After East African chrome tourmaline—a rare green tourmaline which, at its best, can double for fine tsavorite, even emerald—rubellite is the most prized and expensive member of this very broad gem family. Although the name suggests that it is a red tourmaline, that’s mostly wishful thinking.
More often than not, rubellites tend to be too highly violetish to be considered red in the sense that ruby is red. Not that rubellites don’t on occasion look like their namesake gem. We photographed one such ruby stand-in from Madagascar for this article. And recently we were shown a suite of Brazilian stones from the famous but fizzled Ouro Fino deposit that were, in the words of their owner, “red, red, red.” He meant that they could not be accused of having strong overtones of violet or heavy interference from brown.
This isn’t to say that basically violetish rubellite isn’t deserving of a gem name that hints at red. The same New York dealer showed us scores of reddish-plum and cranberry-color rubellites, mostly from Africa, that struck us as sensational. Nevertheless, the red in all these stones would have to be described more as an overtone than a basic hue. And, the owner of these stones only regarded as true rubellites his stock of ripe-red strawberry-color stones from Brazil.
Measured against the strawberry-color ideal, one has to conclude that rubellite is one of the more elastic gem names. Presently the term straws a wide gamut of tourmaline shades from violet tinge to pink—with ruby red in an extremely narrow mid-well. Complicating matters further is an unsettled controversy involving the transition point between rubellite and pink tourmaline. For whatever it’s worth, the term rubellite, whether referring to red or violet stones, connotes to us medium to dark tones and fairly saturate colors. Most pink tourmalines aren’t deep enough in tone or color to qualify as rubellites.
This nomenclature controversy takes on new relevance now that rubellite is thought of as much as a pink stone as a ruby substitute, the result of pink’s current popularity as a fashion color.
Even when rubellites qualify as ruby stand-ins, chances are great they won’t be as clean as kindred-color rubies. Due to its crystal structure, most rubellite is imperfect to some degree.
Yet the fact that rubellite is generally very included has not stopped it from attracting a wide gem collector following. Jewelers and consumers have been considerably less tolerant of the stone’s commonly glaring inclusions. “Americans think about colored stones the way they do about diamonds,” explains Doug Parker of the William L. Kuhn Co., New York. “So they expect colored stones to be 4Cs-clean. And that’s an expectation rubellite finds it hard to meet.” For this reason, notes Paul Heubert, Inter-Ocean Trade Co., New York, “It is very hard to sell commercial-grade rubellite.”
It’s equally hard to buy top-grade rubellite. Indeed, supplies are so sporadic that when fine goods hit the market American dealers find themselves pitted against Brazilian and German firms willing to pay sky-high prices. Thankfully, growing acceptance of medium-toned, moderate-priced violetish African rubellite makes it possible to sell stones that are not eye-clean because the color either hides inclusions or makes them far less noticeable.
Mystiques of Place
Although rubellite is found in America, Africa and Afghanistan, among other places, easily 75% of present world production comes from Brazil, principally that country’s famed Minas Gerais gem mining region. Since rubellite deposits are scattered and most of them short-lived, color is variable and generalizations about it are hard to make. The most recent source of superb Brazilian rubellite was Ouro Fino. Although Ouro Fino stones at their best tended to be a strawberry red, many were too purple or brown. So don’t start salivating just because a rubellite is purported to be from the legendary but defunct Ouro Fino deposit.
That kind of Pavlovian response over tourmaline origin would be more justified these days for stones from Madagascar. This African country has ended a reputation made in recent years for producing rich-red stones that not only evoke ruby in general but Burma ruby in particular. Indeed, it is currently assumed that the finer rubellites one sees are from Africa. That’s quite a tribute to a continent that was hardly known to jewelers for its rubellite five years ago. In any case, dare ruby-red rubellite—whether from Brazil or Africa—today easily commands $150-$250 per carat from jewelers in 3-5 carat sizes. Larger stones from 7-10 carats are quoted to us between $300 and $400 per carat.
High-tech High Jinx
In recent years, dealers have been seeing more fine plum and cranberry-red rubellites than ever before. The abundance stems from the fact that rubellite has joined topaz as a frequently irradiated gem. Irradiation converts near-colorless and shallow pink stones to deep-hued beauties with intense pink and purplish colors. When dealers first became aware of this fact in the early 1980s, the rubellite market crashed. But after dealers realized irradiation-produced colors were permanent, and stones were safe, prices stabilized and have since risen steadily.
Although rubellite is commonly irradiated, there is virtually no chance that the market will ever be as inundated with bombarded tourmaline as it has been irradiated topaz. That’s because tourmaline is simply nowhere near as plentiful as topaz. Given the scarcity of rubellite relative to topaz, the gem’s prices recovered fairly quickly from the initial shock when it was discovered that goods were being bombarded.
But another shock may be on the way. Limited quantities of low-grade fissure-laden rubellites are both being bombarded to improve color and impregnated with high-tech plastic resins that hide their cracks and spiff up overall appearance. No dealer has yet reported to us finding these laboratory rebabs mixed in with parcels of all-natural or irradiated-only rubellites. For this reason, we believe these stones are still being sold in a reputable manner by those who are treating them. But if the past is any guide to the future, eventually some unscrupulous dealer may try to pass off these cheaply adulterated stones as what they’re not: equal in status and value to natural and merely bombarded rubellite.
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 3.1-carat rubellite shown in the header image is courtesy of Mayer & Watt, Beverly Hills, Calif.