Emerald is a deep green variety of beryl, in the same gem family as aquamarine (blue) and morganite (pink). The name comes from the Greek smaragdos, meaning ‘green gemstone’.
Emeralds have been treasured for millennia, perhaps first by the ancient Egyptians, who controlled the greatest ancient source, near the Red Sea. It is said to have been Cleopatra’s favourite gemstone, and that she gave one, carved with a likeness of him, to Julius Caesar. Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman naturalist, wrote, “Nothing greens greener”, and believed emeralds to be soothing to the eyes. Also in ancient times emeralds were thought to have magical properties, including healing powers, and were associated with fecundity, purity and intelligence. The modern day countries of Austria and Pakistan were other, more minor ancient sources.
After the mines in Egypt were exhausted in the first century CE, the next major source of emeralds was not discovered until the Spanish conquest of the New World in the sixteenth century. There emeralds had been coveted by the native cultures of Central and South America for centuries, and were considered the holiest of stones. First seeking gold, the Spanish soon made it a priority to locate the source of these emeralds, which were of afore to unseen quality. To this day the primary source of top quality emeralds in terms of colour, size and clarity remains the historic mines of Muzo, Colombia.
Somewhat surprisingly the greatest consumers of these magnificent emeralds were not the Spanish, but rather the Mughal courts of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps the appeal was due to the deep green colour, green being the holy colour of Islam. The Mughals had a long history with collecting the world’s finest gemstones, including huge diamonds from the Golconda region of India. Some of the largest and most famous cut emeralds hail from the Mughal dynasty, including the aptly named ‘Mughal Emerald’, with a weight of 217.80 carats, which was carved in the traditional Mughal style in 1695.
The cultures of the Middle East also prized the green gem, and still hold some of the most important specimen to this day. The National Treasury of Iran contains a huge trove of set and rough emeralds dating from the height of the Persian Empire. Similarly the Turkish sultans acquired many important emeralds, including those set into the famed ‘Emerald Dagger’, the handle set with three emeralds the size of pigeons eggs, now housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.
Eventually the Europeans caught emerald fever, the royal courts setting the stones into extensive parures throughout the nineteenth century. Napoleon I gave impressive emerald and diamond parures to both Josephine, his first wife, and Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria, his second. Other important collections of emeralds reside in the British crown jewels, including the Cambridge and Delhi Dunbar Parure, composed of emeralds given to King George V and Queen Mary by some of the Maharanis of India in 1911.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, emeralds, though still one of the most expensive gemstones, became more accessible in part due to new source discoveries in Brazil, Russia and Africa, though Colombian stones are still the standard against which all emeralds are measured. The emerald became a popular choice for wedding and engagement rings, symbolic of hope, fertility and good luck. Two famous emerald engagement rings of the past century are that given by the Duke of Windsor to Wallace Simpson in 1936—a 19.77 carat emerald and diamond cluster ring by Cartier--and that given by then United States Senator John F. Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953—an emerald and diamond crossover ring by Van Cleef & Arpels. Today the emerald remains both a fashionable and fitting choice for a love jewel.