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Famous Emeralds

Emerald Stories Throughout Time

Many famous people have cherished exceptional emeralds.  A famous emerald connects its owner to a rich history that winds through exotic lands, ancient civilizations, and mighty empires.  The examples provided below include exceptional emeralds held by kings, queens, popes, entrepreneurs, and members of our new Hollywood “royalty.”

Polycrates, Tyrant of Samos

greek island samos emerald legend
The island of Samos from a 17th century book.

According to Herodotus, Polycrates ruled the Greek island of Samos with a firm hand from 538 to 522 B.C.  During the course of his reign, he formed a political and military alliance with Amasis II, the Pharaoh of Egypt.  But Amasis was a very superstitious man.  He believed that the extreme good fortune and continual success of Polycrates was likely to offend the gods.

Therefore, he urged Polycrates to discard his most prized possession in order to escape misfortune.  Polycrates obliged and cast his beautiful engraved emerald ring into the sea. A few days later, the ring was found by Polycrates’ cooks in the belly of a fish they were preparing for his dinner.

pharoah amasis II
Sculpted bust of Pharoah Amasis II.

Of course Polycrates was overjoyed to have his ring back, but when news of this new stroke of unbelievable good fortune reached Amasis, he immediately severed his relationship with the king. Amasis believed that the gods had rejected Polyrates gift and that he was bound to pay in the end.

Lollia Paulina, Wife of Caligula

roman emerald pearl necklace
A Roman era emerald, pearl, and gold necklace.

It is not clear if the Roman Emperor Caligula (12–41 A.D.) was merely prone to excess or whether he was truly insane.  We do know that his third wife, Lollia Paulina, was remembered by Pliny (23–79 A.D.) for her ostentation, extravagance, and vanity.

Pliny indicates that Lollia Paulina arrived at a party bedecked with “alternating emeralds and pearls, which glittered all over her head, hair, ears, neck, and fingers.”  Pliny was unimpressed by her conspicuous consumption, especially because she told everyone at the party that the jewelry cost the equivalent of a year’s wages for 40,000 Roman soldiers.

Queen Theodelinda and the Iron Crown of Lombardy

Queen Theodelinda
A portrait of the Lombardy Queen Theodelinda.

Theodelinda (c. 570–628 A.D.) is known as the famous, or infamous, queen of the Lombards, a Germanic people who settled in Byzantine Italy.  According to Graf (2001) her life was dominated by acute “religiosity and lust for power, splendour and suffering, reverence and death.” After her first husband was poisoned in 590, she married Count Agilulf of Turnin, who as King, constituted a substantial threat to the Papacy of Rome.  Pope Gregory the Great managed to keep the Lombards at bay in return for substantial amounts of tribute money.

A decade later, Queen Theodelinda instigated religious reform in Lombardy.  She started building churches in Lombardy and Tuscany, among them the Cathedral of Monza and the first Baptistery of Florence.  Her second son was baptized as a Catholic and eventually even her husband converted to the faith.  By way of thanks, Pope Gregory the Great sent her a Gospel book encrusted with enamel, emeralds, and other precious stones as well as a cruciform reliquary said to contain a piece of the True Cross.

Gospel of Theodelinda
The Gospel of Theodelinda is encrusted with precious stones, including emeralds.

Iron Crown Of Lombardy
The Iron Crown of Lombardy contained emeralds, rubies, and sapphires.

The famous treasure of Monza contains these items, as well as the Iron Crown of Lombardy. The Iron Crown receives its name from a narrow band of iron about one centimeter thick, which is said to be beaten out of one of the nails used at the crucifixion.  How the nail came to be owned by the Lombards is not known, but according to one legend, Theodelinda was involved in its discovery.  According to other sources, it was one of the gifts Pope Gregory the Great gave her for her part in converting the Lombards to Catholicism.

Napoleon Iron Crown coin
An Italian coin struck in bronze from 1805 featuring the likeness of Napoleon, king of Italy, wearing the Iron Crown.

The Iron Crown has a long and colorful history.  It was used in Charlemagne’s coronation; it became a symbol of the Kingdom of Lombardy, and later, the medieval Kingdom of Italy.  In 1805, when Napoleon Bonaparte had himself crowned King of Italy, he used the symbolic Iron Crown.  At the ceremony, in true Napoleonic style, he place the crown on his own head claiming:  “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touché” – “God gives it to me, beware those who touch it.”

