The exceptional emerald is the birthstone for May
“Let not thy heart be great because of thy knowledge; converse with the ignorant as with the learned: the boundary of skill is not attainable; there is no expert who is completely provided with what is profitable to him: good speech is hidden more than the emeralds that are found by female slaves on the pebbles.” — The Prisse Papyrus: Instruction of Ptahhetep c. 2375-2350 BC
Indeed, good speech is rarer, but May baby, know that your assigned gem the emerald is more elusive than diamonds, more elusive than perhaps all the other birthstones. As such, exceptional examples continue to shock when the gavel comes down at auction.
Oh, it’s been around for a good long time. The earliest one found, in South Africa, was formed 2.97 billion years ago. But the elements of emerald’s large family of beryl (beryllium, aluminum, silicon, oxygen), and the conditions needed to create them (exceptional heat and pressure) come together only fleetingly as the earth forms and re-forms. In its basic state it is colourless. The inclusion of rare trace elements in the formation of the crystal is responsible for beryl’s colour varieties: aquamarine (blue), heliodor (yellow), morganite (pink), bixbite (red) and so on. To get the rich green of emerald, rare chromium needs to be in the mix. So, roll out the beryl: if you’ve got it, flaunt it, this is May’s gem.
Careful though, if you’re planning some under-the-covers, leave your emerald on your nightstand. Pliny the Elder was quoted by Albertus Magnus in his 13th century manuscript The Book of Minerals, that King Bela of Hungary wore an exceptional emerald (he’s a king; it could only have been exceptional) set in a ring. Perhaps a bit too quick on the cause-and-effect but Pliny asserts “[he] wore this stone on his finger when he had intercourse with his wife, and as a result it was broken into three pieces. And, therefore, what they say [of this stone] is probable – that it inclines the wearer towards chastity.” Lesson learned #1: Remove emeralds before sex.
Oh, that Albertus, he did have some stories. He also recounts this one about a toad and an emerald. The emerald was small but beautiful. To test its power, a bystander (nobody’s an expert like a bystander) said draw a circle around the gem and the toad. One of two things will now happen: either the stone will break because its power weak or the toad will burst because the emerald’s power is strong. They took his advice. Toad stares at gem, gem breaks, toad hops away. Lesson learned #2: Keep emeralds away from horny toads.
Early Greek scholars did not study minerology for its own sake rather as a branch of pharmacology and mythology. Theophrastus noted that emerald is good for the eyes. Throughout the Middle Ages it was a panacea for many ailments, including: ease the pains of childbirth, cure venomous stings, alleviate depression (god, if getting an emerald doesn’t lift your mood), cancer, plague, leprosy, epilepsy, and – whew – evil spirits. Prescription for all.
Nomenclature befuddles historians attempting to give definitive dates of the earliest use of emerald. The Egyptian word mafek, the Persian zummurud, and the Greek smaragdus which we all now associate with emerald were in fact quite indiscriminately used for all green gems. There’s no knowing. Remember, millennia before an understanding of science many things were named for their obvious colour attributes. Er, like White House.
Egyptologists of the late 19th c., early 20th c. believed emeralds were used as far back as a few millennia BC. More confidently, historians and gemologists now point to the first few centuries BC as the start of active mining and wearing of the gem in Egypt. From roughly 330 BC to the early 13th century these mines were exploited. Cleopatra was so besotted by the gem that she had her own mines and her own miners dedicated to finding jewels just for her own collection.
Until the 16th century, only these emeralds were known. Then came the New World and the treasure trove of Colombian emeralds, already known and used there for half a millennium. (Muzo, in the foothills of the Colombian Andes, is the criterion for emeralds). They were plundered all right. Ship loads, literally, of the beautiful gem made their way back to adorn the monied and royal of Europe. But sometimes ships sank.
The most famous ship-wreck of emeralds that has been found was that discovered by Mel Fisher fishing around the waters off the Florida Keys in July, 1985. What a catch. The Nuestra Senora Atocha, a three-masted galleon left Cartegena in 1622, rendezvoused with other ships in Havana and went down in a hurricane. Hundreds and hundreds of emeralds were found by Fisher’s team, including beauties that subsequently sold for more than a million dollars each.
Besides Colombia, the majority of emeralds come from Zambia, Brazil and Zimbabwe. In 1998 emeralds were found in Tsa da Glisza in south-east Yukon. Tsa da Glisza means “green stones” in the local Kaska language. Once again, naming for the obvious.
If you’re buying an emerald, note these pointers:
- It is the nature of emeralds to be very included, those interior characteristics can be so prevalent they’re referred to as le jardin, for their mossy andgarden-like arrangements. This makes them inappropriate for daily wear. It also requires a designer, a goldsmith, and a setter who understand the gem to set it securely.
- To mask the fractures, more than 90 per cent of all emeralds are fracture-filled. Previously that included oils such as Canada balsam, more recently synthetic resins; some of which contain colour to boost the green.
- Finally, synthesized – man-made – emerald is very common. First achieved in 1848, marketable in 1938, and now wide-spread. A less-expensive alternative, just make sure you know what you’re getting.
Exceptional emeralds at auction come from exceptional provenances and achieve exceptional prices. This is what provenance looks like: The Imperial Emerald of Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia’s 75.61 ct pear-shaped emerald necklace with diamonds was owned by: Catherine the Great; Russian Tsars Paul I, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Alexander II; Russian Dukes Vladimir and Boris and Duchess Maria Pavlovna; Cartier; John Rockefeller Jr; and the former owner of Fred Leighton, Ralph Esmerian, jailed for bankruptcy fraud.
This is what exceptional prices look like: The Rockefeller emerald (no, not the one above, another) sold in June 2017 for US $5,511,500, or US $305,516 per carat. To really understand this, know that there are five carats in agram! A dime weighs 1.76 grams.
If the high price and delicate nature of emerald scares you and you’d like a deep green alternative, look no further than tsavorite garnet (pictured). This is all-natural green, easily worn every day gem was discovered only in 1967.
It seems appropriate that anyone who played Cleopatra might act like Cleopatra. Elizabeth Taylor loved emeralds (she loved all gems). After her death, her estate sale at Christie’s in 2011 realized a total just shy of US $116 million, including an emerald suite by Bulgari at US $25 million. During the filming of Cleopatra in Rome, Richard Burton, purchasing yet another Bulgari emerald for Liz, quipped “the only word Elizabeth knew in Italian was ‘Bulgari.’”
You’re not Elizabeth Taylor, but an emerald (by any name) is yours, May baby, for the wearing.
Pamela Coulston is a certified gemologist and owner of Disegno Fine Jewellery
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