Few gemstones in the world today offer the beauty, history and intrigue so inherent to emeralds. The first known emeralds are said to have originated in ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra adorned herself with their loveliness. The ancient Greeks and Romans who came thereafter also worked the Egyptian mines, attributing magical qualities to emeralds that enhanced their allure.
When the Spaniards first arrived in the New World in the 16th century, they found a people captivated by emeralds as well. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met the Aztec emperor Montezuma in Mexico in 1519, the sovereign was supposedly covered in emeralds. Similarly, after his victory over the Inca of Peru in 1533, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro reportedly sent chests of their emeralds to the King of Spain.
The emeralds of the New World, however, were not the smaller, discolored and heavily included emeralds typically found in the ancient Egyptian mines, but far superior emeralds of peerless green color and quality. They were Colombian emeralds, considered the finest and purest of all emeralds.
Colombian Emeralds’ Storied Yet Tumultuous History
At the heart of El Dorado, one of history’s most enduring myths, is the Muisca prince, about to be enthroned, his naked body covered in gold dust, floating on a raft to the center of Lake Guatavita in the Andes Mountains of Colombia. As day breaks, he plunges into the water, offering to God the gold covering his body. At the same time, the members of his court who accompanied him, throw gold and emeralds into the mystical, nearly perfect, circle of water.
It was stories such as this of a legendary city of gold and a lake filled with treasure that lured Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and his army to Muisca in 1537. They rampaged for riches, locating the now famous Muzo and Chivor emerald mines on the eastern slopes of the Colombian Andes, and looted thousands of emeralds. The indigenous people who occupied the mining areas were either massacred or enslaved to work the emerald mines.
The “Crown of the Andes," composed of more than 400 Colombian emeralds. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Spaniards, who treasured gold and silver far more than gems, traded the Colombian emeralds for precious metals. Many large Colombian emerald crystals made their way to India where they were cut and polished, while the finished gems and jewels were then traded or sold to European and Asian royalty, who prized them for their magnificence.
After Colombia declared their independence from Spain in 1819, the new government, as well as private mining companies, took control of emerald mining operations. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, however, emerald mines were shut down many times due to political strife within the country. Smuggling also impedes the country from reaping the full rewards of its rich natural resource.
The Hallmarks of Fine Colombian Emeralds
Emerald is the most valuable variety of the mineral beryl and beloved mainly for its desirable bluish-green to pure-green colors that set it apart from other green gems such as peridot and tourmaline. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word for green, “smaragdus,” and it’s often used as a descriptor for lush green environments such as the “Emerald Isle” for Ireland and “Emerald City” for both Seattle and the fantastical city in “The Wizard of Oz.” Emeralds that come from Colombia, however, have a green color and tone that’s neither too dark nor too light, by which all other emeralds are compared.
An ancient Colombian legend describes the creation of these emeralds as such: The Muisca god Are created an immortal man and woman—Tena and Fura—to populate the earth. The only requirement was to remain faithful to each other, or they would relinquish their right to eternal life. Fura, the woman, did not remain faithful, and the couple eventually died. Are later took pity on Tena and Fura and turned them into two mountains in whose depths Fura’s tears were turned into emeralds.
The “Gachalá Emerald” crystal is reportedly the finest emerald crystal in the world. Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.
In geological terms, Colombian emeralds are formed when the tectonic movements that created the Andes Mountains force some of the raw materials that create emerald—beryllium, chromium and vanadium—into liquid and gaseous states. The materials in these states then slip into the cracks in the sedimentary rock and eventually cool and crystallize. As such, Colombian emerald deposits are the only emerald deposits on earth found in sedimentary rock as opposed to igneous rock. A saline solution in the sedimentary rock eventually washes out impurities such as iron. This lack of iron, along with the trace elements chromium and vanadium (rarely found in nature), give Colombian emeralds their coveted, lively color.
Colombia has three well-known mining areas—Muzo, Chivor and Coscuez—all located within 10 miles of each other in the green foothills of the Colombian Andes. The Muzo mine produces the most outstanding Colombian emeralds with a darker tone of pure green; the Chivor mine produces Colombian emeralds with a lighter tone of slightly bluish-green; and the Coscuez mine produces Colombian emeralds with a slightly yellowish green.
The “Spanish Inquisition Necklace” features 15 dazzling Colombian emeralds. Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.
Intense color saturation and few eye-visible inclusions are other important hallmarks of Colombian emeralds. A very clean Colombian emerald with superb color has a brilliance or “life” that sets it apart from other emeralds. Some Colombian emeralds are also known for interesting three-phase inclusions that contain crystals, fluid and gas.
It’s important to note that emeralds, because of the way they’re formed in the earth, often contain inclusions such as fractures. It’s a common and acceptable practice to fill fractures that reach an emerald’s surface with substances such as oils to improve their appearance. Fine Colombian emeralds that have not been oil-filled are extremely rare; in fact, it’s almost a miracle that they exist. This notability allows these Colombian emeralds to command the most astronomical prices.
The Colombian Emerald Treasures of the World
As mentioned previously, many of the early Colombian emerald crystals of significant size went to the gem cutters of India. One excellent example is the “Mogul Mughal Emerald,” a rectangular-cut Colombian emerald that weighs 217.8 carats. The front is engraved with Shi’a invocations in elegant naskh script, dated 1107 A.H. (1695–1696 A.D.), while the other side is carved entirely with leaflike motifs. It’s a drilled stone, which means it was probably worn on an article of clothing such as a turban.
Many of these amazing Colombian emeralds were taken from India when Emperor Nader Shah of Persia sacked Delhi in 1739 and are now part of the Crown Jewels of Iran. These and the Colombian emerald collection in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, reportedly have the two largest collections of Colombian emeralds in the world.
The 217.8-carat “Mogul Mughal Emerald.”
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York you can find the “Crown of the Andes,” recognized as one of the finest surviving examples of goldsmith work from colonial Spanish America. Made to adorn a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, the crown is composed of more than five pounds of gold and 400-plus Colombian emeralds of top quality.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., also has several important Colombian emerald jewels. The “Spanish Inquisition Necklace,” for instance, features 15 dazzling hexagonal and cylindrical Colombian emeralds, the largest of which weighs approximately 45 carats. Its rich, velvety color and exceptional clarity place it among the world’s most impressive emeralds. The emeralds and diamonds in this stunning necklace were probably cut in India in the 17th century.
The Smithsonian also houses the “Hooker Emerald Brooch.” This jewel highlights a 75.47-carat Colombian emerald that’s remarkably free of the inclusions typical of such large emeralds. It was allegedly once part of a Turkish sultan’s belt buckle.
The “Hooker Emerald Brooch” highlights a 75.47-carat Colombian emerald that’s remarkably free of inclusions. Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.
The 858-carat “Gachalá Emerald” crystal, meanwhile, is reportedly the finest emerald crystal in the world. Discovered at the Vega de San Juan mine in Gachalá, Colombia, in 1967, this Colombian emerald shows exquisite size and color. Remarkably, it was left preserved rather than cut into gems. Harry Winston donated it to The Smithsonian in 1969.
Here at Jogani, we are delighted to also have a collection of splendid Colombian emeralds—both loose stones and jewels—that we would love to share with you. Some are so rare as to have a Mughal cut or an intaglio, or to be unenhanced by oil to approve their appearance. We’re sure you’ll appreciate their beauty, their background, their mystique and their charm, and value them as the very special treasures they are.