The Emerald Isle

A possible origin for this famous nickname for Ireland is found in a papal bull entitled Laudabiliter, which means “it is praiseworthy.”  The bull was issued in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV, and it gave the Norman King Henry II of England sovereignty over Ireland. The actual wording, which gave authority to Henry to take possession of Ireland, is as follows:

We, therefore, regarding your pious and laudable design with due favour, and graciously assenting to your petition, do hereby declare our will and pleasure, that, for the purpose of enlarging the borders of the Church, setting bounds to the progress of wickedness, reforming evil manners, planting virtue, and increasing the Christian religion, you do enter and take possession of that island, and execute therein whatsoever shall be for God's honour and the welfare of the same.

king henry II Ireland
Norman King Henry II of England who was granted sovereignty over Ireland by the Pope.

Although the Norman invasion of Ireland actually occurred at a much later date, according to the diplomat John of Salisbury, at the time the Laudabiliter was issued, Pope Adrian IV forwarded a fine emerald ring to King Henry II along with the official Brief of Investiture.  Although Ireland is known for its lush green landscape, many believe its nickname, The Emerald Isle, has its roots in this story.

The Legend of Prester John

Legends of Prester John were popular in Europe from the 12th through the 17th centuries.  Although the fables varied according to their source, they commonly told of a wise and generous king who ruled over a Christian kingdom surrounded and threatened by pagans and infidels.

prester john artwork
A Mughal painting of Prester John with his scepter.

Initially, Prester John’s kingdom was thought to be located in India.  After the Mongols arrived at the doorstep of the Western world, reports placed his kingdom in Central Asia.  The Portuguese, on the other hand, believed that his empire would be found in Ethiopia.  As accounts of the fabled kingdom shifted, a quest to find the exact location inspired many adventurers, although it was never found.

According to legend, Prester John a descendant of one of the three Magi.  His wealthy kingdom was said to contain both the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth.  Among his treasures were a mirror through which he could view his entire kingdom and a fabulous scepter, which was carved from a single emerald.

According to a widely read and quoted book of travels attributed to Sir John Mandeville (written circa 1366), Prester John

dwelleth commonly in the city of Susa. And there is his principal palace…And above the chief tower of the palace be two round pommels of gold, and in everych of them be two carbuncles great and large, that shine full bright upon the night…And the windows of the halls and chambers be of crystal. And the tables whereon men eat, some be of emeralds, some of amethyst, and some of gold, full of precious stones; and the pillars that bear up the tables be of the same precious stones.

fountain of youth painting
A painting of the fountain of youth.

The Gifts of Pope Innocent III

pope innocent III
Fresco depicting Pope Innocent III.

Pope Innocent III was Pope from 1198 until his death in 1216.  He is primarily remembered for reasserting and extending the prestige and power of the papacy.  He is also known for giving four rings containing precious gemstones to Richard the Lionhearted, King of England (d. 1199).  According to Kuntz (1917):

“With the rings, the pope sent a letter from St. Peter’s in Rome, dated May 28, 1198, in which he wrote that the four stones were symbolical.  The verdant hue of the emerald signified how we should believe; the celestial purity of the sapphire, how we should hope;, the warm color of the garnet, how we should love; and the clear transparency of the topaz, how we should act.”

king richard lionheart
Painting of the impressive King Richard the Lionheart.

According to some sources, Innocent III also gifted four gemstone rings to Richard’s successor, King John of England, at the end of their long power feud.  Apparently after many years of squabbling, the two reached an acceptable compromise: power was yielded to the former and tribute or service money granted to the latter.  As part of the truce, Pope Innocent III forwarded a gift of four gemstone rings, each containing a single emerald, sapphire, ruby, or opal.

Although the rings do not survive, the letter that accompanied the gift does.  In it, the Pope instructed the King to allow the inherent “virtues” of the stones to guide him in his daily life, as they represented faith, hope, charity, and good works respectively.

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés painting
A painting of Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, circa 17th century.

It is not surprising that Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs, is linked to several legendary emeralds.  He apparently incurred the ire of Queen Isabella by refusing to give her a group of  “Five Emeralds” which he had collected for his betrothed.

