In 1890 an author named Saxe Holm wrote a charming story entitled, My Tourmaline. The young heroine possesses a crystal of tourmaline, which she finds in the roots of a large tree. It brings her good fortune until she loses it. Bereft until she finally finds it in someone else’s collection, she and her tourmaline are eventually re-united and live “happily ever after.”
What is it about tourmaline that makes people feel so connected to it? One reason is because of all the colors it comes in. There is no other mineral that comes in as many hues. This rainbow quality translates to a lightness and happiness that appeals to all. It also suggests tolerance, flexibility and a compassionate understanding. The Sri Lankans named the gem, “turamali”, meaning a stone of mixed colors.
A rainbow of gemstones, all of them are tourmaline.
Another quality of tourmaline is its pyroelectricity. If heated, it actually has magnetic properties. As a result, the mineral has many industrial uses. You can find it in hairdryers to calm static hair, in joint wraps to promote blood circulation, and in tuning circuits for conducting TV and radio frequencies. In the metaphysical world, tourmaline is seen as a strong protector, reflecting negativity away from anyone possessing the stone. It’s also seen as a grounding stone that promotes a sense of power and self-confidence.
Finally, tourmaline is a popular gemstone, featured prominently as the birthstone for October and the anniversary stone for the 8th and 38th anniversaries. It has a hardness of 7 – 7.5 on the Mohs scale, so it’s durable enough to be set in rings. It’s not as expensive as ruby, emerald, or sapphire, but it can sometimes mimic these colors. And it’s mined on almost every continent– from the state of Maine to the island of Madagascar.
You may own a tourmaline and not even know it, because the gem has so many trade names. If you own a rubellite, an indicolite, a verdelite, a siberite, an achroite, or a paraiba, you actually own a tourmaline. You may also have a bi-colored or parti-colored tourmaline, a watermelon tourmaline, or even tourmalinated quartz! There are so many different looks to this versatile mineral. If these pictures are motivating you to own a tourmaline (or a second one), stop in our store. We’d be happy to introduce you to the ones in our showcase.
Watermelon tourmaline earrings with rubellite and green tourmaline: custom-made by our benchjewelers
Tourmalinated Quartz: The black crystals are the tourmaline, also called schorl.
Watermelon tourmaline, carved into butterfly wings, and made into a pendant by our benchjewelers
Garnet: January birthstone
Most of my life I’ve wished I was born a few days earlier, mainly because my birthstone would be an emerald instead of pearl or alexandrite. When it came time to buy my high school class ring, I chose the emerald green stone rather than the pale purple one. When my husband and I designed our 30-year anniversary ring, we designed it with an emerald for the center stone, even though pearl is the traditional gift for the 30-year anniversary. As you can see, I’ve always just gone with what I wanted rather than what I was ‘supposed’ to want. But my decisions got me to thinking about the origin of birthstones. Who deemed that each month be represented by a different gemstone? When was this decision made? And why?
My research on these questions has revealed an interesting and somewhat nonsensical journey. Most sources say that the idea of birthstones started with the Bible and Aaron’s breastplate. Aaron had 12 stones in his breastplate, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. No one knows for sure what the 12 stones were, but chances are high that they were pretty rocks, like jasper or lapis. These are rocks that were native to the area.
A first century historian named Josephus supposedly made the numeric connection between the 12 stones and the 12 months of the year. For centuries the idea was to have 12 stones, carrying a different one each month. They weren’t really birthstones because they weren’t associated with the owner’s birth. They were associated with months of the year. The individual stones were supposed to bring good luck and good health during each one’s specific month.
But somewhere along the way, the idea changed. Experts say that between the 15th and 18th centuries, people began to see themselves as having one stone, corresponding to the month of their birth, that would bring them good fortune. These stones, with a few exceptions, are very different from the birthstones of today. Have you ever heard of bloodstone? It’s an opaque green stone with red spots. It was the birthstone for March. How about sardonyx? That’s a banded, rusty brown-colored, translucent chalcedony that was the birthstone for August.
Bloodstone: March birthstone
Sardonyx: August birthstone
In 1912, Jewelers of America, an association with a definite interest in marketing gemstones, sought to standardize the list. The official list of birthstones had garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, peridot, sapphire, opal, topaz (the orange-yellow-brown kind), and turquoise. Some of the months had two birthstones, partly in deference to the traditional stones. So March had aquamarine AND bloodstone. August had peridot AND sardonyx. But, let’s face it, if you were born in March, which gem would you rather have? A transparent medium blue one or an opaque dark green one with red blemishes? It didn’t take long to drop these traditional choices.
