Tourmaline is one of the most unusual of all gemstones. Unlike other gems, which we often identify with a single color, tourmaline comes in every hue. Often more than one color occurs in the same crystal. Watermelon tourmaline, which is pale pink edged with green, is the best known example of bi-colored crystals.
Although rarer, some tourmaline crystals include three colors. Its medley of color is not the only thing that distinguishes tourmaline. It can polarize light, so that the colors darken as the stone is rotated. Tourmaline is also piezoelectric, which means that it generates static electricity when rubbed or warmed. The static charge is just enough to attract substances like tiny paper fragments, dust, and ashes. Tourmaline’s ability to attract substances to it led to one of its early names.
Eighteenth-century Dutchmen used the static electricity in tourmaline to draw the ashes from their long-stemmed pipes. They gave the name aschentrekker (ash drawer) to the gemstone. Many people regard tourmaline as a modern stone, as it isn’t mentioned by name in antique documents. Tourmaline did exist in ancient times, but it was confused with other gemstones because of its stunning colors.
Green tourmaline was mistaken for emerald, yellow for topaz, red for ruby, and so on. Its modern name comes from the Sinhalese word tourmali, which means mixed colors. Later, the various colors were given individual names. Green tourmaline has been called Brazilian emerald and yellow-green was known as Ceylonese peridot or chrysolite. Those names were misleading and are not commonly used now. Tourmalines next received names like siberite for violet, dravite for brown, and indicolite for dark blue.
One multi-colored species of tourmaline was named elbaite, after the Isle of Elba, where tourmaline was first found. Gemologists and jewelers now prefer to use the word tourmaline preceded by the appropriate color designation. Historians believe that the Chinese began using tourmaline more than 2000 years ago. They carved figurines from it, in addition to using it in their jewelry.
The last Empress of China is said to have been especially fond of pink tourmaline and was laid to rest on a pillow carved from it. Tourmaline is a complex combination of minerals, the predominate ones being aluminum, silica, and boron. It can contain up to a dozen other minerals, each of which produce a distinctive color. Manganese produces pink stones, chromium turns it green, cobalt is responsible for blue, and iron and potassium yields dark red.
Calcium, lithium, magnesium, nickel, bismuth, and zinc are some of the other minerals found in tourmaline. Despite the variety of their chemical constituents, all the species of tourmaline have the same crystal structure. That’s why they are all part of the same family, despite their different colors. Africa, Canada, Mexico, Myanmar (Burma), Russia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and the United States all presently mine tourmaline.
Tourmaline was discovered in Maine in 1820, and was later adopted as its state mineral. Paraiba, a vibrant blue tourmaline named for the Brazilian state in which it is mined, is the newest member of the tourmaline family. Paraiba gets its exceptional color from copper and gold. It’s the only tourmaline discovered so far to contain those two minerals. It’s also the rarest and most expensive of the tourmalines.
Prices for Paraiba start at $10,000 a carat, as compared to less than $100 a carat for the common pink varieties. Its chemical complexity makes tourmaline unique among gemstones. Its hardness (Mohs 7.0 – 7.5), durability, and brilliant colors make it an enduring favorite among those who love gemstones. Tourmaline is truly a gift from Mother Nature.