If you are among those who believe that United States history begins with Christopher Columbus and not the native peoples he and his successors found here, then 1820 is the starting point and Maine the starting place of any gem mining annal for this country.
Late in the fall of that year, two young boys, Elijah Hamlin and Ezekiel Holmes, spotted a green crystal lying at the base of an uprooted tree while hiking on Mt. Mica, near the town of Paris. A short distance away, the boys found a small springing of more crystals. Had not a blizzard that night blanketed the area, exploration of the United States’ first recorded gem deposit, a rich find of tourmaline, might have begun the next day instead of waiting until the spring of 1821.
Meanwhile, the two boys showed the crystals they had found to area residents, hoping they could identify them. When the material proved too perplexing, it was sent to Yale University where a geology professor, Benjamin Silliman, identified it as tourmaline.
Locals can be excused for their bafflement since tourmaline, in author John Sinkankas’ words, was then “a relative newcomer to the Western world.” Indeed, Europeans had only seen their first parcels of the gem in 1703 when it arrived in shipments from Ceylon with the species name turamali, a Singhalese word meaning “mixed colored stones” that miners had started using because tourmaline is typically found with other species. Some historians find it fitting that such a Johnny-come-lately among gems is the first to have been mined in abundance in post-native America.
A Hit-or-Miss Affair
John Sinkankas, writing in his masterpiece “Gemstones of North America,” describes tourmaline as “a series of closely related species rather than a mineral occurring in several varieties.” Others see it more as a family. But no matter what it is considered, tourmaline is usually found in hill or underground pockets, nearly always intermingled with crystals of quartz and other minerals such as feldspar and beryl.
Invariably, these pockets are located in pegmatites which are very coarse-grained igneous (the result of volcanic action) rock formations in whose cracks and fissures other gem mineral groupings have crystallized. Mining consists of finding these openings and extracting their tourmaline booty.
Given tourmaline’s violent genesis, it is hardly surprising that miners usually find crystals of this gem strewn on the floor of the pockets in which they’re found. Sometimes these crystals are suitable for faceting, other times they make ideal mineral specimens, but very often, says miner/faceter John Bradshaw, Nashua, N.H., “they are useable only as driveway fill.”
Because tourmaline forms in pockets rather than seams or veins, it is impossible to predict where it will be found. Mining of this gem is purely a hit-or-miss affair, a matter of breaking through to successive pockets—often using dynamite—and hoping they will be among the small minority with facet- or specimen-grade tourmalines.
Cream of the Crop
Although tourmaline has been found at several locations in Maine, the hilltop deposit at Mt. Mica ranks as the state’s oldest and most important. Sinkankas writes that “[it] surpasses any other tourmaline occurrence in the eastern half of the continent.”
The first 42 years of mining at Mt. Mica were rather haphazard. As a result, records of production there in its earliest and possibly most prolific period are sketchy. What is known is that once word of the find spread, many mineralogists came to the area keen on extracting pieces for their own collections. Nobody will ever know how many fine Mt. Mica roughs and specimens were carted away by curiosity seekers.
From 1864 on, mining at Mt. Mica was organized and record-keeping markedly improved. By 1881, the area’s leading miner, Augustus Hamlin, son of the original discoverer, had formed the Mt. Mica Co., among whose leading clients were Tiffany’s in New York (the firm’s principal gemstone buyer, gemologist George F. Kunz, was a notable devotee of U.S. gemstones, tourmaline in particular) and the Harvard Museum.
After 1913 or thereabouts, activity at the mine tapered off until 1965. Then Frank Perham returned to areas already worked and uncovered an array of “watermelon tourmalines (green rinds with pink centers), cucumber colored tourmaline (green rinds with white centers), and flawless green and blue-green tourmaline which was cut into beautiful stones, some weighing more than 50 carats,” writes Peter Bancroft in his informative book “Gem and Crystal Treasures.”
Throughout the late 1970s, Plumbago Mining Corp., run by the late Dean McCrillis, made some spectacular finds, including one giant rough that yielded a magnificent stone of 256 carats. In the summer of 1989, a new group that includes John Bradshaw made its initial foray into mining there, hitting tourmaline in each of the nine pockets it explored—as auspicious a beginning for such a venture as any.
A Distinctive Green
The reason miners never tire of trying their luck at Mt. Mica is obvious the moment you see a faceted stone from this locality. Mt. Mica tourmalines at their best boast a distinctive green very reminiscent of the Granny Smith apple, sometimes even an unripe Bartlett pear. This pure, lively green has none of the olive that mars many Brazilian tourmalines. Besides what Sinkankas calls “exceptional purity of color,” Mt. Mica material is famous for its clarity.
From time to time, other Maine deposits have yielded stones with Mt. Mica’s standard apple-green, as well as ones whose green resemble everything from fine emerald to indicolite (a strongly blue-green tourmaline). Some Maine greens even compare to the so-called “neon” tourmalines coming from Brazil since 1988. What’s more, Maine produces occasional pinks and bi-colors. For the most part, however, it excels in green.
Although Mt. Mica is the best-known Maine tourmaline locality, others such as the Dunton Quarry, in Newry Township, have made a splash in recent years. It is at the Dunton Quarry that Plumbago Mining discovered the state’s single greatest pocket of tourmaline in 1972. So great was the find that its output filled the vault of a local bank, plus the entire second floor above it. Sadly, 18 years later, nearly all of the fine stones from this and other Maine tourmaline finds is gone. Now it is up to John Bradshaw and other miners to bring the supply of Maine tourmaline to the robust levels it reached a decade ago.
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 4.15-carat Maine tourmaline from Mt. Mica, Maine, shown in the header image is courtesy of John Bradshaw, Nashua, N.H.