As the Spanish conquistadores plundered the treasuries of the New World, great quantities of confiscated emeralds were shipped to Spain. In 1519, Hernán Cortés launched his fateful mission to convert the Aztecs of Mexico to Christianity. When the Aztec emperor Moctezuma learned of ten “ghost” ships anchored off the coast, he took this as the fabled return of the Aztec gods and immediately commissioned his goldsmiths to create gifts for them.
Among these was a turquoise mask and a gold necklace set with emeralds and other gemstones, which were presented to Cortés. Cortés later obtained many other fine emeralds when he and his men looted Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Some of the best carved emeralds he saved as a gift for his bride-to-be Doña Juana de Zuniga.
The Crown of the Andes, worn by the last Incan King Atahualpa was reportedly set with over 450 emeralds. The crown and many other fine emeralds were confiscated by Pizzaro when he made the king his prisoner in 1532.
The European market welcomed the New World emeralds and the trickle of gemstones became a flood after the source of New World emeralds was located in Colombia in 1537. According to Finlay (2006), the missionary Joseph d’Acosta wrote that the ship that brought him back to Spain in 1587 carried two chests of emeralds, weighing around half a million carats or about 200 pounds.
Another ship, La Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank off the coast of Florida in 1622, was found to contain more than six thousand stones and several pieces of elaborate emerald jewelry. When you consider that the Atocha was a single ship among hundreds making this voyage, the number of emeralds flooding into Europe must have been staggering.
The Topkapi Dagger is one of most precious items in Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. In 1747, the newly commissioned dagger was one of the items in a chest of gifts sent from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed I to Persia’s ruler Nadir Shah as thanks for a new throne and some political favors. Ottoman ambassadors heard that Nadir Shah had been assassinated in an uprising so they returned to Istanbul bringing the dagger with them.
The Emerald supply chain also reached the Far East where the Mughal emperors of India and potentates from Turkey, Arabia, and Persia proved willing to pay enormous prices. According to Graf (2001), when Johannes Grueber, an Austrian Jesuit visited the courts of the Manchu emperors in the late 17th century, he noted that:
“The great lords wear various precious stones. Several also wear a pearl, but in combination with a ruby, emerald or jasper bead for, as we have heard, only the ruler is allowed to wear a single pearl on his headdress.“
The influx of huge numbers of emeralds into Europe caused their value to drop precipitously. According to Finlay (2006):
The Muslim lapidary writer Teifaschi had valued emeralds above diamond, rubies and sapphires because at the time they were the rarest. But when emeralds were coming in by the half million-carat load for more than a century after the conquest of the Americas, the market virtually collapsed. In his English lapidary of 1652, Thomas Nicols told the story of a Spaniard in Italy showing a jeweler an emerald ‘of an excellent luster and forme.’ The jeweler valued it at a hundred ducats. Then the Spaniard showed him an even larger, finer one, which he valued at 300 ducats. ‘The Spaniard drunke with this discourse carried him to his lodging, shewing him a casket full. The Italian seeing so great a number of emeralds, sayde unto him, sir these are well worth a crowne apiece.
Agricola, known as the Father of Mineralogy, gives us a snapshot of the science of gemology in his mid-16th century text, De Natura Fossilium, which was written in 1546. Although he too borrows from the ancients, he takes great pains to accurately describe the known physical and chemical properties of many gemstones. He also provides relevant and accurate information regarding simulated emeralds made of glass (from Bandy and Bandy translation 1955):
“I shall mention a few of the many ways in which gems are falsified as well as a few ways in which true gems can be distinguished from the false so that anyone may detect them and thus protect himself against fraud. Glass, as I have said, is dyed many colors and may have the same color as smaragdus, turquois, amethyst, hyacinthus, chrysolithus and topazius. This genus of artificial stones cannot be recognized by their appearance but can be detected by drawing a file across them. The glass, because it is soft and fragile, is scratched by the file while the true gem, being hard, is not affected, except topazius and smaragdus and even these stones are not scratched if they are Scythian or Egyptian. True gems may also be distinguished by touch since glass is warmer when compared with a gem. Glass is lighter than a gem. By these two methods true topazius and smaragdus can be distinguished from false. The eye may detect bubbles in the glass which sometimes shine like silver in the depth of the stone.”
