By Dr Emrys Chew

Emerald takes its name from the Persian word for green, which evolved into the Greek and Latin smaragdus. Worshipped throughout the ages for its glorious colour, the inner radiance of emerald was likened by the ancients to the captured glow of a firefly. Writing in first-century Rome, Pliny the Elder commented that ‘no other stone has a colour that is more delightful to the eye’. Because of its verdant beauty, emerald has long symbolized the life force of the cosmos, the season of spring and the promise of rebirth. According to an alchemists’ legend, the philosopher’s emerald is of all stones the one that breathes life into nature. In Central America, it was a fertility token; the Aztecs called it quetzlitzli, associating emerald with the quetzl, a mythical green-feathered bird that ushered in spring’s renewal. The ancient Greeks dedicated the stone to Aphrodite, their goddess of love. The early Christians associated it with the apostle John, the ‘beloved disciple’ whose pastoral writings could soothe and refresh the soul. In some versions of the Arthurian legend, an emerald that fell from Satan’s helmet was transformed by the hands of God into the Holy Grail, the bowl supposedly used by Christ at the Last Supper. In due course, with the scarcity of green forests and fields in their countries, and the fact that green would become the holy colour of Islam, Muslim societies would also cherish the gem in a special way: the magnificent collections of emeralds so highly-prized by the great Islamic land empires of Asia have become legendary.

Although smaragdus was used in the ancient world to describe many green gem materials, the name emerald is now used exclusively to denote a particular green variety of the mineral beryl (beryllium aluminium silicate). Coloured by traces of chromium, or in some instances vanadium and iron, it ranges in shade from a soft, slightly yellowish ‘grass green’ to a deep, velvety bluish-green. Emerald is also a moderately hard stone, rated 7.5 to 8 on Mohs’ scale. But due to the natural processes of geological formation, most emeralds are structurally flawed and fairly brittle, containing minute cracks, fissures and other inclusions known popularly as the ‘jardin’ (or garden) of the emerald. As a result, the most valuable stones are an intense medium-dark green, with a soft velvety appearance and a minimum of flaws. Gems of this quality are extremely rare; and much less than one per cent can be classified in this grade. In sizes of two or three carats and above, emeralds are far more expensive than diamonds of the same weight and quality, surpassed in commercial value only by their equivalents in ruby and imperial jadeite.

In view of the richness of its green coloration and its rarity, legendary properties have long been attributed to the emerald. The ancients regarded emerald as a magical crystal that could impart supernatural foreknowledge and insight; reveal fidelity or unfaithfulness in love; and grant protection from witchcraft, poison, and ailments associated with the eye, stomach, and liver. Emeralds, as a natural tranquilizer, were thought to shorten labour and hasten childbirth. Julius Caesar wore emeralds, believing they warded off eye diseases and epilepsy; and Nero was said to refresh his vision by viewing the violence of gladiatorial combats through the cool clarity of a fine emerald. During the Renaissance, goldsmiths and watchmakers suffering from eye strain after long hours of delicate work would restore their vision by resting their eyes on an emerald. And while the therapeutic effects of green are widely recognised even today, powder made from ground emeralds has been employed in a host of medicines since the dawn of antiquity; stones of low quality are still pulverised into a fine dust and used as an ingredient by present-day apothecaries in India and China.

The earliest known emerald mines were situated in Egypt in the Sikait-Zubara region near the Red Sea. Operated as early as 2000 BCE, then lost for centuries, their locations were rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. It is probable that the emeralds of virtually all ancient jewellery came from these so-called ‘Cleopatra’s Mines,’ though most were pale green, mottled and heavily flawed. Although these mines have run dry, it is said that they once yielded sufficient stones for Cleopatra to have them engraved with her portrait, which she then gave away to her many favourites as mementos. Nowadays, emeralds are found in other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Russia, Norway, Australia, and parts of Africa and South America. Some fine emeralds are produced at Sandawana in Zimbabwe; Kitwe in Zambia; Swat in Pakistan; and Minas Gerais in Brazil.

However, the world’s finest emeralds come from Colombia. Emeralds mined in Colombia were used for trade, ceremonial objects, and personal adornment throughout Central and South America since pre-Columbian times. When the Spaniards invaded the New World in the sixteenth century, they found the Incas in possession of vast quantities of fine emeralds; the gems were soon seized and sent back to Europe, where they were avidly received. From Peru, the conquistador Pizarro dispatched four chests of Colombian emeralds to his king, the Emperor Charles V, in 1533. While the precise source of these stones was never discovered, owing to careful concealment by the Incas and rapid jungle growth, this would not deter the Spanish from taking over other mining operations in the region. At Chivor and Muzo, located respectively 75 kilometres northeast and 105 kilometres north of present-day Bogota, fabulous emeralds still occur in veins within shales and limestones. When these emeralds first appeared in global markets, they were found to be far larger, more transparent, and much greener than those mined in Egypt: those from Chivor are a clear bluish-green, whereas those from Muzo are a rich velvety green. One superb example of European jewellery fashioned with these gems is the so-called Spanish Inquisition necklace, dating from the sixteenth century and now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The French traveller and jewel trader, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, observed that the Spanish also carried emeralds across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines. During the seventeenth century, large Colombian emeralds were eagerly sought by the Mughal rulers of India; the Mughals were arguably the wealthiest and most knowledgeable royal collectors of gems and the jewelled arts. By way of Spain, and through well-established trade routes across the Indian Ocean, a vast proportion of the early Colombian stones found a ready market in India. One exquisite piece is the 217.8-carat gem aptly named the Mughal; probably worn on an article of clothing, perhaps a turban, the front of the stone is carved with a floral motif typical of Mughal carvers, while the back is inscribed with an Islamic prayer and the date 1695. (In 2001, this gem was sold at auction for more than £1.5 million.) Many other Colombian emeralds fell into the hands of the Persian Nadir Shah during the sack of Delhi in 1739, including those mounted on the fabled Peacock Throne of the Great Mughal. Some of these were subsequently acquired by Arab sheikhs and the Ottoman sultans; the remarkable 75-carat Hooker emerald, now on display at the Smithsonian, is once thought to have adorned a Turkish sultan’s belt buckle. The British, too, acquired some of the emeralds when they ruled India; at the Delhi Durbar of 1911, Queen Mary wore a magnificent suite of jewellery incorporating emeralds of Colombian origin that had become Mughal treasures. But it is thought that the bulk of these emeralds—a thousand pieces, mostly over 10 carats and five exceeding 300 carats in weight—still grace the collection of the crown jewels of Iran in Tehran.

Further Reading

  1.  Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, trans. V. Ball, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1925), originally published in 1681 as part of his larger text, Les six voyages de J.-B. Tavernier.
  2. Christopher Cavey, Gems and Jewels: Fact and Fable (London, 1992).
  3. Peter Keller, Gemstones and their origins (New York, 1990).
  4. Patrick Voillot, Diamonds and Precious Stones (London, 1998).