Emerald city: new Muzo gems.
Behind the launch of a new brand of emeralds this week is a mining industry that’s working to clean up its act
Sheer delights on the catwalk.
The precious gems that adorn our necks, fingers and earlobes are a gift of nature. A beautiful diamond ring of exceptional clarity, a ravishing necklace of velvety green emeralds: these were originally formed deep within the earth’s crust millions of years before jewellers set to work imagining new ways to show off their magnetic appeal.
Extracting these valuable stones from the earth, however, is not without its problems, and can tarnish the story of the gem from earth to wrist.
Colombian stones in particular have earned an dirty reputation, thanks to the involvement of drug cartels in the trade in the 1990s. Yet Colombian emeralds are as famous as Burmese rubies, and that has attracted outside investment — along with a new sense of corporate responsibility. And so it is that this week at Baselworld, the leading watch and jewellery fair in Switzerland, a new brand of the finest cut and polished emeralds is being launched.
The quality of these stones, which go by the name Muzo Emerald, is defined by their colour and transparency, whether they are four or 40 carats. Sometimes large stones emerge, such as the 2350-carat rough that was unearthed last December.
The Muzo mine, in the steamy Andean jungle 100km north of Bogota, has been producing emeralds of a lush, verdant richness for 1000 years. Indigenous tribesmen were mining emeralds long before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. When the Spanish Conquistadors invaded in the 16th century, they began trading these extraordinary gems with Mughal emperors in India.
From the 1960s to 90s the emerald trade was lawless, with drug cartels muscling in and mountains bulldozed to extract the gems.
But now Colombia is getting its house in order. Victor Carranza, the “emerald tsar”, the gun-toting peasant turned billionaire who owned Muzo during the height of the so-called Emerald Wars, realised that the primitive industry needed investment to survive. He found investors in the US, and Mineria Texas Colombia was formed.
MTC took full control of the mine in 2014, re-
vamped the feudal system by paying the miners, modernised the mine, cleaned up the environment, planted teak trees (fortunately vegetation grows quickly in the jungle) and established a specialist centre in Bogota for the cutting and polishing of the top 10 to 15 per cent of the emeralds to emerge from the mine.
It is these that are branded Muzo Emerald, with each gemstone tracked and documented from origin to customer, with a view to them eventually ending up in the collections of Chopard, Cartier and other prestigious jewellery brands.
“We inherited a momand-pop style operation so we’ve created a more formal organisation,” says Elizabeth Robinson of the Muzo Emerald executive committee. “We are very conscientious about giving back to the environment and are respectful of the country in which these stones have been created.
“Muzo has the most beautiful emeralds in the world and we are using the best mining processes to protect the quality of the stones.”
Signs of change are emerging in the diamond industry, too. Rio Tinto is working closely with communities around its mines, such Diavik on the edge of the Canadian Arctic, to ensure that once the gem supply has been exhausted, a mine is returned to nature.
Diamonds were discovered deep beneath the lake in northern Canada in 1991, sparking the largest mineral prospecting rush in Canadian history. Last December Rio Tinto, which opened the Diavik pit operations in 2003 and has since produced more than 90 million carats of diamonds, revealed its biggest find: the 187.7-carat Foxfire diamond.
Jean-Marc Lieberherr, managing director of Rio Tinto Diamonds, says the company has learned a lot from its experience with the Argyle mine in Western Australia, “although the environment is a lot more sensitive in Canada”. The company has worked closely with the government and local communities that fish the lake for food and hunt the caribou that migrate along this route.
The fact that the diamond pipe (the kimberlite rock formation in which diamonds are formed in the earth’s core) is below a lake meant Rio Tinto had to build a dyke around the pit to hold back the water; when the last pure, icy white diamond has been extracted the dyke will be removed and the lake will slowly be allowed to cover the pit.
Within a short time no one will know a mine had ever been there. “One of our objectives is to raise the level at which everyone operates,” says Lieberherr, although he is frustrated that mining companies don’t get any credit for respecting the environment, rehabilitating and revegetating it and working with the communities.
It is a strategy that has worked very well for Gemfields, the London-listed mining company that is unearthing emeralds in Zambia, rubies in Mozambique and has recently invested in the Coscues emerald mine in Colombia.
Gemfields adheres to ethical mining practices and responsibility towards the environment and communities around its mines.
It is hard to imagine when looking in the windows of Bulgari or Cartier that these beautiful gems emerge from the earth in a filthy, rough state and that it is the skills of the cutters, polishers and jewellers that transform them.
When we put on the ring or necklace we might not care where these precious jewels come from — but it is good to know that they are sourced responsibly.
Fabergé Devotion Emerald using a 9.07carat cabochon Zambian emerald from Gemfields
Colombian emerald pendant in Bulgari’s Giardini Italiani collection, main picture; the recently discovered 187.7carat Foxfire diamond, top; a recently discovered 2350-carat emerald rough from the Muzo mine in Colombia, above; Faberge Quadrille emerald pendant using Zambian emeralds from Gemfields, left; an aerial view of the Diavik mine in Canada, below