History of Tourmaline

Tourmaline comes in many different shades and so was most likely equated with other similarly-colored gemstones in antiquity. As a result, it is difficult to trace Tourmaline in early lapidaries, texts which describe gemstones and their powers.

Pliny the Elder (CE 23-79), a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, may have described Tourmaline in his lapidary, The Natural History of Precious Gemstones.  Pliny the Elder described two stones from India which he called lychnis (probably a red Dravite Tourmaline) and iona (probably a purple Dravite Tourmaline). These two stones had an unusual quality when left to heat in the sun, or warmed by rubbing them vigorously, they would attract small pieces of paper or straw. Tourmaline does in fact have a pyroelectric quality, meaning that when it is heated it gains a static charge which attracts small particles of dust, paper, lint etc.

Centuries later, Dutch traders in the Indian Ocean brought back to Europe numerous examples of Tourmaline. According to legend, while the Tourmaline were on display in Amsterdam, Dutch children pointed out that the straw from the packaging material was magically attached to the stones. Soon after, Dutch scientists confirmed the unusual trait. While the legend is endearing, it is more likely that Tourmaline’s pyroelectic properties were discovered by Dutch jewelers, who commonly tested the durability of new gemstones by placing them in a fire. When heated, the Tourmaline would have attracted the ash from the fire. Indeed, Tourmaline was originally called aschentrekker, or “ash-attracter”. Later it was called the “electric stone.”

During this time period, Tourmaline’s metaphysical qualities were first recorded. A European lapidary in 1632 states: “[Tourmaline is] the stone of wisdom, that is clear and resistant to all vagaries of fate.”  Seventy years later, Tourmaline’s modern name was first used when the Dutch East India Company marketed  Sri Lanka Tourmaline by its Sinhalese name, Turamli, which is thought to have meant either “stone with mixed colors” or “gem pebbles”.

Dutch East India Company

Fleet of the Dutch East India Company by Ludolf Bakhuizen

Black Tourmaline is also called ‘Schorl’. This name dates back to at least 1400, and was named after a village in Germany named Zschorlau. The villages was near a tin mine, where Black Tourmaline was also found. Medieval German natural historians described the black stone and called it “schurl” a variation on the village’s name.