state is no longer producing to any significant degree. But the color associated with Maine can be found in stones from other localities. Indeed, tourmalines that ape the best color of just about every coveted green gem—from emerald to tsavorite—are found today. And they often cast a fraction of the stunners for which they stand in.
East African Wonders
To many jewelers, green tourmaline is synonymous with dark olive stones from Brazil, the kind that rarely cost more than $20 per carat. If that’s your mental image of green tourmaline, you are out of touch with the major finds of this gem during the past two decades.
Of all these finds, the most celebrated are those in East Africa, where a chromium-colored tourmaline—often confused with the area’s finest green garnets or with Colombian emerald—is mined sporadically and in small numbers. At present, the best of these stones, called chrome tourmalines in the trade, command as much as $600 per carat in sizes up to 3 carats. Rarer large stones fetch even more when their color and clarity are exceptional.
If such prices for tourmalines sound outrageous, bear in mind that the tsavorites they so strongly resemble cost anywhere from two to three times as much, depending on size. Also bear in mind that chrome tourmaline is the only green tourmaline to have reached true connoisseur status in our time. This variety has so big a following that a tourmaline specialist like Mark Herschede, Turmali and Herschede Inc., Cincinnati, owes 85% of his sales to chrome stones alone.
Toward the Blue
If East Africa’s chrome tourmalines are the most prized of all green tourmalines, Nigeria’s mint-colored stones, mined intermittently since early in the 1980s, earn second spot in terms of dealer admiration. “For those who like the pastel color or which Maine is famous, Nigerian stones are your best bet,” says Herschede, which is high praise indeed. In addition, prices for the most superb of these pastel pretties are far less than those of East African chromes—rarely above $175 per carat in popular 5- to 10-carat sizes. That’s not bad when you consider that supplies of Nigerian goods are presently a trickle of what they were in the late 1980s.
What dealers find especially endearing about Nigerian, as well as East African, green tourmalines is the fact that so many of them possess a blue secondary color. If a green tourmaline must veer toward its neighboring colors of yellow or blue on the spectrum, blue is always preferable. And that’s a tendency that Nigerian stones are known for.
Afghanistan material also leans towards the blue. Only these stones possess deeper tones and, as a result, lack the brilliance of Nigerian goods. But price, $150 per carat tops nowadays, is a consolation. The trouble is that this material, too, is not easy to come by right now. Production from African and Asian sources tends to be unsteady. It’s either feast or famine.
The one reliable producer of green tourmaline is and has long been Brazil. However, as tastes in green tourmaline have grown more demanding, this South American country has found her run-of-the-mill material falling increasingly out of favor.
This isn’t to say that Brazil doesn’t come through with her share of gorgeous greens. Be on the lookout for what Herschede describes as “grasshopper-green” material, most of it under $70 per carat, that looks as lively as it does lovely. In jewelry. And for those inclined to deeper body colors, note that Brazil also excels at producing dense forest-green stones—ones not plagued by the brown tinges so common to most Brazilian stones. Quoted to us at under $70 per carat, these stones also strike us as bargains.
The Dichroism Dilemma
Even when Brazilian greens possess desirable body color, jewelers balk at buying them because they only seem to come in emerald shapes. This preponderance of rectangular cuts does not stem from any perversity on the part of Brazilian cutters but, rather, from sheer necessity. Brazilian material usually looks its best when cut this way.
Why? Because tourmaline is plagued by dichroism—the multi-directional transmission of light along different crystal axes of a gem. When cut into ovals and other shapes that heighten this property, great color variances appear in the stone when it is viewed at different angles. But when Brazilian material is cut into rectangles and squares, this effect is minimized.
Curiously, the lighter tone of African stones helps spare them the dichroism dilemma. As a result, they can be cut in far more popular ovals and other forms of brilliant cutting. This is just one more reason why Africa has so speedily gained a golden reputation for its emerald-, garnet- and beryl-like tourmalines—a reputation that makes the Brazilians, who have been mining this gem for generations without it attaining such stature, green with envy.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 27.11-carat green tourmaline shown in the header image is courtesy of Mayer & Watt, Beverly Hills, Calif.