Emeralds: Facts, History, and Legendary Gems

Updated on March 10, 2018
The spectacular Seringapatam Jewels on display in the V&A Museum
The spectacular Seringapatam Jewels on display in the V&A Museum

Emeralds: More Precious Than Diamonds

Did you know that diamonds are not the world's most valuable gems? There is another gemstone, which in its most fine form, can be even more rare and costly than a fine diamond of the same size. The gemstone which can make this impressive claim is the emerald. This is a look at the facts and history of emeralds, their legends and associations, as well as a peek at some of the most spectacular emerald jewelry the world has ever known.

The name “emerald” simply means “green gem”. That is perfectly logical, for if there is one defining characteristic of emeralds, it is their impossibly rich green color. In fact, the reason that Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle” is that its lush fields are the same vivid shade of green as the gemstone. The association grew from there until anything green is strongly associated with Ireland. They don't refer to St. Patrick's Day as “the wearing of the green” for nothing, after all.

Emeralds are part of the mineral family known as beryl. In its most pure form, beryl is colorless. It is the presence of additional mineral deposits which lends clear beryl a color and transforms it into a valuable gemstone. Chromium is what gives emeralds their signature green color. If the beryl is touched by iron deposits instead, the result is an aquamarine. Though also beautiful, the aquamarine does not hold the same value as a top quality emerald.

Emerald crystals in their matrix
Emerald crystals in their matrix

A Fragile Beauty

Emeralds have a well deserved reputation for being a fragile gem. The way in which the crystals are formed in their matrix results in a stone which typically has a large number of inclusions which can compromise the strength of the gem. The inclusions can be anything from air bubbles to bits of other minerals to internal hairline fissures. Emeralds are one of the most highly included gemstones, and fissures which reach the surface are not even uncommon. Numerous inclusions can result in a stone which is prone to cracking if hit; much like the fault lines which cause earthquakes, the inclusions within an emerald are vulnerable areas, prone to giving way under pressure.

Although delicate, emeralds do score a respectable 7.5-8 out of 10 on the Mohs gem hardness scale. (For comparison, diamonds score a 10 out of 10 for hardness.) What this means is that emeralds are not especially vulnerable to light surface scratches; however the brittle nature of the gem, as well as the likelihood of inclusions, does result in a stone which is easily chipped or broken. Despite its durability issues, the incredible beauty of the emerald green color has made it a highly desirable gem for thousands of years.

Emeralds on display in the Smithsonian Institution
Emeralds on display in the Smithsonian Institution

Did You Know Most Emeralds Are Treated?

If you take a walk through the magnificent display of gems at the National Museum Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, you will be awed at the breathtaking emeralds on display in tiaras, pendants, rings, and other jewelry. What may surprise a visitor, however, is the large number of very visible inclusions within these remarkable gems. That is because the emeralds which most of us see in jewelry stores today have been heavily treated with processes which are intended to mask the natural inclusions of emeralds. It is believed that 99% of the emeralds on the market have been treated in some way or another to improve their appearance. One should note, however, that to gemologists, the inclusions within an emerald are not necessarily an eyesore. They are referred to the emerald's jardin, or garden, and are so unique that they can actually tell a trained gemologist the national origin of the gemstone.

The rarity, value, and desirability of emeralds is why they are commonly treated. Infusing the stone with cedar oil is a very old treatment, and is generally considered to be acceptable, as long as it is not concealed from the consumer (in fact, one can safely assume that any emerald seen in a jewelry store has been oiled, unless it is a very rare and expensive stone which has been certified by an independent gem lab). More modern treatments which are typically applied to emeralds are synthetic oils and polymers like Opticon. It is highly important to note that while oiling to improve clarity is widely accepted, adding a colored oil to intensify the green hue of the emerald is considered by most jewelers and gemologists to be a deceptive practice.

Because of the expense and difficulty of obtaining emeralds which have both a bright green color, no cloudiness, and few inclusions, synthetic emeralds are quite popular. The best known maker of lab created gems is Chatham. Keep in mind that a gemologist can easily identify a synthetic emerald by its internal markings, and that the practice of selling lab created emeralds is perfectly ethical, as long as it is revealed to the customer. It is actually not that hard to identify most lab created emeralds to the untrained eye either, as they are often “too good to be true” - too clear and too dark a shade of green. As an alternative to either natural or synthetic emeralds, some prefer jewelry which is made with green Swarovski crystals. The crystal material is able to be more precisely faceted than an emerald, which allows for a sparkle which is rarely seen in a cut emerald (the difficulty in faceting emeralds is precisely why the emerald step cut was designed – it uses the least cutting possible to showcase the beauty of the gem).