Although Agricola’s text constitutes a significant advance in the science of mineralogy, he also includes information on emerald’s ability to prevent epilepsy and its inability to witness unbridled passion and remain intact.
The court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was filled with alchemists, lapidaries, and artists who wielded considerable power. Although Rudolf II was not a good leader, he was known to be a decent painter and lapidary. He was also a hypochondriac who assembled a league of astrologers and physicians to counsel him on the healing and occult powers of gemstones. His extensive collection of gemstones and exotica included a ruby the size of a hen’s egg, mermaid teeth, unicorn horns, phoenix feathers, and nails from Noah’s Ark.
Rudolf II’s collection was maintained by a famous mineralogist and physician, Anselmus Boetius de Boodt. De Boot authored one of the most influential mineralogy texts ever written, the “Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia.” In this major opus, de Boodt described about 600 minerals, and provided information on their properties, imitations, and medical applications. With regard to emerald, de Boodt reiterates the prevailing custom for distinguishing “oriental” emeralds (usually green sapphire) from “occidental” emeralds (true emeralds). In his capacity as a physician, de Boodt also wrote extensively on the potential healing properties of gemstones, including emeralds.
The best Western science had to offer at the end of the 17th century is illustrated in Robert Boyle’s “An Essay About the Origine and Virtue of Gems” (1672). Boyle used personal observation and experimentation in his studies, and he pioneered the use of crystal habit as an aid to gem identification. He believed that gems obtained their color and medicinal virtues by a mixing of pigments and metallic substances while the gems were liquid or “soft.”
“…”It seems not unprobable, that the Colours of divers Gems (for I do not say of all) are adventitious, and were imparted to them, either by some colour’d Mineral Juice, or some tinging Mineral exhalation, whil’st the Gem or Medical stone was either in solutis principiis, or of a texture open enough to be penetrable by Mineral Fumes.”
Boyle’s novel theories about how stones acquired their color left him open to new ideas about the relationships between gemstones. Nevertheless, the works of many experts continued to muddle the true relationships of emerald, green sapphire, tourmaline until the late 18th century. Much of the confusion among these green gemstones was finally rectified in the work of Romé de Lisle published in 1783.
Very little was known about the chemical and physical properties of emerald until 1798, when a Frenchman named Nicolas Louis Vauquelin published the first chemical analysis of the stone. This enabled emerald to be classified as a variety of beryl, and finally proved it was distinct from the other green gemstones with which it had been lumped for centuries.
Today, people the world over love emeralds, although the United States and Japan are the largest importers. In the United States, imports of emeralds have a higher dollar value than the imports of any other colored stone. Exceptional emeralds can surpass diamonds in per-carat price. Today, Colombia, Brazil, and a few countries in Africa supply the bulk of the world stones. India, Israel, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Switzerland constitute the major emerald cutting centers.
Although a French chemist, Jacques Joseph Ebelman, pioneered the flux process to synthesize emerald in 1848, it wasn’t until about one hundred years later that marketable flux grown emeralds were produced by Carroll Chatham. Today, synthetic emerald is produced under a variety of trade names.
Because of their beauty and rarity, emeralds are found in all kinds of jewelry. Throughout the ages and into the modern and contemporary eras, emeralds have served as the centerpiece for many breathtaking pieces of jewelry. Certain emeralds have also made their mark as heirloom pieces, and we explore many of these works of art elsewhere on the site.
Across all of the centuries, emeralds have appeared in many memorable and standout pieces of jewelry, or as emeralds on their own. Discover the fascinating stories behind them next with Famous Emeralds.