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California Tourmaline

Just as East Africa is the new frontier for gem mining today, America was the promised land for gems a century ago.

Certainly the discovery of tourmaline in Southern California in 1898 touched off as much excitement in the international jewelry market as did the discovery of tanzanite and tsavorite in Tanzania and Kenya in the 1960s.

Tiffany’s, which played a major role in elevating these two East African unknowns to collector gems, played an equally important role in the success of California tourmaline. Tiffany’s was among the world’s most adventurous jewelry stores, ever alert to new gem discoveries for which it could negotiate exclusive distribution rights.

How it managed to do so for California tourmaline would make a riveting movie, as filled with action and intrigue as any plot based on the state’s far more famous gold rush.

The Tourmaline Rush

At the turn of the century, California was to tourmaline what South Africa was to diamonds. Between 1898 and 1914, California’s San Diego county was unrivalled in production of this gem: Brazil, Burma, and Ceylon couldn’t touch it. In fact, close to 100 tons of tourmaline were produced by a single mine, the Himalaya Mine in Mesa Grande, 80 percent of the region’s production during the period.

Tiffany cornered the market in California’s tourmaline in a rather ungentlemanly manner. Gemologist J.L. Tannenbaum jumped the previous owner’s claim. Or so a 1904 court judgement against him suggests.

From the first time he laid eyes on the new California tourmaline, Tannenbaum was determined to possess it. He was unable to determine the exact location of the deposit so he journeyed to San Diego in 1902 and combed the countryside posing as a consumptive looking to buy a mountain cabin to improve his health. It may have improved his wealth instead: he found his ideal spot for a cabin next to the Himalaya mine. In no time at all, the “tubercular” man began his exercise regime, by vigorously working the Himalaya Mine. The mine’s owner, Gail Lewis, who Tannenbaum claimed had improperly filed his mining claim, promptly sued. Eventually, Tannenbaum paid Lewis $40,000 for the rights to the mine.

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California Tourmaline