The famous Egyptian emerald mines, also known as Cleopatra’s emerald mines, were the world’s primary source of emeralds until significant deposits were discovered in the Americas in the 16th century. To the early Egyptians, green was a sacred color associated with the fertility of the land annually flooded by the Nile. Pharaohs were buried with emeralds, the symbol of eternal life.
While some experts estimate that the Egyptian mines of Sikait and Zabara were worked as early as 3500 B.C., others date the early mining of this area more conservatively between the 20th and 15th centuries B.C. Gemstone dealers today would not be impressed by the emeralds from Cleopatra’s mines, even though gemstones from Sikait and Zabara were coveted and traded as far as the Mediterranean, the Near East, and India during antiquity.
Most of the stones excavated in antiquity were actually green beryl. Any true emeralds found were usually small, inferior in color, or full of fractures and inclusions . Many of these stones were only suitable for shaping into beads or polished geometric shapes such as cabochons .
Ancient manuscripts indicate that the Hindus have cherished emerald nearly as long as the Egyptians. It is thought that the ancient term for emeralds was derived from the Sanskrit word for green, smarahato. Sacred writings called the Vedas contain references to several precious gemstones including emeralds. The peoples of the Indian Subcontinent believed that emeralds had the power to purify the soul, increase wealth, and bring success in battle.
The source of Indian emeralds is a matter of some debate. Although emerald deposits have been mined in India fairly recently, no ancient source is known. Some experts believe that the bulk of the emeralds in India came from trade with ancient Egypt or were collected after the 16th century Spanish discovery of emeralds in the New World.
The ancient Greeks were also known to cherish precious stones. The famous ring of Polycrates was thought to feature an emerald. The Greek historian Herodotus mentions an emerald column in the Temple of Hercules at Tyre, and Plato includes emerald among other known gemstones of the period. According to Albertus Magnus (in Kuntz 1913), a famous priest and scholar of the Middle Ages, Alexander the Great wore a magic emerald in his belt, which was lost to him in a most peculiar manner:
“On his return from his Indian campaign, wishing one day to bathe in the Euphrates, he laid aside his girdle, and a serpent bit off the stone and then dropped it into the river.”
Roman interest in emeralds was enhanced by mines located in the Alps. Paulina, the wife of the Roman emperor Caligula, was known for her extravagant display of emeralds and other precious stones.
Given all this apparent enthusiasm for the “loveliest of the green stones,” the early history of emeralds is a bit difficult to pin down. This is due in part to uncertainties associated with the use of the ancient terms for emerald and to the unscientific nomenclature of the ancients.
In the early days of gemology, gems were classified by their color. Emerald was classed with a number of other green stones, including green sapphire, tourmaline, peridot, and even common green quartz. It seems the mafek of the Egyptians, the smaragdus of the Greeks and Romans, and the zamarut of the Arabs described just about any green stone that resembled emerald or was true emerald. Since ancient scholars had a limited understanding of the chemical and physical properties of different mineral species, there was no basis to link emerald with the other multicolored varieties of beryl either.
Descriptions provided by two of the most knowledgeable sources of their respective times, Theophrastus (~370–285 B.C.) and Pliny (23–79 A.D.), reveal some of the ancients’ uncertainty about the true nature of emeralds. Theophrastus informed his readers that like Plato, he especially esteemed emeralds. He distinguishes emerald from jasper and other stones of minor value but ambiguities remain. According to Theophrastus (Castellani, Brogden 1871 translation):
“The emerald possesses some particular virtues; it imparts its colour to water when dipped in it. It also rests the eyes.”
Pliny, in his famous Natural History, describes twelve varieties of emerald, which makes it clear that many types of minerals were grouped under the ancient name. Pliny goes on to state:
Indeed no stone has a color that is more delightful to the eye, for whereas the sight fixes itself with avidity upon the green grass and foliage of the trees, we have all the more pleasure in looking upon the emerald, there being no green in existence more intense than this. And then, besides, of all the precious stones, this is the only one that feeds the sight without satiating it…If the sight has been wearied or dimmed by intensively looking on any other subject, it is refreshed and restored by gazing at this stone. And lapidaries who cut and engrave fine gems know this well, for they have no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green color comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude.
It should be noted that Pliny also describes a variety of stones under the rubric of beryllus, and observes that some considered smaragdus to be the same or at least very similar to these stones.
As both of Theophrastus and Pliny indicate, emerald was thought to benefit the eyes. According to Pliny, the Emperor Nero, who had notoriously bad eyesight, used a lens of emerald to improve his view of gladiatorial competitions. Throughout history, emerald has been associated with many medicinal, magical, religious, astrological, and spiritual virtues. According to Kuntz (1913)
“Emerald sharpened the wits, conferred riches and the power to predict future events. To evolve this latter virtue it must be put under the tongue. It also strengthened the memory. The light-colored stones were esteemed the best and legend told that they were brought from the ‘nests of griffons’.”
Throughout history, emeralds have been carved with images and inscriptions. The first emerald carvings were created in ancient Egypt where emeralds were fashioned into scarabs. The native peoples of the New World routinely fashioned emerald beads, some of which may have been incorporated into the famous Inquisition necklace.
The Inquisition Necklace was worn in Spanish and French courts. The drilled hexagonal and cylindrical beads that make up the necklace may very well have originally belonged to articles of pre-Colombian jewelry that were simply reset into the necklace.
Although Pliny indicates that “by the common consent of mankind, [emeralds] were spared, being not allowed to be engraved,” we know of many engraved talismans and astrological stones from the Greek and Roman periods.
In India, where the color of gemstones has long been considered their chief asset, lapidaries began to cut gemstones to maximize their color. Early gem cutting technologies consisted of a rotating wheel coated with oil-based diamond powder. Indian stone cutting technologies eventually spread to the West where the luxury-loving Greeks and Romans rapidly adopted them.
As history progressed, emeralds continued to hold a very particular lure, and we explore that next in Emeralds in The Middle Ages.