Tourmaline is one of the most complicated of the gemstones. Probably found first in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), its name is taken from the Sinhalese word “turamali,” meaning “stone of many colors.” It is found in every color of the spectrum, plus colors like shocking pink, black, brown, and colorless. Quite frequently, two or three colors are present in different areas of the same transparent crystal.
Tourmaline is not one mineral but many and is the group name for them all. When Joel Arem last revised his great book Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones in 1987, he was able to write authoritatively that there were nine mineral species in the tourmaline group. Today, thanks to advances in science, we know that there are over 30 species in the tourmaline group and the number is still increasing as more are identified by advanced chemical analysis. However, most of these species lack the essential gem attribute of beauty, and the number of tourmaline species that are fashioned as gems remains at about eight or nine, with most of the interest being restricted to five species.
By convention, the name tourmaline can be used in the jewelry trade to describe any mineral species in the tourmaline group. Sadly, due to the very complex chemistry of tourmaline, the standard gemological tests cannot reliably distinguish one species from the others. However, these tests can and do reliably differentiate any tourmaline from any other mineral.
One tourmaline species that is easy to spot is black because it absorbs all light that enters it. If it is cut extremely thin (around 1/30th of a mm) and you shine a light behind it, you’ll see that it is actually a dark green. Black tourmaline is sometimes called by its species name of “schorl,” rather than simply tourmaline.
Where it is fashionable to wear black mourning jewelry, the two gems of choice are schorl and jet. It is easy to tell one from the other because schorl is much heavier and harder than jet and takes a higher polish.
Tourmaline has been synthesized as very small crystals in research labs but the process is not commercially viable, and there is no synthetic tourmaline in the market. Reasonable lookalikes of schorl can be made from glass, plastic, or dyed chalcedony.
Amongst the main localities for tourmaline mining are Maine and California in the US, Brazil, the countries of Southern Africa, and Madagascar.
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