Egyptian legend tells that tourmaline found its famed array of colors when, on its journey up from the earth’s center, it passed through a rainbow. Because of its colorful occurrences, tourmaline has been confused with other gems throughout history.
In the 1500s, a Spanish conquistador found green tourmaline in Brazil—which he mistook for emerald. His error held until the 1800s, when mineralogists finally identified tourmaline as its own mineral species.
Variations of the name “schorl” may have been used to describe black tourmaline even before 1400. The name comes from a village in Saxony, Germany, (now called Zschorlau) near a mine with black tourmaline deposits.
The Dutch East India Company brought Sri Lankan tourmaline to Europe for centuries before traders realized it was the same mineral as schorl.
American tourmaline deposits caused the gem’s spike in popularity. In 1876, mineralogist George Kunz launched a craze when he sold green tourmaline from Maine to Tiffany & Co.
In the early 1890s, tourmaline was reported in California—where Native Americans had, for centuries, given certain colors of the gem as funeral gifts.
At that point, China represented the biggest market for tourmaline. The Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi was particularly fond of pink tourmaline, and she purchased large quantities of it from deposits in San Diego County.
The Chinese market was so critical to tourmaline, in fact, that when the Chinese government collapsed in 1912, it took tourmaline trade down with it.
Brazilian tourmaline discoveries in the 1980s and 90s reignited interest in this gem, because material mined in Paraíba displayed such striking neon greens, radiant blues and vivid violets. This region has produced the world’s finest, most valuable specimens of tourmaline—including the world’s largest, weighing 191.87 carats.
While plenty of tourmaline is mined around the world, it’s rare to find fine gem-quality tourmaline in bright colors. This range of material means that the price of tourmaline can vary almost as much as the color.