People are a lot like magpies. We like shiny things. Since the beginning, we have ascribed value to pretty rocks with little practical value. To try and explain their obsession with these stones people have described them as having mystical properties. The emerald is often associated with eloquence and foresight, as well as being the lovers’ gemstone. Despite its connotation with love, the truth is emerald mining has a long, and often bloody, history.
Raw emerald from the Muzo Mine in Colombia. (Géry Parent / CC0)
The History of Emeralds Through the Ages
The earliest emerald mines were Egyptian. They date back to around 1500 BC and were first located on and around Mount Smaragdus. It was from 330 BC onwards however that emerald mining in Egypt really took off. The Pharaohs owned the mines and therefore the stones within them. One ruler in particular was especially fond of emeralds.
Cleopatra VII who ruled from 51 to 30 BC adorned herself and her palaces with emeralds. She also had a habit of gifting them to foreign dignitaries. Cleopatra’s obsession with emeralds had two facets. Firstly, the emeralds were closely associated with fertility and immortality. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, adorning everything in emeralds was a way to show off her wealth.
During this period, the emerald was one of the most highly prized gemstones and could only be found in Egypt. During Cleopatra’s reign, the Romans also developed a taste for emeralds. They would drill holes in the stones and wear them as talismans. Emperor Nero was even known to wear emerald glasses to the gladiatorial games to help his dwindling eyesight.
The Egyptian and Roman love for emeralds caused Egypt one problem. The old mines at Mount Smaragdus eventually began to run dry, producing gems of lower and lower quality. This caused Cleopatra to commission several more mines in an effort to keep pace with demand.
The Romans later took control of these mines, exploiting them on an industrial scale. They were then taken by various Byzantine Emperors before landing in the hands of Muslim conquerors. Mining in Egypt was abandoned with the discovery of deposits in Colombia, after which the emerald mines fell into ruin and were largely lost to time. The original mines were only rediscovered in 1816 by the Frenchman Frederic Cailaud, a mineralogist.
Cleopatra depicted wearing an emerald, by Władysław Czachórski. ( Public domain )
Spanish Conquerors and Their Hunt for Jewels in South America
For centuries the majority of emeralds around the globe were those originally sourced from Egyptian mines. From around the 14th century AD, however, there is evidence of emerald mining in both India and Austria but not at such an industrial scale.
Everything really began to change with the Spanish discovery of the New World at the beginning of the 16th century. To the Spanish, South America appeared to be dripping in emeralds. While the conquistadors were traditionally more interested in precious metals than gems, the Spanish were smart enough to know the worth of the emeralds. Greed soon took over and the conquistadors demanded to know where the Incas had found all of their emeralds.
The Inca of modern-day Peru had been mining and trading emeralds for at least 500 years prior to their discovery by the Spanish conquistadors. These lands were so rich with gold and emeralds the Spanish believed they had found the mythical city of El Dorado . What followed was a long, bloody, and destructive war. The conquistadors slew countless natives trying to find the mines and seized whatever jewels they could get their hands on.
Originally from Colombia, the Crown of the Andes includes more than 400 emeralds and dates back to 17th or 18th century. It was made for a sculpture of the Virgin Mary of Popayán, to give thanks for her protection against smallpox, and is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Smart History / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
The Story of Umina, the Giant Emerald Goddess
In one example from this era the people of Manta in present day Ecuador (cited as Peru in many articles) worshiped a giant emerald said to be the size of an ostrich egg. This emerald supposedly represented a goddess called Umina. On feast days Umina, the giant emerald, was brought out of her temple by priests so that her followers could worship her. They did this by bringing her daughters (more emeralds), which meant the city had an immense store of emeralds. A store that the Spanish soon got wind of.
They stormed and conquered the town, searching for Umina but never finding it. The conquistadors suspected the locals of trickery and began smashing the emeralds on anvils, believing that true emeralds would survive the test. They were wrong and needlessly destroyed a fortune in precious stones.
Eventually the Spanish prevailed in seizing the mines once owned by the Aztecs and Inca. Colombia proved to be particularly rich in emeralds. To this day it is the world’s largest producer of emeralds and depending on the year 50 to 90% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia.
The Spanish victory in Colombia would prove to cost them dearly. After their victory in South America, the Spanish flooded the European market with vast amounts of gold and emeralds. This had the opposite effect of what they intended. Rather than making the Spanish Empire even richer, it caused inflation to skyrocket and their economy was left in tatters.
Then during the 1800s, after 300 years of Spanish exploitation, the Colombians began to revolt. A series of uprisings led to the Constitution of Colombia being signed in 1886, which gave the Colombians, not just their independence but their mines back.
18th century bodice ornament made with gold and Colombian emeralds sourced from the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Pillar in Zaragoza. (Vassil / CC0)
Blood Emeralds in the Modern World
Thanks to modern mining technology, nowadays emeralds can be found all over the world. Unfortunately, their increased availability hasn’t managed to stop the bloodshed. As recently as 2016 the Colombian government was trying to clean up the country’s emerald trade. Unsurprisingly white powder wasn’t the only precious resource the country’s gangsters were interested in.
In Africa, meanwhile, there have been accusations of violence and human rights abuses in the emerald trade. Zambia is the world’s second-largest emerald producer. This hit international headlines in 2018 when it was claimed Elon Musk’s father had made his fortune by owning a controversial Zambian emerald mine. This spotlight on the Zambian emerald trade caused much talk in relation to what have come to be known as “blood emeralds.”
To this day many people state that emeralds somehow hold mystical properties. Many of these people also just so happen to own stores which sell emeralds. Whether or not a stone holds special powers is a matter of personal belief. The fact that throughout history, and even to this day, the mining of these gems has led to death and bloodshed is, sadly, not.
Top image: The emerald is known as the gemstone of lovers. Source: Balazs / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell