If your heart skips a beat as you twirl the vibrant, velvety green gem on your finger, then you’re in good company. Some of the world’s most beautiful women - as well as quite a few men - have been in love with emeralds and formed fabled and fabulous collections. From one of history’s most infamous rulers, the Empress Cleopatra, to the violet-eyed actress who played her centuries later in film, Elizabeth Taylor, to the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson and her Cartier emerald engagement ring, to Diana, Princess of Wales who casually wore the precious Cambridge emeralds as a headband to a party. The stuff of intrigue and legend, emeralds themselves have just as much of a colourful history as their owners.
A ruler at 18, ambitious, intelligent and ruthless, Cleopatra wore her priceless pearls and emeralds to dazzle her enemies, as well as a symbol and lavish display of Egypt’s wealth and riches. And in the manner of keeping your enemies closer, she bewitched two of Rome’s most powerful men of the time, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony and had love affairs with both. As well as seducing Romans, Cleopatra gifted visiting ambassadors with emeralds carved with her portrait. Said to represent fertility and rebirth, wealthy individuals were buried with emeralds to symbolise eternal youth.
Emeralds were equally prized in Ancient Rome, and were described as being more inspiring than Nature to look at. Writing in his Natural History of 23 AD, Pliny the Elder said that there was “no stone the colour of which is more delightful to the eye, for whereas the eye fixes itself with avidity upon the green grass and foliage of trees, we have all the more pleasure in looking upon emerald, there being no green in existence more intense than this”.
EMERALD EYE GLASSES
Not only did the Romans look at emeralds, they also looked through them. Pliny believed that the green of emeralds was beneficial for eye strain, and described how the short-sighted Emperor Nero used to hold a large emerald hexagon crystal close to his eye so that he could see the Gladiatorial Games more clearly. In fact, the German word ‘brille’ which means eye glasses, is derived from the word beryl. Pliny was also the first to discover that emerald is part of the Beryl family of gemstones, which includes aquamarine and morganite.
The first known working emerald mines date from 3500 BC in Egypt near the Red Sea, known as Cleopatra’s Mines. Lost for centuries, they were rediscovered in 1816, but no longer produce emeralds.
For Elizabeth Taylor, it was the stunning and unparalleled fire of Colombian emeralds that entranced her. Writing in her book “My Love Affair with Jewelry”, she told how one of the biggest advantages to working on the film “Cleopatra” in Rome in the Sixties, was visiting “Bulgari’s nice little shop.” Ms Taylor described Gianni Bulgari opening a safe drawer and a little chunk of green flame coming out. Then, “He opened another drawer and this time a giant green flame leapt out!” She wrote that she and Richard Burton simply gasped. ”… and I thought, Oh my god, I’ve got to have the emeralds.”
Elizabeth Taylor adored wearing her emeralds as much as possible - at her wedding, at the Oscars, meeting the Queen – she believed her treasures should be worn and not just languish in the safe. Her emerald and diamond pendant later sold at Christie’s New York in 2011 for US$ 6,578,500, for a record US$280,000 per carat. Her stunning natural emeralds with their hidden lightening flash of red fluorescence came from the ancient Muzo mine, in the western foothills of the Colombian Andes.
The largest emerald in the world, The Fura, which weighs 11,000 carats or 2.27 kilos, was mined in Muzo, and the region around Muzo , Coscuez and Chivor has produced the finest emeralds ever found. The emeralds of the Andes mines are today called the National Pride of Colombia.
When the Conquistadores invaded South America in the 1500’s, they discovered enormous quantities of emeralds in Aztec and Inca royal treasure houses and temples. Said to be the size of ostrich eggs, these emeralds were worshipped by indigenous tribes who believed the goddess Esmeralda lived inside them. These South American treasures were plundered and brought to Europe by an international trade of gem merchants and adventurers. Wealthy businessmen of the day invested in expeditions to the New World, hoping to increase their riches.
One such privateer was Sir Francis Drake, with his fast and famous galleon, The Golden Hind, who brought his Queen great returns on her investments. Queen Elizabeth the First, had Colombian emeralds set in the state regalia, and sewn on her gowns to display her wealth, the success of the English explorers as well as to detract her subjects from noticing the increasing decay of her personal attractions.
