Emeralds are the premier gems in the beryl family. For more than 4,000 years, emeralds have been among the most valuable of all jewels. In one of the rare cases where lore and fact coincide, emerald history really does begin in Egypt, where there actually was a “Cleopatra’s Mine.” Mining in the desert southeast of Cairo (now near the Aswan Dam) began before 2000 B.C. and continued until about 1200 A.D. Although emeralds were extracted for two thousand years before Cleopatra was born, her use and love of the gems led to her name being attached to the mine, an association that remains. Egypt supplied the known world with emeralds throughout the Biblical period and through the Middle Ages. But most of the stones, as you see in numerous examples in Fred Ward and Charlotte Ward’s book on emeralds, would barely be classified as gems today. The world had to wait until Spain conquered the New World and found South American natives with great emeralds to see how fine the green gemstones could be.
Those fabulous New World emerald crystals came from what is now Colombia. It took Spain five decades to overpower the Muzo Indians who occupied the mining area. Once the gems arrived in Europe, monarchs and the gem-loving royalty in India, Turkey, and Persia sought the great green treasures. The new emerald owners produced spectacular artifacts between 1600 and 1900, such as Turkey’s incredible gem-laden Topkapi Dagger and the beautifully delicate Atocha Cross. The Spanish Colonial specimen was fabricated in Colombia and lost underwater during a hurricane in the Florida Straits for more than two centuries.
Today Colombia, Brazil, and Zambia mine most commercial emeralds. Several other countries, such as Pakistan and Zimbabwe, produce smaller amounts. Although Brazil mines more emeralds annually than any other country, Colombia dominates the trade by setting the standards for size, color, and price. It is Colombian emeralds against which all others are judged. Rarer and sometimes more expensive than a similar-sized diamond, Colombian emeralds have a unique look, a green lightly touched with blue. Muzo, the original mine, remains the most important emerald mine in the world.
Emeralds are often accused of being “soft,” which is not true. Because of the molecular makeup and the typical presence of multiple inclusions, some emeralds can be brittle. For rings meant to be worn daily, we usually recommend bezel setting (surrounding the gem with metal instead of setting it up on prongs). This precaution protects the stone from anything except a direct top blow.