Emeralds are green precious stones that are mined from the ground. They are the premier gems in the Beryl family of stone-rocks. For more than 4,000 years, emeralds have been among the most valuable of all jewels on earth.
ABOUT COLOMBIAN EMERALDS
Colombia, located on the continent of South America, is the country that mines and produces the most emeralds for the global market of this product. It is estimated that Colombia accounts for nearly 70-90% of the world’s emerald market. While commercial grade emeralds are quite plentiful, fine and extra fine quality emeralds are extremely rare.
Today, in addition to existing in several private collections around the world, many of the emerald-encrusted items that the indigenous populations of Colombia created are displayed in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, the capital city. Also, the Colombian Emerald Museum Corporation (MEC) was set up in Cartagena, Colombia in an effort to preserve the historical and cultural values of emeralds by collecting a variety of stones and bedazzled pieces made from some of the most famous emeralds in the world.
The state departments in Colombia where most of the emerald mining takes place are in the regions of Boyacá and Cundinamarca, both found on the eastern ridge of the Andes Mountains that runs north-south throughout the entire country. Because of the rarity of sedimentary rock found in the emerald deposits of the Andes Mountains, Colombian emerald companies believe this condition to be the reason why Colombian emerald deposits are, “the purest emerald deposits found on earth.”
Although the Colombian emerald trade has a rich history that dates as far back as the pre-Spanish period, the increase in worldwide demand for the industry of precious stones in the early 20th century has led prices for emeralds to nearly double on the global market. Today, the Colombian emerald trade is engrained at the center of Colombia’s civil conflict that has plagued the country since the 1950s.
HISTORY OF EMERALD EXTRACTION IN COLOMBIA
For thousands of years, emeralds have been mined and considered one of the world’s most valuable jewels. The first ever recorded emeralds date back to ancient Egypt, where they were particularly admired by Queen Cleopatra. In addition to their aesthetic value, emeralds were highly valued in ancient times because they were believed to increase intelligence, protect marriages, ease childbirth, and thought to enable its possessor the power of predicting future events.
Ancient Emerald Myths
An ancient Colombian legend exists of two immortal human beings, a man and a woman—named Fura and Tena—created by the god Ares in order to populate the earth. The only stipulation by Ares was that these two human beings had to remain faithful to each other in order to retain their eternal youth. Fura, the woman, however, did not remain faithful. As a consequence, their immortality was taken away from them. Both soon aged rapidly, and they eventually died. Ares later took pity on the unfortunate beings and turned them into two crags protected from storms and serpents and in whose depths Fura‘s tears became emeralds. Today, the Fura and Tena Crags, rising approximately 840 and 500 meters, respectively, above the valley of the Minero River, are the official guardians of Colombia’s emerald zone. They are located roughly 30 km north of the mines of Muzo, the location of the largest emerald mines in Colombia.
Columbus arriving in the New World
Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World, illustration in Il costume antico et moderno (“The Ancient and Modern Costume,” (1817–26).
Colonial and Independence Periods
Historians believe the indigenous Indians of Colombia mastered the art of mining as early as 500 AD. But Spanish Conquistadors are the ones who are credited with discovering and marketing globally what we now call Colombian emeralds. Colombia, during pre-colonial times, was occupied by Muzo Indians, who were overpowered by Spain in the mid 1500s. It took Spain five decades to overpower the Muzo Indians who occupied this entire mining area. Once in control, the Spanish forced this native, indigenous population to work the mining fields that it previously held for many centuries.
Monarchs and the gem-loving royalty in India, Turkey, and Persia eventually sought the New World treasures once the gems arrived in Europe. These new emerald owners expanded their private collections with spectacular artifacts bedazzled with emeralds between 1600 and 1820, the time frame of Spain’s control over the Colombian mines. After Colombia’s independence from Spain in 1819, the new government and other private mining companies assumed mining operations. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these mines were periodically shut down numerous times because of political situations within the country.