Paraiba and Cuprian Tourmaline

Of all the varieties of tourmaline – and there are A LOT – one stands out amongst them all for its beauty, its rarity, and the enormous debate raging over which ones are which.

It all started in the 1980s when some tourmaline crystals were unearthed in Paraiba State, Brazil. Tyrian purples, mint greens, even sapphire blues, and the now-legendary “Windex” blue all surfaced and were immediately gobbled up during the 1990s, even at the unheard of cost for tourmaline of 5-digits per carat for fine stones larger than three carats. “Paraiba tourmaline” had successfully captured the collective heart of the colored gem world like nothing had since tanzanite was unveiled by Tiffany & Co. in ‘68. The original source mine known as Paraiba Hill is now virtually tapped out, but fine gems from the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Norte have done their best to keep the market supplied, but the majority of these don’t always quite measure up to the original Paraiba material.

What makes these gems so wonderfully attractive is their glow. Literally, the finest seem to actually glow, even in low lighting conditions. This has given rise to describing especially the greens and blues as “electric” or “neon.” I think that description does them plenty of justice. Copper impurities play the largest role in these astounding colors, but manganese impurities help to create the best purples.

It is these specific impurities that caused a big ruckus in 2001 when tourmalines of similar colors were discovered in Nigeria, and then in Mozambique in 2005. Gems from both countries were in the same color palate with the Brazilian gems, and they often exhibited much, much higher clarity.

While the Nigerian stones rarely, if ever, achieve the same depth of color for which Brazilian stones are renowned, Mozambique’s cuprian (“copper-bearing”) tourmaline is often indistinguishable from cuprian tourmaline from Rio Grande do Norte, even to the trained eye. And all of them can be heat-treated just like Brazilian stones to strengthen color. Outside of a few tell-tale inclusions that aren’t present in every gem, the only way to determine origin in cuprian tourmalines from Brazil, Nigeria, and Mozambique is quantitative chemical analysis, which only a handful of gem labs in the world have the capability to do.

This all led to a guild war over the usage of the name “Paraiba tourmaline.” The African mining companies wanted to capitalize on the money flowing through the name “Paraiba,” while the original Brazilian mining company sued everyone who used the term “Paraiba tourmaline” to describe any gem that did not come from their mines. It was ridiculous.

It ultimately culminated with a ruling by the World Jewelry Council in the 2006/07 CIBJO Gemstone Blue Book: the name Paraiba stands for any green-to-blue tourmaline colored by copper, regardless of country of origin.

So the authorities had spoken. What seemed to be determined, and rightly so, was that a beautiful gemstone will speak for itself, no matter its provenance.

Now, while I may not have any Paraiba-type tourmaline in stock, I can certainly find it for you. Of course, I have an exceptional selection of other tourmalines from which to choose. So if you’d like to see some beautiful things, as always, just stop by.

Posted in: October Birthstone, Tourmaline

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