It is said to be twenty times rarer than diamond. Fascinating, hypnotic, the emerald has turned many heads throughout centuries — not just those of royalty.
It is the stone of all mysteries. This green beryl with complex, alchemical symbolism, is associated with life and wisdom in most civilisations that have utilised it — virtually all. Prophylactic virtues, protective power, birth and rebirth... From ancient Egypt to pre-Columbian America, from India to the Roman Empire, from the thrones of old Europe to Hollywood sets, none escape its strange allure. Its green color is due to minute quantities of chromium and sometimes vanadium. Emeralds are rare, as their formation requires complex geochemical conditions within several layers of the earth’s crust. In Brazil, some are even said to have formed two billion years ago…
Egypt, Afghanistan, South India. It’s hard to trace with precision the origin of the first ancient emeralds, emerging from what are called “old mines”. In 2000, a team from IRD-CNRS in Nancy used an ionic probe, a non-destructive method, to analyse the sources of some ancient gems and cross-reference their data with ancient texts and archaeological studies. What’s certain is that emeralds were travelers, right from antiquity. In the West, the first objects adorned with emeralds appear in the 4th century BC, during the reign of Alexander the Great, whose empire extended to Bactria, perhaps the origin of some of the oldest emeralds. It’s notable that in pharaonic Egypt, the symbolism of green, associated with the growth of vegetation and by extension, the rebirth of the deceased and eternal life, is omnipresent in rituals and funerary objects. Hence the omnipresence of emeralds. Ptolemy, Alexander’s general, founder of the eponymous Egyptian dynasty, further developed the exploitation of emerald mines by the Red Sea. The deposits of Djebel Zabarah and Wadi Sikait, improperly called King Solomon’s mines, then Cleopatra’s mines, were still exploited after the Arab conquest until the 13th century, before being forgotten and resumed in the 19th century under Mehmet Ali and later by the British. However, it was under the Roman Empire that the emerald experienced its first golden age, attributed to Vesta and Venus, symbol of love, as evidenced by the numerous emerald-adorned jewellery found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder are inexhaustible on its qualities. Newly conquered, Egypt provided the Romans with emeralds aplenty and they refined their polishing techniques — the cutting would come later — which would be later utilised under the Byzantine Empire. The deposit of Habachtal in Austria, perhaps exploited as early as the Middle Ages — or even earlier by the Celts —, was one of the main sources of emeralds in Europe. On the Indian side, the Mughal art foreshadows the maharajas’ madness for the precious green gems, sometimes finely engraved with verses from the Quran.
Stone of Conquest
A tipping point in history, the discovery of the American continent at the end of the 15th century also revolutionised emerald exploitation. Valued by all pre-Columbian civilisations — Incas, Toltecs, Mayas, Aztecs — the emeralds were largely plundered by the Conquistadors: Spanish Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada reportedly brought back nearly 7,000 from his expedition to Colombia in 1537 when he founded Bogota. “Isabella”, one of the largest faceted emeralds in the world with an estimated weight of 964 carats, illustrates the magnificence of pre-Columbian emeralds that mesmerised the Spanish. Owned by Hernán Cortés, who received it as a gift from the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma before their relations deteriorated, the emerald was found in 1993 in the wreckage of a ship sunk in 1757. Sunk alongside, a treasure of 75,000 carats of rough and cut emeralds of Aztec and Mayan origin. Two decades after the Conquest, intensive exploitation of Central and Latin American mines led to a massive influx of stones into royal treasuries. A true emerald frenzy that pervaded the goldsmithing and jewellery of the Renaissance in Spain and Portugal.
Treasures of Colombia
Even today, Colombian emeralds, with an exceptional green colour, almost limpid with sometimes characteristic inclusions — the “gardens” — are reputed to be the most beautiful. They are often named after the mine they come from: Muzo, Chivor, or Coscuez. Colossal deposits already exploited at the time of the Conquistadors. They would produce more than half of the world’s emeralds today. For, rare in gemstone production, Colombia produces both quantity and top quality. Zambia is another significant producer of high-quality emeralds. Zambian emeralds usually have a bright green color and are appreciated for their transparency and brilliance. Brazilian emeralds, especially those from Minas Gerais and Bahia, are known for their variety of green shades, ranging from classic emerald green to bluish-green. Afghanistan, the Ural, and recently Ethiopia also produce good quality emeralds. “What makes the quality of an emerald rests on a set of criteria, but colour is crucial,” explains gemologist Marie Chabrol, co-founder of the Gemmology and Francophonie Association. “From my point of view, it should be warm, that is, a green tinged with a hint of yellow. But one may prefer them colder, with a hint of blue. It should be as clean as possible, but I like to find some inclusions. A beautiful emerald is excellent cutting, warm and homogeneous colour, minimal inclusions that do not hinder the appreciation of the stone. And finally, it should be natural.”
