Afghanistan Toumaline

Every day as of late, gem labs worldwide are being deluged with phone calls, faxes, and e-mails asking for results of chemical analysis tests being run on delicious new-find blue-green tourmaline from Afghanistan. Gem dealers want to know if this material will hit the same gemological jackpot that spitting-image goods from Mozambique recently did when they showed generous traces of copper. What’s so important about copper?

Well, that’s the element said to be responsible for the deep throbbing teal color of Brazil’s Paraiba tourmaline-the mostly highly prized and priced member of this many-hued species ever found. With top specimens of Paraiba-origin material now fetching $20,000 per carat, dealers are looking for genuine scientific grounds to liken-and, better yet, link-tourmalines from Asia and Africa to their Brazilian brethren. Labs have accommodated them by describing copper-bearing stones from Mozambique and Nigeria as “Paraiba-like” and “Paraiba type.”

But some dealers are pushing for stand-alone use of the place-name “Paraiba.” Toward this end, some are coming up with kooky rationales for stretching terms. Our current favorite goes like this: Deep in our planet’s geological past, Brazil and Nigeria were a joined-at-the-hip land mass that got sundered during some tectonic squabble. Nevertheless, if you were to patch the two countries back together, the Paraiba and Nigerian tourmaline deposits would only be 100 or so miles apart. Hence, primeval proximity of the two mines would justify calling the African goods “Paraiba”-without qualifiers.

So now you know why dealers like Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Washington, have their fingers crossed while awaiting test results of Afghanistan’s new turquoise-colored tourmaline. If the samples he submitted have copper, labs will have good reason to invite comparison to Brazilian stones by designating them as “Paraiba-like.”

Copper or no copper, though, the Afghan stuff is beautiful in its own right-although prices don’t belong at sky-high Paraiba levels.

DÉJÀ VU

Tourmaline price madness happened once before around 1990 when stones from the actual Paraiba deposit hit the trade. At the time, few of the colors from this extensive family warranted even $1,000 per carat. If memory serves, the highest-value tourmalines then were cherry-red rubellites-some of which astonished as much as any top-grade ruby or spinel.

Paraiba goods got traction fast. Within months of their Tucson debut, stones were testing the $1,000 per carat roof-price for tourmaline. After the first year, when the deposit was already slackening in output, prices had whizzed past $5,000 per carat and rumored to be nearing the $10,000 per carat mark. Even then, dealers dismissed the price escalation as speculation and predicted a hard landing for prices when they crashed back to earth. They never did. Paraiba prices are still lost in space.

Many of the same skeptics who waited in vain for the Paraiba bubble to burst are excusing themselves from the current Paraiba-type opportunity. This time, however, they have good reason.

Don’t get me wrong. Whether seafoam, minty or, at its best, turquoise green, the new Afghan tourmaline is lovely-if not quite breathtaking. “If we had a zero-to-10 Paraiba color scale, with 10 the top number, I’d give the Afghan color a three,” says Simon Watt of Mayer & Watt, Maysville, Kentucky. “Since I intend to sell lots and lots of the Afghan material, that’s not meant as an insult.” And with prices between $200 and $500 per carat, we’re talking about uncommonly fine goods.

Of course, you can pay much less for Afghan tourmaline, but you’ll be getting a grassier yellow-green that’s been around a little while longer than the seafoam goods. Bill Barker, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, showed me superlative lush summer-green goods in 5 to 10 carat sizes for $150 per carat at the recent Tucson show in early February. When asked why he wasn’t stocking Paraiba types, he answered, “I don’t dare charge the prices I’d have to ask for these stones.”

While Afghan tourmaline does not give the cattle-prod shock to the senses that true-blue Paraiba stones do, it doesn’t pull punches either. The best stones glow in a very energetic manner. What’s more, Afghanistan seafoam blues come in a wonderful size range-readily available up to 8 carats and somewhat easy to locate in sizes up to twice that. In fact, Braunwart is planning to cut several 20 carat-plus stones soon.

While on the subject of cutting, it is worth noting that many Afghan roughs lend themselves to cutting as ovals, cushions, and rounds. And, adds Braunwart, “Because they have so much brilliance going for them, they can be cut with flat facets rather than brilliance-boosting concave facets.” Last, but hardly least, stones are wonderfully clean and, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, enhancement-free. Now that’s a virtue that heat-treated pricier Paraiba stones lack.

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