How Tourmaline Led the Colored Gemstone Market
It is rare when we can attribute the creation of a new market to one person. When it comes to gemstones, an American named George Frederick Kunz can fairly be said to have created the modern market for colored stones.
Kunz was a classic American success story. Born in New York City in 1856, the child of hard-working European immigrants, he developed a passion for minerals at an early age. One would think that a childhood spent in urban New York and New Jersey would present few opportunities for an aspiring rockhound. But Kunz took full advantage of the many excavations for new roads, tunnels and railways in the fast-growing metropolis. One of his notable finds was a 9 pound, 10 ounce garnet crystal that was discovered by a worker digging a sewer on West 35th Street in Manhattan. Kunz eventually donated the huge garnet to the American Museum of Natural History where it remains today.
Largely self-educated, Kunz was a fanatical collector. By the age of 20, he had amassed a collection of 4,000 carefully labeled specimens weighing over 2 tons in total, which he sold to the University of Minnesota for $400. He was enormously proud and wrote that the sale "officially placed me among recognized mineralogists".
In 1875, the 20 year old Kunz walked into the offices of Tiffany & Co. in New York City with some fine green tourmaline that he had obtained from the Mount Mica Mine in Maine. Tiffany & Co., founded in 1837, had already become the largest jewelry business in the world, but their business was strictly in precious stones - diamond, ruby, emerald and sapphire. Kunz wanted to sell them semi-precious stones, and he brought a green tourmaline gem to convince them.
Kunz managed to get in to see Charles Tiffany on that day, and persuaded him to buy the tourmaline. It was the beginning of a long relationship. Kunz eventually became the resident gem expert at Tiffany & Co., an influential position that he held for 53 years.
Kunz was extremely successful in finding gem sources for the jewelry made by Tiffany. However, he influenced the market in more important ways. He became a prolific author of journal articles and important books on gemstones, such as Gems and Precious Stones of North America (1890) and The Curious Lore of Precious Stones (1913). He was one of the founders of the New York Mineralogical Club and was made Honorary Curator of Precious Stones at the American Museum of Natural History.
Kunz was always a collector. With his position at Tiffany & Co., he began to collect for some of the great names of his time, including a research collection assembled for Thomas Edison, and the famous J.P. Morgan-Tiffany collection of gems, which went to the American Museum of Natural History. He was also instrumental in the purchase of the famous Bement mineral collection for the American Museum by J.P. Morgan. These collections are widely regarded as the greatest gemstone collections in the world.
In 1903, the pink gem variety of spodumene was named kunzite in his honor. He died in New York on June 29, 1932. His enduring legacy will certainly include his work for Tiffany & Co. and the fine books he wrote on gemstones. Additionally, the remarkable gemstone collections that he gathered, including many of the rarest specimens in the world, will be displayed in museums for many generations to come.
- First Published: February-18-2008
- Last Updated: February-06-2020
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