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Emeralds: The Greenest of the Greens

The Sinople Queen Emerald
The Sinople Queen Emerald weighing over 136 carats, in a diamond setting from the time of Nicholas I. Source: The Jewels of the Romanovs, by Stefano Papi.

Emerald Isle. Emerald City. Emerald Coast. Emerald Buddha. Emerald Ash Borer (we may have taken that last one too far, we realize). There’s a reason that things vividly green are associated with the lovely emerald. As Rome’s Pliny the Elder described emerald in his Natural History, published in the first century AD: “…nothing greens greener”

Emeralds: The Jewel Of Kings

We associate the vibrant green stone with May birthdays, but long before it was designated a birthstone, it was known as the jewel of Kings. It’s been attributed with many properties. Aristotle thought it increased the owner’s importance in presence and speech during business, gave victory in trials, helped settle litigation, and comforted and soothed eyesight, as well as preventing epilepsy. The Chinese thought it to be lucky. The Egyptians believed it to stand for fertility and rebirth. And during the middle ages, it was thought to be able to keep a woman chaste.

The Mogul Mughal Carved Emerald
The Mogul Mughal Carved Emerald weighing 217.80 carats

But what is this magical stone. Well, that’s easy. It’s a hunk of beryl colored green by traces of chromium and sometimes vanadium, actually. On a hardness scale (the Mohs scale, for example), emeralds are pretty hard. But given that they are often ripe with inclusions, their toughness (resistance to breakage) is generally poor. Many of the emeralds you see in stores today have been treated to disguise these inclusions, but they still lurk below (and occasionally break the surface) and therefore render the stone one that should be worn carefully and not daily.

Antique Edwardian 18k Gold Diamond & Emerald Bracelet
Antique Edwardian 18k Gold Diamond & Emerald Bracelet
Photo credit: Rozental Antiques

But that hasn’t kept the masses from loving these green stones since nearly the beginning of time. According to records, emeralds were being sold in markets in Babylon as early as 4000BC. The Incas worshiped it and it was mentioned in biblical scripture pertaining to the apocalypse. The first documented Emerald mines were in Egypt from roughly 330 BC well into the 1700s. Today, Columbia is the biggest producer of emeralds, followed by Zambia. But they have also been known to be found in smaller amounts nearly all over the world, including Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Italy, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, United States(US), Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In the US, emeralds have been found in Connecticut, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In Canada, in 1997 emeralds were discovered in the Yukon.

The MacKay Emerald Necklace fashioned by Cartier and gifted to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Photo credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

There are many notable emeralds throughout history. The Mogul Emerald is one of the largest and definitely the largest carved emerald (you can read more about it here). But one of our personal favorites is the MacKay Emerald Necklace. It’s named after Mrs. Anna Case MacKay who received the necklace as a wedding present from her wealthy silver miner turned telegraph mogul husband in 1931. She gifted the 167.97-carat, oval cabochon-cut, deep grass-green colored emerald necklace to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1984.

The Chalk Emerald
The Chalk Emerald, a 37.82 carat Colombian emerald, recut from its original 38.40 cts and set into a ring with to pear shaped diamonds by Harry Winston.
Photo credit: Smithsonian Natural History Museum

The Chalk Emerald is another grand stone of 37.82 carats. Sometime during the 20th century, the emerald was recut from its original weight of 38.40 carats (7.680 g) and set in a ring designed by Harry Winston, Inc., where it is surrounded by sixty pear-shaped diamonds, totaling approximately 15 carats (3.0 g). The ring was donated by Mr. and Mrs. O. Roy Chalk to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in 1972 and is part of the Smithsonian’s National Gem and Mineral Collection.

Elizabeth Taylor's Emerald and Diamond Necklace, Brooch, Earrings, Bracelet, and Ring set
Elizabeth Taylor’s Emerald and Diamond Necklace, Brooch, Earrings, Bracelet, and Ring set.
Photo credit: Christie’s

But a post about gemstones wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor. Among her many jewels was her emerald set, which included a necklace, brooch, ring, bracelet, and pair of drop earrings. Together the pieces come to a sum of nearly $100 million! Her husband, Richard Burton, gifted her with these incredible jewels.

Pair of emerald and diamond earrings, circa 1880
Pair of emerald and diamond earrings, circa 1880
Photo credit: Sotheby’s

Do you have a favorite emerald piece of jewelry? Are you a May baby? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section below! And if you’d like to do some further reading about these remarkable stones (as well as others), you might want to check out Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World.


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