Emeralds Were Believed To Have Healing Powers

Emeralds have been prized for over 4000 years. One of the earliest known mines was located in Egypt, and produced the valuable green gems from before 2000 BC to approximately 1200 AD. Although the site was active for two thousand years before her birth, the emerald mine south of Cairo was eventually named the Cleopatra Mine in honor of the jewelry loving queen. Egypt and the Cleopatra Mine were the primary source for emeralds for much of Europe until the Middle Ages.

The green beryl found in Egypt would pale in comparison to what the Spanish conquistadors would eventually discover through their conquest of South America, however, the pale emeralds were highly treasured at the time. The ancient Egyptians thought that the green of emeralds was a symbol of the green renewal of the earth during the springtime, and so attributed to the gem symbolism relating to fertility, rebirth, and ease of childbirth. Mummies were sometimes buried wearing emeralds in the hope that the precious stones would bring them eternal youth in the afterlife.

The ancient Egyptians were not the only culture to assign many positive attributes to emeralds. During the Roman Empire, it was thought that staring at emeralds could soothe tired eyes. Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero used to watch the gladiator fights through an emerald, as he found the green color calming. The wonderful green color of the gem was believed to refresh much more than eyesight. The purported healing powers of emeralds include lifting depression, reducing stress, promoting mental clarity, and warding off evil spirits. Green was also the color for the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus. In astrology, the planet Venus is the ruling force over the sun sign of Taurus (April 21- May 21), so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the emerald was designated as the birthstone for May.

The Moghul Emerald is the largest inscribed emerald in the world; it features a Shi'a prayer inscription on the front and a floral motif on the reverse side
The Moghul Emerald is the largest inscribed emerald in the world; it features a Shi'a prayer inscription on the front and a floral motif on the reverse side

The Moghul Emerald Is Worth Millions

Indian culture has a long tradition of appreciating gems and jewelry, and emeralds were no exception. The rulers of India were passionate about the green gem which was supposed to bring good luck. One of the most unique artifacts from India is the exquisite Moghul Emerald (also spelled Mughal or Mogal). Dating from 1695, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, The Moghul Emerald is a 217.80 carat square gem which was carved on both sides. The front side features an elegant Arabic script with a Shi'a Muslim prayer invocation. On the reverse is a naturalistic floral carving design of a rosette surrounded by poppies. As the Moghul rulers were Sunni Muslim, the carved emerald talisman is not thought to have belonged to the Emperor himself, but rather to one of his officers. The color green is sacred in Islam, which is why an emerald made such an ideal surface on which to inscribe a religious text. The gem itself is believed to have been mined in Colombia, home to the most spectacular green emeralds in the world. Such a fine and unique specimen is the Moghul Emerald, that it was sold at auction by Christie's of London in 2001 for a staggering 2.2 million USD.

As with the Moghul Emerald, many of the most beautiful diamonds are mined in Colombia. When Cortez and the Spanish Conquistadors began their exploration of the New World, one of the things which they discovered was that the native tribes of South America wore emeralds unlike the world had seen before. The prime emerald mine was located in Muzo, Colombia, and is still considered one of the foremost emerald sources today (in quality, not quantity of production). It took fifty years, but the Spanish eventually managed to force the native Indians out of the Muzo mining region and took control of the stunning gems which it yielded. The resulting gems flowed back to Europe and the rest of the Old World, and were made into incredible jewelry pieces by the monarchs and ruling classes of Europe, India, Persia, and Turkey.

The Mountbatten Bandeau, created in 1928 by Cartier, most likely with antique Indian gems
The Mountbatten Bandeau, created in 1928 by Cartier, most likely with antique Indian gems
The Mackay Emerald Necklace is a superb example of Cartier's art deco jewelry
The Mackay Emerald Necklace is a superb example of Cartier's art deco jewelry

Famous Emerald Jewelry Around The World

One of the most breathtaking suites of emerald jewelry in existence is the Seringapatam Jewels, which is housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England. The ornate set consists of a necklace, brooch, bracelet, and pair of drop earrings created from magnificent emeralds, a multitude of diamonds, gold, and platinum. The emeralds were originally a reward given to British Major-General George Harris, following a victory at the Battle of Seringapatam in India in 1799. Some of his war spoils (such as a collection of rubies) were sold over the years, but the emeralds remained in the family, and were eventually set into the spectacular suite of jewelry for the wife of the fourth Lord Harris, Lucy Ada. The gems were made into jewelry over a period of years, beginning with their marriage in 1874 and continuing until 1887.

