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Maine Tourmaline

If you are among those who believe that United States history begins with Christopher Columbus and not the people he and his successors found here, then 1820 is the starting point and Maine the starting place of any gem mining history of the United States.

Late in the fall of that year, two young boys, Elijah Hamlin and Ezekiel Holmes, spotted a green crystal lying at the base of an uprooted tree while hiking on Mt. Mica, near the town of Paris. A short distance away, the boys found a small sprinkling of more crystals. Had not a blizzard that night blanketed the area, exploration of the United States’ first recorded gem deposit, a rich find of tourmaline, might have begun the next day instead of waiting until the spring of 1821.

Meanwhile, the two boys showed the crystals they had found to area residents, hoping they could identify them. When the material proved too perplexing, it was sent to Yale University where a geology professor, Benjamin Silliman, identified it as tourmaline.

Locals can be excused for their bafflement since tourmaline, in author John Sinkankas’ words, was then “a relative newcomer to the Western world.” Indeed, Europeans had only seen their first parcels of the gem in 1703 when it arrived in shipments from Ceylon with the species name turamali, a Singhalese word meaning “mixed colored stones” that miners had started using because tourmaline is typically found with other species. Some historians find it fitting that such a Johnny-come-lately among gems is the first to have been mined in abundance in post-native America.

John Sinkankas, writing in his masterpiece “Gemstones of North America,” describes tourmaline as “a series of closely related species rather than a mineral occurring in several varieties.” Others see it more as a family. But no matter what it is considered, tourmaline is usually found in hill or underground pockets, nearly always intermingled with crystals of quartz and other minerals such as feldspar and beryl.

Invariably, these pockets are located in pegmatites which are very coarse-grained igneous (the result of volcanic action) rock formations in whose cracks and fissures other gem mineral groupings have crystallized. Mining consists of finding these openings and extracting their tourmaline booty.

Given tourmaline’s violent genesis, it is hardly surprising that miners usually find crystals of this gem strewn on the floor of the pockets in which they’re found. Sometimes these crystals are suitable for faceting, other times they make ideal mineral specimens, but very often, says miner/faceter John Bradshaw, Nashua, New Hampshire, “they are useable only as driveway fill.”

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Maine Tourmaline