A Brief History of Emeralds and Emerald Mining

Note: The bulk of this history is summarized from two excellent books: Emeralds and Other Beryls by John Sinkankas and Emeralds (Fred Ward Gem Series) by Fred Ward.

The Egyptian emerald mines are generally recognized as the first known recorded source of emeralds. However the dates for when this mining began are not clear and their is a huge disparity in terms of beginning dates, with a beginning range of 300-2000 B.C.

A big part of the problem with these dates is that there were a number of different terms for Emerald in ancient times. Further complicating the issue is that many times any green stone with a bright luster would be referred to as an emerald. It is widely recognized though, that the most extensive workings in these mines was during the period 330 B.C. until about the year 1237 A.D.

Most historical evidence points to the fact that the quality of the rough material from these Egyptian mines was poor and small in size. Most of this material was best suited for beads and other non-faceted uses such as being crushed for use in "medicinal" procedures. Finally, many of the ancient pieces of emerald jewelry when tested, turn out to contain green beryl or some other green mineral such as feldspar.

It wasn't until the 16th century (with the conquest of South America by Spain) that the emerald deposits in Colombia became widely known. However it is believed that these mines had been worked for at least 500 years prior to the Spanish conquest by the indigenous population. In fact Sinkankas cites an article by Sydney Ball, in which he states, Colombian emerald was so common in Peru that for at least two centuries after the Conquest it was still known as Peruvian emerald.Thus, these emeralds had already travelled via trade from Colombia to Peru prior to the Spanish invasion because there are no emerald deposits in Peru.

The Spanish conquistador's love for gold and precious stones is well known. Prior to the discovery of the Colombian emerald deposits, there was little fine quality emerald available in Europe and prices were justly quite steep. Fred Ward cites the same report by Sydney Ball in 1935 that basically says that Spaniards exported so much fine material from the New World in the 16th century that prices actually became depressed.

It is interesting to note that despite the large amounts of fine emeralds exported by the conquistadors to Spain, there are no grand examples of emerald jewelry among the Spanish crown jewels. It seems the Spanish were content to sell/trade these emeralds for gold to other empires and royalty in places such as Egypt, India and Persia. In fact the Crown Jewels of Persia (Iran) probably contain the single most exquisite collection of fine emerald jewelry in the world.

In 1568, the formal mining of Muzo (Colombia's most well known emerald area) began in earnest. Since then and until the 20th Century, the Colombian mines have produced the bulk of the world's supply of emerald. In fact it really wasn't until the 1960s when localities in Brazil and Africa (most notably Zambia) began to be widely exploited. In the Sinkanas book, Emerald and Other Beryls there is an incredible five page chronology of Colombian Emerald mining. In comparison, most other localities have a half page or less in terms of history.

Today in terms of quantity, Brazil leads the world in emerald export but the quality of Brazilian emeralds generally don't compare to those from Colombia or even Africa. Most Brazilian material is exported to India where a large portion is made into beads. Other known localities of Emerald are: (as previously mentioned) Zambia, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia (Ural Mountains) Australia,Norway, and the United States (North Carolina). The Zambian emeralds probably come the closet to rivaling the Colombian emeralds in terms of quality, although most experts would agree that Colombia still produces the finest quality. We will discuss this further in our sources section.