New Discovery Same Name?

May 31, 2013  |  Brook Showell


Erica Courtney

What’s in a name? It’s a big question for the neon-hued African tourmaline from Mozambique and Nigeria that has been on the rise in popularity. This cuprian, or copper-bearing, tourmaline is a close cousin of Paraiba, with a similar blue-green glow that makes it one of the most valuable and sought-after gems today. “I think what’s important about it is that the color is beyond any color you can possibly find — it’s captivating in the way it’s so unusual. There’s something that really glows from the center of the stone,” says Los Angeles jewelry designer Erica Courtney.
   The original tourmaline, known as Paraiba tourmaline, was discovered at the San Jose de Batalha Mine in the state of Paraiba, Brazil, in the late 1980s by Heitor Dimas Barbosa, and is one of the rarest and most expensive gemstones. “There’s nothing like it in terms of gaining value consistently over the years,” says dealer Robert Van Wagoner of Beija-Flor Wholesale in Haiku, Hawaii. Some Paraiba tourmaline “is currently available on the market, but I don’t feel that it changes hands much, especially among dealers,” says gemologist L. Allen Brown, owner of All That Glitters in Methuen, Massachusetts. “The cost is very high, leaving a small profit for those who buy it now and then resell. There is not much talk out there on new Paraiba. There may be some small production, but it hasn’t been in the news for some time.”
   The African neon tourmaline was first discovered in Nigeria in the early 2000s and in Mozambique shortly after, around 2003. It was gemstone dealer Moussa Konate who introduced the Mozambique stones from the Shalawa Mine to the U.S. market.
   Today, the debate is about whether the Paraiba descriptor should be used for these new African stones or if they should be given an industry-wide nomenclature of their own.

The Name Game
   While Brazilian Paraiba produces the more brilliant, saturated colors, material from Mozambique and Nigeria is also becoming known for its range of vivid hues. As for the compositional differences between the Brazilian and African gems, “they are the same chemically,” says graduate gemologist Jason Stephenson of Pala International in Fallbrook, California. Pala refers to the African material simply as neon tourmaline.
   Stones from both countries are mined primarily by hand with manual tools like wedges and sledgehammers, an arduous process that contributes to the stone’s high price. To determine origin, a lab test can establish variations in chemistry ratio and diagnostic inclusions that clearly confirm whether the stone is from Brazil, Mozambique or Nigeria. On the basis of those tests, the gems can be certified according to their origin by Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or American Gemological Laboratories (AGL).
   Some people refer to the African neon material as Paraiba Mozambique or Paraiba Nigeria due to its striking similarities with the original Paraiba from Brazil. However, purists refuse to accept that designation as they feel it devalues Paraiba from Brazil and deceives the customer. Another common designation is calling the African stones Paraiba-like or Paraiba-type.
   “The reason dealers want to use the term Paraiba is the fact that the original find in Brazil is very costly as well as beautiful,” explains Brown. Van Wagoner suggests calling it cuprine tourmaline from Mozambique, to denote that it is tourmaline containing copper. “It should stand on its own merits; it’s a beautiful stone, but it’s not Paraiba,” Van Wagoner says, adding: “There is no reason anybody should be able to hijack the name of a state and apply it to tourmaline from a place halfway around the world.”
   But low supply and high prices for Brazilian Paraiba — from $12,000 to $15,000 a carat to as much as $40,000 a carat for the finest material — is making the more available, more affordable African neon tourmaline increasingly desirable, no matter what one calls it. Despite its comparably lower prices, top-quality African material also has appreciated significantly in value, says dealer Adam Gil of Paraiba International in New York City. What was selling for $5,000 a carat about four years ago is now valued at closer to $15,000 per carat, he notes.
   “People might be shocked at the pricing, but they still buy,” Stephenson adds. According to Courtney, it’s exciting to have a new stone with a new name, no matter what the origin. “It’s not a second-class citizen to Brazil; it’s just different,” she says of African neon tourmaline.

The Neon Treatment
   The most common colors of neon tourmaline are blue, green and purple. While blue is the most popular choice, the gemstone does not come out of the ground with its Windex-hued glow. The naturally occurring purple is heated to bring out its blue brilliance. The heat treatment, done at low temperatures of about 400 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, does not change any of the stone’s internal inclusions or characteristics. The electric blue-green stones have a variety of descriptors — lagoon, Caribbean, sea, mint, ice.
   “This is one case where heating greatly improves value,” Stephenson notes. Green and purple material may or may not be heated. The stone’s signature fluorescence will subtly change the stone’s hue, depending on whether it’s in sunlight or indoor lighting. “If the light is a little more incandescent, it will bring out the green; sunlight or UV will have more blue,” Stephenson explains. Van Wagoner suggests that a Mozambique stone has to be about 4 carats to really exhibit its neon properties. “If you cut the Mozambique into melee, it would be see-through,” he notes. Allen agrees: “There are some killer neon blues that have come out of Mozambique, but the very fine ones tend to be larger, allowing the depth of color to be richer.”

Who’s Buying?
   Neon tourmaline is both a collector’s and a jeweler’s stone, which has made it a hot gem. “If you start looking closely at inventory, all the good stuff is gone,” Stephenson says. The most intense, saturated blues sold the fastest, so many of the stones available now are the lighter, included gems. Nevertheless, tourmaline attracts collectors who already own the standard diamond, sapphire and ruby.
   Gil has designed cocktail rings and engagement rings using the stone, and says the general public now has much more awareness of the stone compared to about five years ago. “People come and say, ‘I want a Paraiba from Africa.’ They know exactly what it is,” he states. Courtney recently designed a three-stone, oval-cut 6.08-carat, green-hued neon tourmaline ring. When the customer put it on her finger, “I told her to walk 15 feet away from the mirror — that’s how much it glows,” Courtney states.
   It is this radiance that makes neon tourmaline a star. “Most people are attracted to gemstones that are neon and have an inner glow and life to them. There is nothing like seeing a gemstone glowing in a case from 30 feet away,” Brown adds.
   While the debate continues over what to call it, experts agree that neon tourmaline from African mines will continue to dazzle collectors and jewelry aficionados alike. In fact, Courtney calls it one of the most important finds of the last century, “just because of the value that it started at versus the value it’s worth now. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get any cheaper any time soon.” Stephenson concludes that “It’s one of the great stones, especially because it’s new. It’s one of the big boys now.” 


New Discovery Same Name?

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