“Colombia remains a provider of magnificent stones. But there are ancient sources that have produced sublime stones. Personally, I have a weakness for emeralds from Sandawana, Zimbabwe…” Marie Chabrol
Regarding cutting, the most significant center is in Jaipur, India, where it is said that over 100,000 emerald lapidaries are at work! Similar to Brazil, cutting is practiced with minimal loss in mind, while Colombian and European cuts favour quality over yield. Notably, Israel also has a reputable centre in Ramat Gan.
Much like grand diamonds, certain emeralds have made history. Particularly coveted by European royal families, these green gems quickly joined national and dynastic treasures. Often, their history is strewn with legends as much as fortuitous disappearances and reappearances. One of the oldest, the Emerald of Saint Louis, is part of the Crown Jewels of France and is now preserved at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Extracted from the Habachtal mines, the 51.6 carat emerald adorned the central fleur-de-lis of the crown of Saint Louis, which was destroyed during the French Revolution. The emerald was then safeguarded by Louis Daubenton in 1796, director of the Museum. For its part, the British Crown Emerald, known as “Colombian No. 3” and cut to 75.47 carats, is believed to be pre-Columbian. One of the most famous, the "Duke of Devonshire" emerald, was gifted to the Duke in 1831 by Pedro I, then Emperor of Brazil, a staggering 1,384-carat stone from Muzo in Colombia.
“Emeralds have been valued for a long time and have never really left the hearts of jewellers,” notes Marie Chabrol. “The 19th century showcased them spectacularly on numerous pieces of jewellery. For instance, we can cite the Tiara of Marie-Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême, preserved at the Louvre. Or the one that belonged to Queen Victoria and was crafted in 1845. The 20th century also saw emeralds on the jewellery of the maharajas who provided almost legendary orders to the great French jewellery houses. It’s impossible to forget the pieces set with emeralds for the Maharaja of Patiala…”
Comprising 40 emeralds and 1,031 diamonds, the tiara of the Duchess of Angoulême is indeed a masterpiece of Restoration jewellery crafted in 1819 by Christophe-Frédéric Bapst and Jacques-Evrard Bapst. It enriches the collection of Crown Jewels dispersed in 1887 and since patiently reassembled by the Department of Decorative Arts of the Louvre Museum — this tiara was repurchased in 2002 during a public sale organised by the Counts of Durham. Daughter of Louis XVI and niece of Louis XVIII, the Duchess received this tiara and its parure from her uncle. Under the Second Empire, the tiara was also worn by Empress Eugénie who particularly appreciated emeralds. In 1988, the Louvre Museum acquired the crown of the same Empress Eugénie, composed of 2,490 diamonds and 56 emeralds mounted on gold, crafted in 1855 by jeweller Alexandre-Gabriel Lemonnier. Another remarkable piece from the early 19th century: the necklace of emeralds and diamonds gifted in 1806 by Emperor Napoleon to Hortense de Beauharnais, future Queen Hortense and daughter of Empress Josephine, is another striking example of early 19th-century imperial jewellery. Preserved at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, it was created by Nitot & Sons, Napoleon’s principal jewellers. As for the eccentric Maharaja of Patiala, he commissioned 149 parures from the house of Boucheron in 1927, including an extravagant ceremonial emerald plastron.
Emeralds indeed love to adorn themselves with legends... Emerald, a collective work co-authored in 2013 by expert Joanna Hardy, delves into the history of these mythical jewels. She compiled a selection of 200 exceptional pieces, mostly from royal lineages or commissioned by the 19th-century maharajas and the great heiresses of the 20th. But also from a few stars. “I had the chance to discover one of these masterpieces in 2011 when Christie’s auctioned an emerald pendant brooch crafted by Bulgari,” Joanna Hardy shared on CNN at the time of her book’s release. “Richard Burton originally bought this brooch for Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Cleopatra in the 1960s. I tried it on at a pre-auction event and still remember its brilliance. The stones resembled the iridescent wings of an Egyptian scarab and enveloped me in a wonderful green glow. It was later sold for $6.5 million, smashing the initial estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.” In this beautiful book, part of a trilogy with ruby and sapphire, historical creations rub shoulders with pieces from Cartier, Boucheron, and Bulgari, and contemporary designers: Hemmerle, Leo de Vroomen, and Sevan Biçacki. Unflappable, the emerald traverses time and trends with the same constancy.