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Afghanistan Toumaline
Gem Profile


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.

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