History of the Emerald

Emerald’s lush green has soothed souls and excited imaginations since antiquity. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word for green, “smàragdos”. Rome’s Pliny the Elder described emerald in his Natural History, published in the first century AD: “…nothing greens greener” was his verdict. He described the use of emerald by early lapidaries, who “have no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green colour comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude.” Even today, the colour green is known to relieve stress and eye strain.

There are other green gems, like tourmaline and peridot, but emerald is the one that’s always associated with the lushest landscapes and the richest greens. Ireland is the Emerald Isle. Seattle, in the US state of Washington, is the Emerald City. Thailand’s most sacred religious icon is called the Emerald Buddha, even though it’s carved from green jadeite.

The first known emerald mines were in Egypt, dating from at least 330 BC into the 1700s. Cleopatra was known to have a passion for emerald, and used it in her royal adornments.

Since the time of Cleopatra, emeralds have epitomized the colour of green gemstones. It would be easy to question this statement if all one had seen of emeralds were the commercial, (and poorer,) quality stones which abound on home shopping networks and in some jewellery stores. A fine emerald, though, is a truly breath-taking sight and is well deserving of its placement in the traditional “big four” along with sapphire, ruby and diamond.

Emeralds from what is now Colombia were part of the plunder when sixteenth-century Spanish explorers invaded the New World. The Incas had already been using emeralds in their jewellery and religious ceremonies for 500 years. The Spanish, who treasured gold and silver far more than gems, traded emeralds for precious metals. Their trades opened the eyes of European and Asian royalty to emerald’s majesty.

Emerald is the most famous member of the beryl family. Legends endowed the wearer with the ability to foresee the future when emerald was placed under the tongue, as well as to reveal truth and be protected against evil spells. Emerald was once also believed to cure diseases like cholera and malaria. Wearing an emerald was believed to reveal the truth or falseness of a lover’s oath as well as make one an eloquent speaker.

Its colour reflects new spring growth, which makes it the perfect choice of a birthstone for the month of May. It’s also the gemstone for twentieth and thirty-fifth wedding anniversaries.

The emerald has long been known as the jewel of Kings, its rarity and beauty lending itself well to possession by royalty. As a talisman, it was said to have the ability to sharpen the wits, confer riches and power and to predict future events. It was also thought to strengthen the memory, which is a form of wit sharpening, and to enable the wearer to become an eloquent speaker, a kingly gift indeed. A revealer of truths, it was reputed to cut through all illusions and spells, and was considered to reveal the truth or falsity of a lover’s oath. This is a bit strange because it is also reputed to dampen lust, so perhaps it helped clear the head enough to see the truth of the object of infatuation; another useful property for a King, (or Queen,) with conniving consorts!

The emerald was also used as an antidote for poisons and infected wounds. The soothing green color of the emerald was thought to be restful to the eyes when they had been under much strain. This was such a common belief that gem workers would keep emeralds on their workbench for the special purpose of resting their eyes upon them after many hours of close work on other gems. The emerald was also reputed to be a good cure for dysentery, and was used to this end by Spanish and Hindu physicians of various eras, as well as a curative to poisonings by some Arabic peoples.

Many mysterious and legendary   cities of ancient Hindu and other Indian tales variously contained walls or temples of emerald and other precious stones. Tales of trees and other plants dripping leaves of emeralds and rubies abound, suggesting that these ‘heavenly’ jewels would be the reward for any lucky and virtuous enough to find these palaces, cities and temples. Of course, when the Spaniards conquered the New World and discovered the emeralds and gold abundant there, one may well conclude that some among them thought that they had indeed found the treasure troves of the ancients.

Hindu legends from India indicate that if one made offerings of emeralds to the God Krishna they would be rewarded with Knowledge of the Soul and the Eternal, for “Givers are high in Heaven”. Giving in such a way was a sign of great generosity and was richly rewarded by the gods. The emerald in Hindu teachings was associated with the planet Mercury, whereas in traditions that are more western, it is associated mostly with Venus, though sometimes with Mercury. Perhaps the westerners thought that the sea-green color was an appropriate match for a goddess who emerged from the sea.

In the Peruvian city of Manta, about the time of the Spanish Conquest, an emerald the size of an ostrich egg was worshipped and adored as a goddess, bearing the name of Umina. The emerald was only brought out and worshipped on high feast days and, according to her priests; the best way to honor the ‘mother emerald’ was to bring smaller emeralds, or ‘daughters’, to her. An immense store of emeralds was thus built up at the shrine, only to be seized by the Spaniards who overran the city. The priests managed to hide Umina. She was never found by the Spanish, though her daughters fell into the rough hands of the Conquistadors. They wrongly identified them as “like a diamond” and felt the best test of an emerald was to see if it could withstand being smashed on an anvil. Many beautiful stones were thus destroyed by this ‘testing’.

Whatever the supposed properties of the emerald were, it was highly regarded as a superior jewel of great merit and benefit. Whether the emerald was a stone of a King, a priest, the Son of God, or a Goddess in her own right, the beautiful green color of this lovely gem has given it a place of honour amongst peoples the world over.

The history of emeralds dates back to ancient Egypt, when they were particularly coveted and admired by Queen Cleopatra.

The Spanish, who treasured gold and silver far more than gems, traded emeralds for precious metals. Painting: Christoper Columbus arrives in America – L. Prang & Co., Boston. Published by the Prang Educational Co., 1893. 40802Y U.S. Copyright Office. 

Jewels from the Al-Thani collection from the Mughal period in India

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