Emerald: May Birthstone Gem of Eternal Spring
Because the rich green color of emerald is the color of spring, the ancients prized it as the gemstone symbolizing love and rebirth. Treasured for at least 4,000 years by different cultures all around the world, emerald is said to quicken the intelligence as well as the heart. Legend gives its owner the gift of eloquence..
Cleopatra prized her emeralds more than any other gem. She may have dropped her pearls in her wine for Mark Anthony but she kept her emeralds for herself! The ancient emerald mines of Cleopatra, long a mystery, were discovered again a hundred years ago near the Red Sea. Some tools found in the mine were dated at 1650 B.C. but no quality emeralds were found: the mines were exhausted thousands of years ago. Mummies in ancient Egypt were often buried with an emerald on their necks carved with the symbol for verdure, flourishing greenness, to symbolize eternal youth.
The Romans also loved emeralds because, as ancient scholar Pliny said, “nothing greens greener.” Pliny said that emerald was the only gem which delighted the eye without fatiguing it. He said his eyes were restored when gazing at emerald. Emperor Nero wore emerald sunglasses to watch the gladiators.
One legend says that Satan lost the emerald from his crown when he fell. The emerald was shaped into a bowl which the Queen of Sheba sent to Nicodemus. Christ used the bowl at the last supper and Joseph of Arimathea used the bowl to catch blood from the cross, founding the order of the Holy Grail.
The Moguls of India, including Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, loved emeralds so much they inscribed them with sacred text and wore them as talismans. Some of these sacred stones, called Mogul emeralds, can still be seen in museums and collections today.
Emerald is the birthstone for May, the month of springtime romance, and the anniversary gemstone for the twentieth year of marriage, the perfect emblem of an enduring love.
How Green is Your Garden?
What is the source of the timeless appeal of emerald? Today scientists tell us that the human eye is more sensitive to the color green than to any other. Perhaps that is why green is so soothing to the eye, and why the color green seems to complement every other color: think of the beauty of a garden.
Spring can also be seen in the network of inclusions in the depth of the emerald that the French call the “jardin,” or “garden,” because it resembles foliage. The inclusions are like a fingerprint, giving each emerald a distinct personality. The extreme rarity of transparent emerald is why emeralds can be more valuable than diamonds.
Emerald is a beryl, a mineral that is normally colorless. Emerald’s rich green color is caused by minute traces of chromium. Chromium is the rare Midas element of gemstones: its presence also gives rubies their fiery redness. Crystals of emerald grew long before human history in metamorphic rocks, which usually restricts the size of emerald crystals, making them even rarer in large sizes. Other beryls, emerald’s cousins, like pale blue aquamarine, pink morganite, golden heliodor, and pale green beryl, grow in pegmatites which allow larger crystals to form. There is even a bright red beryl found in Utah in the United States.
The Treasures of the Incas and Aztecs
Ancient emeralds were from mines in Egypt and perhaps what is now Afghanistan. But Spaniards arriving on the continent of South America were stunned to see emeralds finer and larger than any ever seen before. The Spaniards spent years searching for the source of the fantastic green stones favored by the Incas. They found it finally in what is today Colombia: Chivor, also known as Somondoco or “God of the green gems,” then later Muzo and Cosquez, the richest emerald mines in the planet and still the source of the finest stones today.
Hernando Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, was carrying carved emeralds taken from the Aztecs in the shapes of fish and flowers and a carved emerald bell, and an emerald the size of a man’s palm when he was shipwrecked. Many of the finest stones were lost forever. The Incas had an emerald goddess, a fabulous emerald the size of an ostrich egg. In tribute they sacrificed her children: smaller emeralds which were presented to the goddess. Treasure hunters seeking wrecks of Spanish galleons are occasionally rewarded with the ultimate treasure: emeralds lost by the conquistadores long ago.
Choosing an Emerald
Today, emeralds from Colombia are easier to obtain: they are as close as the nearest jewelry store. They are prized for a vivid saturated green like a lawn of new grass after a rain. This color is so prized that visible inclusions are accepted in these emeralds in return for the incomparable color.
Emerald connoisseurs today are lucky because a relatively new find in Zambia has made emeralds much more available on the market today. Zambian emeralds have captured a large portion of the market because they have a rich deep color and sometimes have very few inclusions. Zambian emeralds tend to be a slightly darker green than emeralds from Colombia and some have a bluish tone. Fine specimens have a clear true green which deserves its place near the top range of quality in the market.
Long thought of as a producer of lower quality emerald, Brazil today now produces fine emeralds that rival those of its famous neighbor. A mine called Nova Era has produced some top gem quality emeralds that are changing Brazil’s reputation. Brazil now produces more emeralds than any other country.
Zimbabwe’s famous Sandawana mine is known for producing top quality emeralds in small sizes. Other potentially important producers of emerald are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Russia.
Emeralds are cut in Jaipur, India and Tel-Aviv, Israel as well as in the mining countries. Emerald is one of the most difficult gemstones to cut because of the high value of the rough stone and the many inclusions found in crystals. Small changes in orientation can make a large difference in the final appearance of the gem. Skilled craftsmen who specialize in cutting emerald can be found in cities around the world for jewelers who insist on having stones perfected for the optimum brilliance and vibrancy.
When choosing an emerald, the most important value factor to consider is color. The more vivid the green, the more valuable the emerald. There are also attractive bright stones with a lighter green color that often make a spectacular piece of jewelry. Darker green emeralds may also make up in rich color what they lose in brightness.
Because emeralds are so rare without inclusions, some inclusions are expected and do not detract from the value of the stone as much as with other gemstones. However, you should look to make sure that fissures and inclusions do not go too deep into the stone so that it might be weakened enough to break if it were hit accidentally. The fissures and fractures that are characteristic of emerald are traditionally filled with oil to minimize their impact. You should avoid cleaning emerald with hot soapy water or steam and never clean an emerald in an ultrasonic cleaner because this oil could be removed or damaged, making the fissures more visible.
Although many people consider Colombia to be the source of the best emeralds, country of origin is never a guarantee of quality. Even the best mine produces mostly low quality gemstones because good qualities are very rare! Fine emeralds also come from Zambia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Russia and other countries, so don’t be afraid to choose the emerald that looks better to you.
Emerald is most often cut in a rectangular step-cut, which is now popularly known as the emerald cut. Smaller sizes are also found in rounds, ovals, pear shapes and marquise cuts. You may have to look a while for an unusual shape in a larger size. Due to their rich color, emeralds are also spectacular when cut in a smooth-domed cabochon cut.
As you might expect from gems that have been known to spend centuries at the bottom of the ocean and then return to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions, emeralds are durable gemstones with a hardness of 7.5 to 8. However, emeralds with many inclusions should be treated with some care and be protected from blows. With a little care, your emerald will no doubt be treasured by your descendants thousands of years in the future!