Brown Tourmaline

If you think garnet is a complex gem, try figuring out to which of the many branches of the tourmaline family the bronze, butterscotch, and cinnamon tourmalines we’ve been seeing in heaping numbers lately belong. There are at least three slots open: dravite, uvite, or buergerite.

I’d never heard of the last of that trio until I read R.V. Dietrich’s The Tourmaline Group, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1985. Described by the author as exclusively orangey-brown, he cites Mexico as the only known source for this species. But maybe buergerite has a new locality in Sri Lanka, source of this glorious gem with its uncanny resemblance to fireball citrine.

More likely, thinks the stone’s owner, dealer Dudley Blauwet, Louisville, Colorado, the stone is a dravite. That’s the varietal name most dealers use for the brown-drenched or brown-tinged tourmalines in their stock. But he leaves open the possibility that it could be uvite-ever since mineralogists identified some orangey-brown stones from Morogoro in Tanzania as predominantly uvite.

No wonder New York dealer Steve Stieglitz brushes off my questions about proper species names for brown tourmaline. “Dealers tend to call any tourmaline with a brown color component by the name of dravite,” he says. “Do we know for sure? No. The term has more to do with custom and convenience than gemology.” He’s right. As long as I can remember, dealers have been using dravite as a kind of code-word for brown. Obviously, this speech habit predates the recent time when brown became beautiful-thanks to the rising popularity of “earth tones.”

Why is dravite-or, to be safe, dravite-uvite-suddenly both very hot and very cool? Blauwet thanks East Africa for its recent geological generosity with regard to supplies of attractive brownish tourmalines. “I am lucky if I get four nice orangey dravites from Sri Lanka in a year,” he says. “But I have been getting hundreds of carats of orangey-brown to butterscotch to golden-orangey greens from Tanzania and Kenya.” These new brownish tourmalines are far cries from the bland super-numerous dravites of yesteryear which often looked like smoky quartz. Today’s dravites feature ‘spice colors” such as paprika, saffron, and cinnamon. No wonder some dealers liken them to honey-brown zircon or cedar-brown spessartite.

Riding Several Tailwinds

Brown tourmaline is never going to reach the stature of Paraiba tourmaline. But its strong family ties are enough for dealers like Stieglitz to feel confident elevating inventory levels of the gem from token to staple status. Why? Some think better dravite is a logical substitute for spessartite, the popular brownish-orange garnet which is in very short supply. And with prices of $50 per carat for fine brown tourmaline versus $200 per carat for comparable quality spessartite, any influx of the former would surely be welcome. There’s just one problem: killer earth-tone tourmaline is far from plentiful. But Blauwet has got his fingers crossed now that East Africa has joined Sri Lanka as a source for superb dravite/uvite.

Kenya’s and Tanzania’s new dravite/uvite is the latest in a series of sensational tourmaline finds that have acted as drum beaters for the species. Remember chromium-colored emerald-green stones from East Africa in the late 1980s? A dealer showed me a 10 carat chrome tourmaline that he later sold for $1,200 per carat. Next, Paraiba, Brazil, briefly showered the world with stunning copper-bearing electric blue gems. Chrome and Paraiba tourmaline conferred full precious-stone status on tourmaline. Now high-quality dravite could benefit from and add to the species’ new prestige. “Tourmaline is thought of as a very distinguished gem and dealers are starting to make the case for every other variety that produces attractive stones,” says Simon Watt of Mayer & Watt, Maysville, Kentucky.

And this is where the many varietal vagaries of tourmaline work to the advantage of the species as a whole. While dealers make fusses over specific varieties of garnet like spessartite, when was the last time you heard one boast about an elbaite? Elbaite is hot, but not under that name. You and I know its most beautiful colors as Paraiba.

But locality-based names for tourmaline are also rare. Tourmaline is usually labeled by color. So it is hardly surprising to see a flurry of freshly-coined market names such as “cinnamon” and ‘sunset” tourmaline. I doubt whether dealers and designers are going to stop this form of branding and adopt usage of the species name dravite, which sounds more like that of a language than a gem.

In his book, Dietrich opposes any kind of classification system for this broad gem group based on color names. His reason: There’s too much species overlap and identity confusion. But I think it’s too late for such objections. Tourmaline is a kind of melting pot gem. Granted, varietal names are occasionally based on trace elements as in the case of copper-bearing Paraiba wannabes from Mozambique which are now called cuprian elbaite. But, frankly, this has been done to cash in on the resemblance between African stones and those from the high-provenance locality of Paraiba.

So where do things stand with the budding market for brown tourmaline? At prices between $15 and $60 per carat, fine Sri Lankan dravite and East African uvite is worthy of trial use, says Jason Baskin, chief buyer for The Gem Vault, Flemington, New Jersey. “Using dravite is at this point more a matter of creating rather than responding to demand,” he says. “Instinct tells us that fine dravite is next in line for discovery by a public searching for beautiful new gems.”

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