To fully grasp the rarity of an emerald, it’s necessary to look a little closer at its composition. In its purest form, beryl is colourless; an emerald is a beryl, but of a different sort. Colour occurs only when traces of other elements are added; in the case of emeralds, the much-desired green colour is thanks to chromium and vanadium. Here’s the rub: these elements don’t usually exist in the same place, but through intensive tectonic processes, they come together and crystallise to make an emerald. It takes a tremendous amount of tension and pressure to produce emeralds, which would explain the amount of fissures usually found in these gems. Very seldom will one come across an emerald of a good size, colour and clarity, which makes such rare finds all the more valuable.
There have been attempts to minimise the appearance of these naturally occurring inclusions—the most popular methods include injecting resin to fill in the cracks or applying oil to the stone. Truth be told, most manufactured emeralds go through some level of treatment; it’s an open secret in the industry that’s not necessarily broadcast, but not repudiated either. Many argue that these treatments are legitimate and a widely accepted trade practice. But as it goes in the world of precious stones, treatments are still treatments, and the mere mention gets any consumer anxious. This issue exploded in the 1990s, but has since blown over— and emeralds are once again being regarded for the right reasons.
Apart from their rare natural occurrence and unique physical properties, emeralds are highly valued because of the level of skill and expertise needed to cut and polish them, given the frequent inclusions and raw crystals. It’s also for this reason that the emerald cut was developed—with its bevelled corners, the process is supposed to highlight the beauty of this stone. Of course emeralds can also be subject to other more classical cuts, such as cabochons or beads. Physical attributes aside, these divine greens also have quite a past. There have been numerous references to emeralds throughout history— Cleopatra’s sheer love for the stone led the Romans to name a number of emerald mines after her. Ancient Incas and Aztecs, meanwhile, referred to emeralds as a “holy gemstone,” while the Vedas, the oldest-known Hindu texts, cite the healing properties of emeralds. Of course there’s also the widely embraced legend of King Solomon; it’s been said that an emerald was one of the four precious stones bestowed to him, giving him power over all of creation.
The Mogul Mughal emerald is perhaps the largest-known polished emerald today. It’s a rectangular-cut emerald discovered in 1695, weighing an astounding 217.80 carats and standing at 10cm; one side is engraved with prayers in the Naskh script and the other carved with floral ornaments. Widely believed to have come from Colombia, the stone was eventually sold in India, where emeralds were much desired by the then-ruling Mughal Empire. The captivating Mogul Mughal, which was auctioned in 2001 for more than US$2.2 million, is just one of the famous emeralds that now sit in museums, national treasuries and private collections. There’s also the Patricia emerald at the New York Museum of Natural History, weighing a mind-boggling 632 carats, making it one of the largest emerald crystals ever mined in Colombia; and the 75.47-carat Hooker emerald worn by Abdul Hamid II, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which is displayed today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Another notable collection sits in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, featuring jewellery items, daggers and writing instruments owned by the Turkish Sultanate, many
adorned with emeralds.
From left: Snake bracelet-watch with emeralds in yellow gold by Bulgari, circa 1965; Floral emerald and diamond ring by Butani