In a letter dated May 1522, Cortés alludes to an enormous emerald shaped like a pyramid, which was used by Aztec judges to decide the guilt or innocence of individuals accused of a crime.  Naturally, this stone was highly revered by the Aztecs, and it was said to rest upon a skull surrounded by rare feathers and costly gemstones.  It was even given the name “Tribunal of God.”

portrait francis I of france
Portrait of Francis I, King of France, who may have acquired the Aztec pyramid emerald.

According to Ball (1924, from Sinkankas 1981), the emerald was entrusted to two Spaniards for its voyage to Spain.  One man reportedly died in a drunken brawl, and the French apparently captured the other.  Although the trail leads to Francis I, King of France, the actual fate of this legendary emerald is unknown.

Sacred Emerald Chalices

In Christian tradition, the Holy Chalice is the vessel that Jesus used at the Last Supper to serve wine.  However, there is another pervasive legend surrounding the Holy Chalice.   In a muddled, though better-known story, the vessel is known as Holy Grail and it was the cup used to collect and store the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion.  Through time, the traditions of the Holy Chalice and the Holy Grail have merged.

holy grail Jesus round table
Painting of Jesus and the Apostles at a round table showing an ornate Holy Grail.

Oral tradition, poems, and bardic tales combined the stories of the Holy Chalice and the Holy Grail in a mixture of legend and fact.  According to Fernie (1907), “the famous ‘San Graal’ of King Arthur’s time was represented as a miraculous chalice made of a single precious emerald, which was endowed from heaven with the power of preserving chastity, prolonging life, and performing other pious wonders.”

painting Holy Grail
A different representation of the Holy Grail, showing it as more simplistic.

A green vessel, known as the Genoa Chalice or the Sacro Catino, was once thought to be the Holy Chalice.   Although it was purportedly carved from a single piece of emerald, we now know that it is, in fact, made of green glass.  It is a hexagonal vessel and it is housed in the Cathedral of Genoa.  Although its origin is uncertain, it was thought to have been spirited out of the Middle East during the Crusades.

In one interesting story, a pawnbroker who suspected the false nature of the “emerald” chalice made a handy profit selling identical copies to unsuspecting investors.  According to Kuntz (1913):

“At one time when the government [of Genoa] was hard pressed for money, the Sacro Catino was offered to a rich Jew of Metz as pledge for a loan of 100,000 crowns.  He was loath to take it, as he probably recognized its spurious character, and when his Christian clients forced him to accept it under threats of dire vengeance in case of refusal, he protested that they were taking a base advantage of the unpopularity of his faith, since they could not find a Christian who would make the loan. However, when some years later the Genoese were ready to redeem this precious relic, they were much puzzled to learn that a half-dozen different persons claimed to have it in their possession, the fact being that the Jew had fabricated a number of copies which he had succeeded in pawning for large sums, assuring the lender in each case that the redemption of the pledge was certain.”

Sacro Catino Graal
The Sacro Catino Graal on museum display.

The Sacro Catino is not the only “emerald grail” in existence.  Agricola (15th century), mentions a large emerald dish or cup believed to be the Holy Grail that was property of a monastery in Lyons, France.  Another “emerald” dish, now believed to be chrysoprase, was reportedly held at the Chapel of St Wenceslaus in Prague.

Ivan the Terrible

Although he is not remembered for his gentler pursuits, the fearsome Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), was known to be an avid gemstone lover.  Sir Jerome Horsey, envoy for Queen Elizabeth of England, quotes Ivan the Terrible’s thoughts on gemstones at a time close to his death:

Ivan the Terrible by Klavdiy Lebedev
Painting of Ivan the Terrible in his later years by Klavdiy Lebedev.

“[He was] carried every daye in his chair into his treasure. One daye the prince beckoned me to follow. I strode emonge the rest venturously, and heard him call for som precious stones and jeweils. Told the prince and nobles present before and aboute him the virtue of such and such, which I observed, and do pray I may a littell degress to declare for my own memorie sake….[Ivan points at an emerald]… The natur of the reyn-bowe ; this precious stone is an enemye to uncleanness.”  

There are a number of rumors surrounding Ivan’s demise, including death by mercury poisoning—which does not say much for emerald’s legendary ability to treat poison.

