Journey to the stone - Paraiba Tourmaline
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Welcome to the Journey to the Stone podcast! Today, we’re talking about one of the world’s most loved gems — one of the fastest-growing in the world market today. It is one of the rarest, but also one of the biggest, most in-demand, crazy-loved gemstones. When it comes to color, Paraiba tourmaline has taken the world by storm.
There is nothing like it. It’s a very rare species of tourmaline, and it has excited people at all levels of the gemstone world, whether enthusiasts, collectors, auction sales, museum showcases — when people see it, people love it and people want it.
So let me take you back to 1988 or 1989, when this gem was originally discovered, in the state of Paraíba, Brazil. It’s quite interesting, because when the stone was brought in 1990 to the Tucson Gem Show — the first stones of tourmaline that were coming out of the state of Paraíba — they were sold at the show for $200 a carat. The same stones have now resurfaced today and are selling for $50,000 a carat. And I want to talk about the trajectory and how exactly this happened.
The discovery was in the late 1980s, and then it came to the US market in the 90s. And it caught popularity pretty quickly because of its amazing color. It started around $200-$300 a carat, trading at the wholesale level, and it quickly went up in the 90s to $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 a carat, because the demand was so strong but the supply was so limited. And therefore prices soared.
As you went into the early 2000s period, you basically saw an exponential demand for this gemstone. People started seeing it, people started talking about it, people just wanted more and more Brazilian Paraiba. And then going into 2000, this gem soared up to over five digits per carat. That’s a significant jump — to be discovered in ’89 or ’90, and go through only 10-15 years, and already have gone up from $100-$200 per carat to over $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 a carat. It was something that the world had never really seen before.
This was all a bit early for me, because when it was discovered in Brazil, I was very young at the time — I was a young teenager. There I was in Thailand. I had heard all about this stone: I went to the Tucson Gem Show when I was 16 years old and saw it there. But I didn’t really have access to Brazil at the time, because I was still a teenager, right? So I was doing most of my work gem-hunting, but in Southeast Asia. I didn’t really get access to the big boom of Brazilian Paraiba tourmaline and so I couldn’t really capitalize financially on its growth. Not until much later, when I was able to get into Teófilo Otoni, go to Belo Horizonte, cross over into the state of Paraíba in Brazil, and get to know the miners there. But that’s a different story for another time.
Year 2000, here we are. Now we’re in the African plains and there’s crazy stuff happening. The discoveries in Tanzania, the discoveries in Nigeria, the discoveries in Mozambique — it is like the Wild West here in Africa. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it. In other podcasts, you’ll hear me talk about my journeys to Sri Lanka, to Burma, to other places I went prior to Africa, at the end of the 90s, going into the early 2000s — but here we were.
There was a purple stone, a tourmaline variety, discovered in the Oyo region of Nigeria. Nobody knew what it was. It was new days, it was early discoveries, it was something different.
Well guess what? I knew exactly what it was.
I knew this material, because I immediately checked the copper concentration in the crystal structure, and I knew, wow. Mother Nature placed one of the rarest geological phenomena ever here. She had placed it in Nigeria.
Then I looked at the map. If you look at the map of Pangaea, back when the world was one supercontinent, you will see that the state of Paraíba in Brazil directly connects with Oyo, Nigeria. So they were actually one part, together, in the supercontinent. And as the different continents drifted away, that geological vein was separated into two different locales: Brazil and Africa. But it was the same geological structure.
So I knew immediately that we had basically hit something that nobody had ever seen before. I bought everything I could, took it back to home base, at that time in Thailand, and basically held on to these stones and sold them into the market. I was selling them to wholesalers and dealers, and it was just really quite remarkable. But there was not a lot of material that came out of Nigeria — it wasn’t enough at the time to really make a big, huge bang in the world market. Because we’re still talking about very limited quantities, you know. You’d go to Nigeria and pick up 10, 12, 15 pieces, but there wasn’t the volume that could really grab the world market interest.
Most people actually thought Nigerian stones were Brazilian stones. At that time, the education was more about, “wow, these stones are primarily from Brazil, they’re from the state of Paraíba.” And actually, the largest market I was selling these to were the Brazilians. The Brazilians were buying the Nigerian Paraibas and taking them back to Brazil and selling them. That’s the way it was.
Then something happened. 2003. Here we are. Mozambique.
Now I was actually in Mozambique on a routine trip. About an hour and a half outside of Nampula, I was looking for aquamarine. A little bit of tourmaline was discovered in that area, as well as some precious stones — sapphire, ruby, et cetera. And there’s these guys panning in the river, and the guy pulls out a stone.
And he has no idea what this is: he sees it’s purple, he thinks maybe it’s amethyst, they have no idea right.
And there I am, looking at this stone, and I know exactly what it is.
Now what’s interesting about this type of material that was different, was that this material wasn’t from a primary source. You see, if you look at Paraibas that come from Brazil, they grow in the marble host rock. So you can actually see them growing, in the host rock, in the crystals that are formed in that host rock, because it’s a primary source. And if you go to Nigeria, you’ll see it is also a primary source where those particular Paraibas are growing in the host rock — very similar to their counterpart in Brazil.
And here comes Mozambique. They’re water-worn. You know what water-worn is? Water-worn is basically: if you take a Coke bottle that breaks, for example if you’ve ever seen a broken Coke bottle on the beach, and you know it’s been running around, in the sand, and it gets water-worn — you know, the sharpness of the edges get worn off, it sort of becomes rounded — the same happens with gems that have been transported from other locales.
