Emerald - The Spectacular Green Beryl

A Truly Historic Gem

Emerald is one of the most highly prized of all the gems. The name comes from the Greek "smaragdos" which means green stone. Emerald has been treasured for at least 4,000 years by different cultures all around the world.

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. 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. 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. 

Emeralds are often characterized by a garden of inclusions of veils of tiny bubbles and other types of minerals trapped within the stone. Under magnification, you will see all sorts of lovely patterns resembling foliage in a garden. The inclusions are like a fingerprint, giving each emerald a distinct personality. The extreme rarity of transparent emerald is why the finest quality emeralds can be more valuable than diamonds. Emerald's rich green color is caused by minute traces of chromium or vanadium. 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 very rare in large sizes.

 The Treasures of the Incas and Aztecs

Ancient emeralds were taken from mines in Egypt, Austria and perhaps what is now Afghanistan. When the Spaniards arrived on the continent of South America, they were stunned to see emeralds finer and larger than any they had 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 conquerer 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. Treasure hunters seeking wrecks of Spanish galleons are occasionally rewarded with the ultimate treasure: emeralds lost by the conquistadores long ago.

 Sources of Emerald Gems

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, but Zambian emeralds tend to be on the small side. Long thought of as a producer of lower quality emerald, Brazil today now produces some 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. Other potentially important producers of emerald are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Russia. An obscure location in Pershing County Nevada produces opaque emerald crystals, probably colored by Vanadium (based on geology and mineral associations).

Skilled craftsmen who specialize in cutting emerald can be found 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. 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.


 Selecting an Emerald Gem

When choosing an emerald, the most important value factors to consider are color and clarity. 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. 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.

A flawless, clear emerald is very rare and is usually found in only small sizes. Small to medium sized stones are often faceted in the "step" or emerald cut. The gem is also lovely when cut into a cabochon or dome shape. Sometimes emeralds are even carved. Emerald is the accepted birthstone for the month of May. It is also the anniversary gemstone for the 20th and 35th years of marriage. As a part of the normal cutting and polishing process, most emeralds are immersed in colorless oil to fill voids. Care should be taken to protect emeralds from scratches, sharp blows, household chemicals, and extreme temperature changes. Do not clean emeralds in home ultrasonic cleaning machines, as there is a potential for damage. 

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