Napoléon, Joséphine, and Pope Pius VII

Joséphine de Beauharnais was a widow and mistress to several prominent political figures in France until she met Napoléon Bonaparte and their tempestuous love affair began.  Soon after their wedding in 1796, Napoléon left to lead the French army in Italy, where he became a collector on a truly imperial scale.  So much art, sculpture, and jewelry were looted from the Italians that they gave him yet another title, Il Gran Ladrone (The Great Thief).

Napoleon and Josephine
Formal portraits of Napoleon and Josephine.

It is said that Napoléon lavished Joséphine with jewels–many of which were the spoils of his military campaigns–but others believe he was a reluctant provider, as he frequently and bitterly complained about her excessive spending habits.  We do know that both the Emperor and Empress maintained fabulous collections of gemstones.

Napoleon tiara emeralds
The original drawing the Napoleon tiara set with many outstanding emeralds.

Evidently Joséphine sat for a portrait in 1809, just before Napoléon publicly announced that he was divorcing her.  According to Finlay (2006), when the artist, Jean-Baptiste Isabey asked what jewels she wanted to wear in the picture, she replied, “paint me in emeralds, I want them to represent the underlying freshness of my grief.”  Apparently, she was following a trend established in England where women abandoned by their husbands wore green to show they had been deserted.

Many tiaras were gifted to the Papacy by world leaders, including the one Napoléon gave to Pius VII on the eve of his coronation in 1804.  The tiara was made from elements scavenged from other papal tiaras confiscated during Napoléon’s sacking of Rome–including a large emerald set as the centerpiece.  The tiara is highly bejeweled and extremely heavy, weighing some 18 pounds (8.2 kg), but it was never worn because it was too small for the size of Pope Pius VII’s head–which some believe was no accident.  It is speculated that the size and weight of the tiara were specifically designed to humiliate the pope.

Crown Jewels of Iran

Iran Empress Emerald Necklace
The impressive coronation necklace of the Iranian empress, featuring huge emeralds, diamonds, rare yellow diamonds and the finest pearls.

The Iranian Imperial Crown Jewels, also called the Imperial Crown Jewels of Persia, is one of the largest, most valuable jewel collections in the world.  The collection is comprised of jewel-studded crowns, thrones, tiaras, aigrettes, swords, shields, water pipes, snuffboxes, and countless loose gems, including one of the largest collections of emeralds in the world.

Iranian Empress Emerald Tiara
The Empress Tiara, worn on many occasions by Empress Farah of Iran. The tiara holds seven large emeralds across its top varying from 65 carats to 10 carats. It was designed by Harry Winston for the occasion of Farah’s marriage to Reza Shah Pahlevi in 1958.

The emerald collection, which was amassed during the two and a half millennium reign of the Iranian monarchy, contains many fine Colombian emeralds taken from India in 1739 during the sack of Delhi.  At one point, over a thousand of these gems were examined and it was reported that most were over 10 carats and some exceeded 300 carats.

The jewel studded Imperial Globe of the Iranian Crown Jewels was commissioned by Shah Nasser ud-Din in 1869.  It stands 110 cm tall (44 in.) and it is studded with more than 51,000 precious gems.  The seas and oceans are shown with emeralds while the countries are mostly displayed in rubies and spinels.

The Imperial Coronation Belt is woven of gold and is 119 cm (46 in.) long. The emerald in the buckle weighs 175 carats and is surrounded with numerous fine diamonds. Not much is known about the history of the belt other than that it dates back at least to the 17th century A.D.

Iranian Emerald Coronation belt
The Iranian Emerald Coronation belt.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Jewels

British Royal emerald diamond brooch
Emerald and diamond brooch presented to Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar by the Ladies of India and inherited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The personal jewelry collections of the British Royals contain some impressive specimens, including several with special emeralds.  Queen Elizabeth II usually keeps her personal jewelry in a large room about the size of a skating rink beneath Buckingham Palace.

Recently, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has opened the Royal Wardrobe and Jewelry Box to celebrate her 80th birthday. The collection can be viewed in the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace.  Seven decades of the Queen’s life are traversed through 80 gowns and jewels.

Grand Duchess Vladimir Emerald Tiara
The evolution of the Vladimir Tiara from suspending pearls to emeralds.