The 1912 list has had few changes in the last 100+ years. In 1952, alexandrite was added as a birthstone for June and citrine was added as a birthstone for November. December’s traditional birthstone of lapis lazuli was replaced with blue zircon. In 2002, tanzanite, the blue-purple gemstone that had been discovered in 1967, was added to the list for December. And, most recently, in 2016, spinel was added as a birthstone for August.
Why the additions? Many people would say it’s a marketing move. Birthstones aren’t really seen as bringing good luck or good health anymore. They don’t have the significance they used to have. They’re just fun. So why not have more choices? I’m really happy for all you August babies who no longer feel confined to the yellowish-green of peridot. Spinel offers great variety! (See my blog on spinel–July 28, 2016).
So, what do we make of this idea of birthstones? To me it sounds like a complicated game of Telephone. Do you remember that game when someone whispers a phrase to someone else, and it goes around the circle? The final uttering of the phrase bears no resemblance to the original. That’s how I feel birthstones came to be. From Aaron’s breastplate to the writings of Josephus to the Jewelers’ list, it’s a crazy, convoluted path. But this is where we are and what we have. My suggestion? Adopt your favorite gemstone, the one that has meaning to you, and make it YOUR birthstone.
Amethyst: February birthstone
Black Opal and Rubellite Tourmaline
I’m married to a man born in October, and I can testify that he’s complicated. But I never thought October’s two birthstones had unusual complexity to them until I started to really study them. Tourmaline has a complex physical nature while Opal has a complex history and symbolic nature. Let’s see if light can be shed on these two amazing gems.
Tourmaline wasn’t recognized as a separate group of minerals until the 1800s. It comes in an unbelievable array of colors, so chrome tourmaline was often mistaken for emerald. Rubellite tourmaline was thought to be ruby. Back in the days before modern mineralogy, gem stones were often identified by their color. Chemically, tourmaline is complicated because many of its elements have the ability to replace one another in a process called isomorphous replacement. That’s why tourmaline from the Paraiba mine in Brazil can be neon blue. Copper is part of its chemical makeup. That’s why chrome tourmaline from Tanzania can be a deep, almost emerald green. Chromium is part of its formula. Pink tourmaline from Zambia has magnesium and black tourmaline (also called schorl) has iron. These gems all have the same basic chemical formula, but it’s a formula that allows for lots of substitutions.
The crystal habit of tourmaline is a unique 3-sided column, with cross sections that resemble rounded triangles. It’s not uncommon to see different colors evident in the same crystal, leading to bi- and tri-colored tourmaline. There’s even watermelon tourmaline which has cross sections that show pink centers and green boundaries. The value of tourmaline is complicated, too. A high quality Paraiba tourmaline sells for tens of thousands of dollars per carat. A large piece of black tourmaline sells on Amazon for under $10.
Paraiba tourmalines photographed from the GIA Collection for the CIBJO project from the Dr. Eduard J. Gubelin Collection.
What’s quite complex about opal is its reputation. It falls in and out of favor, depending on who writes about it, who wears it, and what superstitious stories are made up about it. From ancient mythology, the opal was said to be a symbol of purity, hope, and innocence. It was supposed to be protection against evil. But, during the Black Plague of the 14th century, opal wearers often died. The rumor circulated that it was the opal that caused death. Opals were evil! In the 1500s opinion changed. Shakespeare wrote about opal as the “queen of gems.” It became popular once again. But, in the early 1800s, Sir Walter Scott wrote a book whose character, Lady Hermione, dies soon after a drop of holy water destroys her opal’s colors. It’s uncertain what caused Hermione’s death, but the opal market was clearly dead for 50 years because of Sir Walter Scott’s book.
In 1877, an amazing Australian black opal was discovered, and Queen Victoria decided that she liked opals. Opals were good! She gave one to each of her five daughters, and her love of it made the gem popular again. Today, opals still swim in complexity. Sometimes I’ll hear customers talk about the superstition of opal only being good luck to those born in October. Or they’ll talk about Sir Walter Scott’s book. But my opal has never brought me anything but joy–and I was born in June!
If you’re born in October, be proud of the fact that your birthstones are complicated. It’s much more interesting than perfect clarity! Embrace the mystery.