When Julia Daly was trying to choose a wedding ring in 2003, she knew she wanted to go local. Not just with the jeweler. The rock had to be from Maine. She and her husband, Doug Reusch, are both geologists who share a teaching position at the University of Maine at Farmington. Rocks really matter to them. And so does Maine. “We met here,” Daly said.

Enter tourmaline, a gemstone with such deep associations locally that it is the state mineral. The official state of Maine necklace – yes, there is such a thing – is made of tourmaline from Newry, set in gold that also was mined in Maine. Its many carats, some pink, some green, glittered on the neck of first lady Ann LePage at Gov. Paul LePage’s inauguration in January.

That’s a showpiece that spends most of its time in a case at the Blaine House, but increasingly, in our sustainably oriented society, tourmaline is becoming a trendy choice for wedding jewelry, be it an engagement ring or in the case of Daly and Reusch, wedding bands set with stones. It comes in colors that vary from blues to pinks and greens or even the last two together (the so-called watermelon tourmaline).

Part of the trend has to do with aesthetics and price, but there’s also an environmental factor. Tourmaline mining is very often a one-man job, involving blasting, yes, but with fewer impacts on the earth than diamond mining.

“It’s not at all a large-scale mining operation,” said Robert Marvinney, the director of the Maine Geological Survey. “The only waste that is produced are blocks of rock and they are generally inert.” Meaning? “Some mining involves minerals that once you expose them to the atmosphere form sulphuric acid and other nasty components.”

Diamond mining produces much more waste, Marvinney said. Not to mention the bigger carbon footprint required to transport the most traditional wedding gemstone, diamonds (themselves a form of carbon), from mines in Africa or South America than to move tourmaline from mines in South Paris or the Auburn area.

Daly said she thinks her blue stone and Reusch’s green one both came from Mount Mica in Paris, the site of the first major discovery of the gemstone in Maine and nearly 200 years later, still in operation.

PUT A RING ON IT

Jewelers say they’ve seen an uptick in interest in tourmaline for engagement rings in recent years. “In the last five years it has gotten more popular,” said Farmington-based designer Derek Katzenbach, who specializes in tourmaline and has cut many stones mined in recent years, including the biggest recent strike, Dennis Durgin’s 2011 find at Mount Marie in Paris. Katzenbach admits he’s done his part in pushing the stone, for its beauty, versatility and home-grown quality. “People in my generation, I find, are more open to the idea of a tourmaline,” Katzenbach said. “They like local and they want local.”

Maine tourmaline is particularly coveted for the emotional attachment people have to the state, but the stone is hardly unique to Maine. It’s found throughout the world in pegmatite formations, usually running in a vein through the volcanic rocks. Tourmaline is the result, Marvinney said, of “some exotic chemistry” in the final formation of pegmatites as the molten magma cools. “It’s concentrated in this last gasp,” Marvinney said. “It’s almost like the cream on top of the milk.”

Brazil is where the most unusual shades of blue are found, Katzenbach said. But international rocks from Brazil and Africa don’t have nearly the same appeal as the Maine rock for him. “It is not mined as nicely,” he said. “I’ll put it that way. There’s no regulations, no OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), things like that. It’s more of a wild West environment.”

A lower price point, generally a quarter that of diamonds, may have helped sales in an era of recession.

“It’s definitely a trend that is on the rise,” said Karen Pride, who has been with family-owned, Portland-based Cross Jewelers for 30 years. And yes, customers use the word “sustainable” when they inquire about tourmaline rings.

NOT FOREVER

But she, Katzenbach and other jewelers, like Edie Armstrong of Folia in Portland, hasten to tell customers that tourmaline, while more sustainable in origin, does lack a key component for long-term sustainability. It’s softer and less durable. A diamond is a 10 on the scale of hardness while a tourmaline is a 7. Moreover, the scale of measurement of hardness is, like earthquakes measured on the Richter scale, exponential. The next stone up from tourmaline would be called an 8, but would be 10 times as hard as a stone considered a 7, and so forth.

“The downside of tourmaline is that it is much softer than a diamond and it is not going to look as good after a few years,” Armstrong said. How long will it last? “It could be that in three years it looks like hamburger meat,” Armstrong said. “If it were a center stone with a bezel it might be OK for five to 10 years, but it will get much more scratched than a diamond.”

Twenty years ago, at the request of Mike Howe, Armstrong made an engagement ring for her cousin Rachel Ambrose, using green tourmaline as the center stone and featuring smaller diamonds as well. The couple lived in San Francisco at the time, but Ambrose had roots in Maine and Howe, the groom, wanted to honor them. (Full disclosure, Ambrose is a friend of this reporter’s). But it took a beating. “I did everything with it on,” Ambrose said, from washing dishes to moving couches at Home Remedies, her home furnishings business in Portland. First there was a chip, and then one day Ambrose looked down and the tourmaline “was just gone.” She replaced it with a diamond, but Howe’s gesture – including a stone from the place they both loved and eventually settled in – has not been forgotten.

Pride, of Cross Jeweler’s, said for many years, her first instinct was to talk customers out of tourmaline engagement rings for exactly this reason. “The hardness of tourmaline requires that you think about it a little bit,” she said. Pride points to other options for people who want to make a “sustainable” choice, like for instance, buying a vintage diamond ring, which doesn’t take any fresh toll on the earth. But her perspective on tourmaline has shifted.

“We recognized that people can go into something with their eyes open and make an appropriate decision,” Pride said. She likes to ask customers questions like, Are you a woman who never has to ask herself when was the last time she changed the oil in the car? If so, Pride bets you’ll be cautious enough to care for a tourmaline.

That would be Michelle Bineau of Freeport, whose wife Elaine Fougere picked out a watermelon tourmaline stone for her when they got married about a year ago. Fougere found the stone in a gem shop in Augusta and had fallen in love with the story behind it – a happily married couple had invested in $10,000 worth of tourmaline decades ago and kept a family business going for years on that investment. The couple liked the idea of going local with the stone that marked their marriage after many years together. Ethically, it also suited them. “It isn’t a blood diamond, right?” Bineau said.

But then, Bineau said, tourmaline “became our thing.” Something with a story, set in Maine, like her and Fougere’s love story. In fact, that day she was headed to see her tourmaline dealer. Weddings aren’t the only reason to celebrate, after all.