There are several other renowned pieces of jewelry which were made using Indian emeralds from Colombian mines. One of these is the Chalk Emerald, which was thought to have formerly belonged to the Maharani of Boroda, India. The gem is one of the most remarkable examples of the distinctive Colombian green emerald hue. Most likely the feature gem of a necklace originally, the Chalk Emerald was later recut to its current size of 38.4 carats by famed jeweler Harry Winston. The gem was set into a ring and surrounded by some 60 pear shaped diamonds totaling 15 carats. The one of a kind emerald now resides at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Emeralds were very popular during the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 1930s. The Mountbatten Bandeau is a stunning bracelet which was made by Cartier and purchased by Edwina, the Countess of Mountbatten in 1928. The Countess was famous for her style and was called one of the best dressed women in the world. The Bandeau is an incredible combination of leaf-carved cabochon emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, set in platinum with diamonds. It is thought that Cartier made the Mountbatten Bandeau using gems which were originally set into Indian jewelry.

The National Museum of Natural History is also the home of another fine example of an Art Deco emerald piece, the Mackay Emerald. The largest cut gem in the National Gem Collection, the Mackay Emerald is the centerpiece of a 1931 platinum necklace designed by Cartier. The 167.97 carat emerald originated in the famous Muzo mine in Colombia, and was set into a superb example of Art Deco jewelry by the famous Cartier jewelry house. The bright green emerald is surrounded by 35 smaller emeralds, as well as 2191 colorless diamonds. The necklace was a wedding jewelry gift from Clarence Mackay to his bride Anna Case on the occasion of their marriage in 1931.

The 858 ct Gachala Emerald, one of largest gem quality emeralds in the world, was found in Colombia in 1967.
The 858 ct Gachala Emerald, one of largest gem quality emeralds in the world, was found in Colombia in 1967.

The Finest Emeralds Are Mined In Colombia

Such enormous emeralds as the Mackay Emerald are exceeding rare, as is the intense green color without any blue undertones which is characteristic of the Muzo mine in Colombia. Pieces such as those are utterly priceless, and what it so interesting is that they do have a very obvious jardin or network of inclusions. Today's consumer does not take the gemologist's view of appreciation of eye visible inclusions, which is why most commercial emeralds are so heavily treated. The mines of Colombia remain the premier sources for emeralds in the world. The largest volume of emerald production in modern times comes from Brazil. Another place from which emeralds are frequently mined is Zambia. Smaller deposits of the precious beryl are also found in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and even parts of the United States (on a very limited scale).

Despite its fragility, the rich green hue of the emerald ensures the ongoing desirability and value of the gem. Emeralds hold a special place in our culture, not only as the birthstone for May, but also as the traditional 55th wedding anniversary gift. The rarity of clear emeralds with a vivid green hue will also ensure the lasting value of these breathtaking gems, which are after all, more precious than diamonds. It would seem that the world's 4000 year love affair with emeralds has only just begun.


Questions & Answers

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      • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

        Jyoti Kothari 

        3 years ago from Jaipur

        Hi seabastian ,

        Thanks for an interesting article. I, myself is a jeweler and gemstone dealer and found your article full of information. Rated it up and useful.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Exquisite! I love emeralds and wish it was my birthstone. There's something so stunning about the green sparkle of emeralds. Great hub. Up++

      • profile image

        July715 

        4 years ago

        Do you know anything about hand carved Colombian Emeralds, like a carved gorilla or carved deer ?

        They were rated and sealed by a Gemologist but I can not find anything at all like them. I have the grade and rating for them also the price, but I'm really confused as I can't find them anywhere, I also have one that kinda looks like the Moghul emerald in a smaller version.

        Is there anyway you can help me? Love your website.

        Kindest Regards,

        July715

      • profile image

        MRA 

        4 years ago

        thanks for ur lovely page

      • profile image

        Casey 

        5 years ago

        This is page is AWESOME

      • profile image

        Lexi 

        5 years ago

        This website is very usedful

      • PETER LUMETTA profile image

        PETER LUMETTA 

        7 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

        well done

      working

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