August 04, 2020

Tourmaline> Maine’s mountain treasure

A glint of green reflecting the setting sun on an autumn day in 1820 signalled the presence of a vast hidden treasury of tourmaline, the state’s official mineral. On that day in the year Maine became a state, Elijah Hamlin and a friend, Ezekiel Holmes, were looking for minerals on a hill in the town of Paris. Hamlin was the older brother of Hannibal Hamlin, United States vice president under Abraham Lincoln.

Elijah’s son, Augustus, wrote in 1873 that as the pair began to descend the hill, “a gleam of green flashed upon an object on the roots of a tree upturned by the wind, and caught the eye of young Hamlin.”

At Mount Mica the pair had stumbled upon one of the “richest and rarest of nature’s laboratories,” said the author.

The quickly descending darkness and a heavy blanket of snow that night prevented further exploration until the next spring when they found more than 30 tourmaline crystals.

Two years later, brothers Hannibal and Cyrus Hamlin unearthed more than two bushels of tourmaline from Mount Mica.

Gemstones from that find as well as others were incorporated with Maine gold into a unique necklace owned by Harvard Mineralogical Museum since 1934 in a bequest by Augustus Hamlin.

John Bradshaw of Nashua, N.H., a gem curator at Harvard Museum, said he was offered nearly $500,000 by an American collector for the Hamlin necklace.

Bradshaw explained that the original necklace contained closely spaced North American gemstones along its chain. Later the gemstones were rearranged to feature only colorful Maine tourmaline and clear beryl, he said.

“Somewhere along the line the design ended up where it is now, with no documentation as to who did it,” said Bradshaw. “The stones are all from Mount Mica with the exception of one which is from Mount Rubellite in Hebron.”

That discovery of Maine’s “mountain treasure” was the prelude to recognition of Maine’s gemstones and mineral resources as being among the finest in the country and later in the world, according to Woodrow Thompson, a physical geologist with the Maine Geological Survey.

Maine’s tourmalines range in rich colors of pink, red, green, blue, blue-green, black, white and clear. The “watermelon” combination ranging from pink to green is highly sought after.

The continued dispersal of Maine’s prized tourmaline and related minerals to collectors outside of Maine is of grave concern to James Vose of Lincoln, a jeweler for 42 years and gemologist for 25.

Of Vose’s desire for the Hamlin necklace to be returned to Maine, Bradshaw said, “Only if Massachusetts and Maine meld, will it end up back in Maine!”

Through the years Vose has emphasized the need for a fund or a benefactor to purchase rare specimens for a Maine museum collection.

“There must be a benefactor out there,” said Vose. “If a good speciman becomes available, maybe Maine can have it instead of it going to Harvard or Yale.”

Last October, the Friends of the Maine State Museum approved a specific endowment policy for acquisition of Maine gems and minerals. Donations to the group will purchase collections, pay for care and storage and support archaeology, research and education programs.

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