So let’s say the actual primary source is actually from 300, 400 miles away, and these gems have rolled on the bottom of the river bed, and they basically have been transported to one location where there’s a big crevice. And because gems are actually more dense than water, they fall into this crevice, only to be discovered thousands and thousands of years later.
So here we got this guy who pulls out this purple stone, and I’m like, OK. This is different. I’m looking at it, and of course I stay in Mozambique for several weeks to find out more. Then I find a green one, then we find another purple one, and then we just — the race is on. So we’re looking for these rare tourmalines; I literally went to Mozambique forty times that year, and bought every Mozambican Paraiba I could get my hands on.
Now what was interesting about this deposit is when it came out, it came out with a little bit of quantity, right? So the Brazilians immediately threw a wobbly here. I remember when the Brazilians filed legal cases against this gem being able to be called Paraiba tourmaline, because Paraíba is a state in Brazil, and they felt threatened that their Paraibas would diminish in value. And I understood the concept of that, and eventually it went to court, it went up to the higher court, it was appealed to the Supreme Court — and ultimately, the judge said look, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, most likely it’s a duck. And then all of a sudden, all the labs in the world started shifting their descriptions on their certificates from “copper bearing tourmaline” to “Cuprian tourmaline” to everyone just calls it Paraiba tourmaline, and that’s basically what it is, regardless of its locale, whether it’s Nigeria, Mozambique or Brazil.
Now, Brazilian Paraibas can demand huge premiums, because a lot of people want a Brazilian stone. And a lot of times, the Brazilian stones have a higher copper content. Like 900, 1200 copper content, which a lot of times can be blue — but they’re also more included in most cases — but look, I’ve seen these kinds of colors found in all of the locales, and you know, different people have different preferences. I mean: beautiful, perfectly clean, top-gem-quality Mozambique Paraiba will blow your head off. It is unbelievable. And to be honest, I’ve seen it with 1200 to 1400 copper content, as high — and even higher than — most Brazilian stones. So it really depends. And Mother Nature works in mysterious ways.
Sure, there’s certain things in certain areas, but the Paraiba Tourmaline even today — ok, I’ll take you back. I bought all this rough in Mozambique when these stones came out. To date, I have sold probably 75% of all my rough to the Brazilian market. The Brazilians are the biggest buyers of Paraiba in the world. They also sell it in the US and across the world, but it is one of the best-selling gems within, you know, Brazil itself, because it’s a national pride gem, and there is no more “real Brazilian paraiba” of any size. Now Mozambique produces them, and has produced some larger sizes, and also something that no one had ever seen before: perfectly flawless Paraiba.
Now it’s very rare, it’s only 1 in maybe 100,000 Paraibas, that is perfectly, perfectly clean. I mean, flawless. It is very, very uncommon. But it does happen occasionally out of Mozambique and Nigeria.
Almost impossible to see anything like that out of Brazil. I mean, stones have soared to a quarter of a million dollars a carat if they have even a fraction of clarity coming out of Brazil, surpassing the 2.00-3.00 carats size. they go crazy prices, with crazy numbers, and it’s just something we just don’t see a lot of. And current mining today, if you go look at what they’re mining in Brazil, the majority will be 1 point or 2 point diamond cuts — that’s what they focus on. Good colors, but very small, brilliant diamond cuts.
So, when you see Paraibas that are big, or clean, or have nice color, they are extremely rare. The majority of Paraibas out there, if they have nice color, are very, very included. It’s just the way it is. The higher the copper concentration, manganese concentration, the more included it is. Now, if you got a clean stone — that is something that is extremely rare.
Now let’s talk about some notable stones and Paraibas that Kat Florence has gotten throughout the years. And stones that I have discovered throughout the years. So there’s the 91.00 carats that currently is the largest Paraiba to ever be sold at auction. That stone is flawless. It is a flawless Paraiba tourmaline, it was set by Kat Florence, you’ll see it all other the place, in shots with Sarah Jessica Parker. Amazing color! That stone — extremely rare. That was a 91.00 carats. There’s a couple of 50.00 and 60.00 carats that were really like, over 100.00 carat, until Kat cut them down, because Kat likes to put on that precision diamond cut, where the stone is flawless. And that is extremely, extremely unique. I mean, not only Kat Florence does that, but it is something that is distinct to what she does.
But there’s a couple of Brazilian notable stones that she set a 10.00 carats Brazilian that, you know, that type of material is $150,000-$200,000 a carat. So there are a lot of stones that have gone through the Kat Florence workshops, that have been some of my most prized collection of Paraibas throughout the years.
Paraiba is a gemstone that I sort of grew up with, hunting, in different places. And I held on to it, and sold a lot of rough, throughout the years, and basically cherry-picked out the fine goods, the stuff that had great color, and good crystallization, or they were flawless and they were very open-color and they got that sparkle. You know, I tend to call it … not only Paraiba, I tend to call it “Aqua-maiba.” You know, when you get that color that’s mid-range, but it absorbs light, it pops! Like you’d never seen tomorrow. I mean, electric! Aquamarines can’t compete. There’s just something about the copper within the crystal structure, there’s a metallic element that just gives it its vibrancy, that is something to die for.