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Emeralds—Very Precious Among Gems

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PRIZED for their lustrous green color, emeralds have graced the crown jewels and have embellished the thrones of some of the oldest royal dynasties in history. Today, as in the past, they are a symbol of wealth and power.

Worldwide, emeralds are usually considered to be more precious than diamonds. As a rule, only rubies are considered more valuable. Yet, claims geologic technician Terri Ottaway, “carat for carat, emeralds of the highest quality are the most expensive gems in the world.” Depending on its quality, an emerald that would fit into the palm of your hand and weigh one tenth of an ounce [3 g] could be worth one million dollars!

Part of the value of emeralds comes from their scarcity. They are a type of beryl crystal. Emeralds are formed from a combination of the common elements aluminum and silicon with the rare element beryllium. Small amounts of trace elements, either chromium or vanadium, give emeralds their spectacular green tint.

Mined From Ancient Times

For thousands of years, almost all the world’s supply of emeralds came from Egypt. The fabled Cleopatra’s Mines, located about 440 miles [700 km] southeast of Cairo, were vigorously worked first by the Egyptians and later by the Romans and the Turks. What an arduous enterprise that must have been! The blistering desert sun and the abrasive dust and grime in the underground mines must have caused severe hardship for the workers. In addition, all supplies had to be brought in by caravan from the Nile River, a week’s journey, at best. Despite these enormous difficulties, the mines were in almost continuous operation from about 330 B.C.E. to 1237 C.E.

In ancient times people coveted emeralds, both for their beauty and for their supposed magical, curative powers. Emeralds were touted as a cure for many kinds of diseases. It was also believed that they could influence fertility and desire in females. Understandably, a brisk and profitable trade developed between Egypt and other nations as far away as India.

This monopoly lasted until the Spanish conquistadores arrived in South America in the early part of the 16th century. Shortly afterward, Jiménez de Quesada conquered what is now known as Colombia. Some years later, in 1558, the Spaniards located a mine at Muzo. The emeralds found there were breathtaking in both quality and size.

The Spaniards promptly seized control of the mine and enslaved the local population, using them to do the exhausting, dangerous work of digging out the gems. Within a few years, a veritable flood of big, almost flawless emeralds reached Europe, many of them finding their way into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, the Persian Shahs, and even the royalty of India. These stones were sculpted and engraved, becoming the foundation for many priceless jewel collections.

High Security Ineffective

Today the world’s poorest people painfully extract these gems from a hard, reluctant earth, causing journalist Fred Ward to observe: “It is one of the emerald trade’s exquisite ironies that most of the people who find the stones cannot even imagine accumulating enough money to wear one.” Since the temptation for workers to hide a stone and smuggle it out is almost irresistible, most mines operate in-house security forces. Guards toting machine guns watch workers intently as they laboriously dig and scrape.

Despite these measures, however, experts claim that much of the worldwide trade in emeralds remains illegal. “Most emeralds move off the record, untaxed, unseen, buried in a world market that the trade calls black. Almost every high-quality emerald is smuggled at some time in its history,” says National Geographic magazine.

Buyer Beware!

Because of the way they grow, emerald crystals have many natural, internal imperfections called inclusions. When these imperfections reach the outer surface of a stone, they appear as cracks, marring the stone’s finish and greatly diminishing its value. For centuries dealers have masked these surface flaws by soaking the cleaned and polished gems in a hot bath of oil, such as cedarwood or palm. The heating forces air out of the cracks in the stones and lets oil seep in, effectively obscuring the flaws. The treated gems are then sold as top quality. However, within a year or two, the oil evaporates and the imperfections are exposed, leaving customers puzzled and disheartened.

The prospective customer should also beware of the existence of imitations. By the Middle Ages, the use of green glass polished and cut to imitate emeralds was a well-established practice. Over the years many unsuspecting people have been duped into believing that they had the real thing when they actually possessed an imitation. National Geographic observes: “Professionals are fooled along with the public.” Tests, however, are available that enable a reputable gemologist to guarantee an emerald’s authenticity.

Although man’s greed has somewhat tarnished their image, emeralds are nevertheless still beautiful, rare, and valuable. They remain a precious marvel of God’s creation.

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