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History of gemstones in San Diego

San Diego's Gemstone History

Some of the most beautiful gemstones in the world have come out of Southern California, and San Diego has a rich mining history. In 1842, six years before the California gold rush started in 1848, miners were pulling museum-quality gems out of the hills of San Diego County.

Pink tourmaline was especially lucrative since the Dowager Empress of China was obsessed with the stone at the time. Now famous Tiffany & Co. was the facilitator of the pink tourmaline trade between Southern California and China.

Royalty in China would place an order and J.L. Tannenbaum, a Tiffany gemologist at the time, commissioned miners in Southern California to mine and ship the order. This continued until the death of the Empress in 1911. In the trade’s last decade, San Diego sent 120 tons of gem-quality pink tourmaline overseas.

Topaz is another gem that is a Southern California specialty. John W. Ware was a San Diego jeweler who owned and operated a small mine on Smith Mountain that produced blue topaz. He had marketed the product from his small mine so well that he eventually was importing the gem to meet his demand.

Morganite is a gem that was discovered in two of San Diego’s mines: Sempe and Tourmaline Queen. Another Tiffany & Co. gemologist, George F. Kunz, named the gem after one of Tiffany’s most distinguished customers, J.P. Morgan. While the discovery and rise in popularity of morganite is attributed to Southern California, it’s since been mined from Afghanistan, Brazil, and Madagascar.

San Diego's Gems on Display

Some of these local gems can be found in structures around San Diego. One of the most notable of these displays was Jessop’s Clock in downtown San Diego. The clock was designed by Joseph Jessop (second-generation jeweler with a local mine at Mount Palomar) and finished construction in 1907. It contains 17 gems that were mined from the Jessop Mine including tourmaline, agate, topaz, and jade.

The clock stood outside of J. Jessop and Sons Jewelry Store through two downtown locations. In 1984 it was relocated to Horton Plaza where it was on display until 2019 when the lease agreement at Horton Plaza ended. Since 2019 it’s been kept safely in storage, awaiting a new lease to be signed for its public display.

Looking to get your gemstones appraised? Contact us today to set up an appointment with our independent appraiser. Alternatively, if you’re looking to add these or other stones to your collection, visit Leo Hamel Fine Jewelers on San Diego Avenue to find the perfect gemstone jewelry piece.