Fine Colombian emeralds found their way from the New World to India, Turkey and Persia. A flourishing emerald gem cutting and jewellery industry then traded finished pieces back to Europe. Often inscribed with sacred text, these are known as Mogul emeralds, and today are displayed in museums around the world. The biggest and the best of these Colombian emeralds were collected in their thousands by India’s spectacularly wealthy Maharajah’s, destined for the magnificent turban jewellery or ‘Sarpech.’
These Columbian emeralds collected in India travelled to Paris centuries later. The Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, famously turned up in Place Vendome with six trucks full of 1,432 huge emeralds for Boucheron to design and set into magnificent jewellery – mostly for himself, although his many wives were also gifted fabulous jewellery. In the 1940’s, Van Cleef and Arpels was commissioned by the second wife of the Maharaja of Baroda to make “The Baroda Set” another beautiful suite of emerald and diamond jewellery. The fame and fortunes of Place Vendome jewellers including Cartier and Chaumet owe a great deal to the decadence and splendour of the Maharajas.
Today, our fascination with emeralds continues, and we are seduced by their intense and deep colour saturation. The more vivid the colour, and the more transparent and clean the stone, the more valuable the emerald. As each emerald is unique, there is no fixed carat price. Colour, Clarity, Cut and Carat are the 4 C’s of emeralds, according to GIA, and prices per carat vary depending on location and the individual beauty of each gem.
It takes a Supernova to make an emerald! The minerals emerald and beryl are beryllium silicates, and the heavy metal beryllium wasn’t created by the Big Bang in the Earth’s crust, rather it came to earth from stardust. Formed under intense heat and pressure, an emerald’s colour comes from trace elements of chromium, vanadium and iron found within the mineral beryl. Because of this hydrothermal formation, natural emeralds usually have inclusions, a “jardin” or garden, which allows gemmologists to pinpoint their locality. These emeralds are often immersed in baby oil or waxed to minimise the appearance of inclusions and to maximise the dispersion of light.
An extremely rare emerald is the Trapiche. Named after the Spanish word for the cogwheels used in sugar mills, the Trapiche emerald shows a distinctive texture resembling a wheel with six spokes. A continuing fascinating conundrum for geologists, these mineral curiosities are prized by collectors and have only been occasionally recovered from just a few mines in Colombia.
We can pick and choose our emeralds from different locations around the world. These days many mine owners have cleaned up their act, and practice a core sustainability programme for environmental and human rights. There are new investors in the market and with companies such as Muzo and Gemfields championing ethical mining, consumers can buy with confidence.
Rarer than diamonds, fine quality emeralds over 10 carats remain the most desirable gemstone in today’s competitive fine jewellery market due to their incomparable colour, allure and history. Finding a ruby or sapphire over 10 carat would be more expensive per carat than a similar size and quality emerald. However, according to Gabriella Harvey, director of cut emerald sales from Gemfields, who control the Kagen Mine in Zambia, the world’s largest emerald mine,” High quality emeralds will always be in demand because of the mining production. Premium emeralds equate to less than one percent of production.”
History says that the Colombian emeralds from the Muzo area continue to set the standard as the best and finest in the world, however, prices for Zambian emeralds are increasing due to transparency of production as well as magnificent gems are coming to market. So whether you choose to invest in Colombian, Zambian or Brazilian emeralds, who can resist a little piece of twinkling green stardust on their finger?
Emerald Localities - Afghanistan, Brazil, Colombia, India, Madagascar, Pakistan, Russia, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Emeralds are May’s birthstone, and the 20th and 35th Anniversary gemstone.
Elizabeth Taylor ‘My Love Affair with Jewelry”
Hazel Forsyth ‘London’s Lost Jewels’
Joanna Hardy “Emeralds’
Pliny the Elder ‘Natural History’
Reenu Ahluwalia The Magnificent Maharajas of India
The Smithsonian Museum USA
The Natural History Museum London
The Victoria and Albert Museum, Jewellery Collection, London
The Field Museum, Grainger Hall of Gems Chicago USA
Victoria Findlay “Jewels A Secret History” ‘Colour’ and ‘Buried Treasure’