The Vladimir Tiara was made for Grand Duchess Vladimir, aunt of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II.  It was smuggled out of Russia during the Revolution by a British diplomat.  In 1921, it was sold by the daughter of the Grand Duchess, Princess Nicholas of Greece, to Queen Mary, who then adapted the tiara to take fifteen of the celebrated Cambridge emeralds as an alternative to the original pearls.  The tiara was inherited by Queen Elizabeth II from her grandmother, Queen Mary, in 1953.

the Cambridge Emerald Necklace
The Cambridge Emerald Necklace with extensive large-sized emeralds and diamonds.

The Cambridge emeralds have a very interesting past, the story going that they were won in a lottery for charity during a travel stop in Frankfurt by Augusta and her husband Prince Adolphus, the Duke of Cambridge from 1801-1850. The gemstones were presented as about 30-40 absolutely stunning cabochon emeralds. Over the years, they have been set into many a glorious piece of jewelry, and are one of the most extensive emerald parures in all European royalty.

J.P. Morgan, Banker and Collector Extraordinaire

Pink beryl, also incorrectly called pink emerald, was first discovered in Madagascar in 1911.  Tiffany’s colored stone expert, G.F. Kuntz, named the stone Morganite for J.P. Morgan, the American banker and gem enthusiast.  He was at one time one of the world’s wealthiest men and the statement “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” is attributed to him.

Morgan Hall of Gems
The Morgan Hall of Gems in the American Museum of Natural History.

By the turn of the 20th century, J.P. Morgan had also become one of America’s most important gemstone collectors.  He owned thousands of important mineral specimens.  Part of his collection was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. Most of the collection was donated to the American Museum of Natural History.

Sacred Emerald Buddhas

Emerald Buddha
The Sacred Emerald Buddha is carved from a natural emerald and weighs 2,620 carats.

The most revered Buddha in the world today is arguably a statue known as the “Emerald Buddha” housed in The Chapel of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.  Legends about the origin of the Emerald Buddha vary.  In one story, it surfaced when lightening struck a pagoda on a temple in Northern Thailand in 1434.  Today, we know that the statue is not really made of emerald, but rather, green jasper or jade.  The statue is adorned with three different sets of gold clothing which are changed by the King of Thailand in a ceremony at the changing of the seasons:  corresponding to the hot season, the cool season, and the rainy season.

emerald buddha crystal
The statue of the Standing Emerald Buddha is carved from a natural emerald crystal and weighs 2,620 carats.

While the original “Emerald Buddha” is a revered icon of the Buddhist religion, a newer version, made entirely of a single emerald crystal, has now been created.  In 1994, an exceptionally large natural emerald crystal weighing 3,600 carats was discovered in Africa.  The crystal was imported into Thailand where it was decided that it should not be fragmented but carved into a single image of the Standing Buddha.  In Buddhist iconography, a Standing Buddha admonishes people to cease hostility and quarreling.  The image was carved by Aung Nyein, a Burmese jade carver who has resided for sometime in Thailand.   The statue was completed in February 2006 and weighs 2,620 carats.

Hollywood “Royalty”

Elizabeth Taylor Bulgari emerald necklace
An avid jewelry enthusiast, Elizabeth Taylor wears a magnificent Bulgari emerald and diamond necklace.

Elizabeth Taylor became the highest paid movie star in history when she accepted the title role in 20th Century Fox’s production of Cleopatra in 1963.  The role of the beautiful Egyptian Queen was a fitting one for Ms. Taylor for many reasons, including the fact that both women were known for their love of emeralds and dashing men.

In fact, Ms. Taylor is almost as renowned for her collection of fabulous jewels as she is for her acting, her beauty, and her numerous marriages. Fellow actor and two-time husband, Richard Burton gave her an emerald and diamond brooch as an engagement present in the 1960s.  This was followed by additional gifts of an emerald necklace, earrings, bracelet, and ring.  Reportedly, some of the emeralds in this suite of jewelry were owned previously by the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.

marlene dietrich emeralds
Marlene Dietrich wearing a few of her famed cabochon emerald pieces.

Marlene Dietrich often wore her own jewelry in her movies.  She was apparently fascinated by cabochon-cut emeralds and wore them for her role as a jewel thief in the film “Desire.”  On one notable occasion, Ms. Dietrich ransacked her house looking for a 37-carat emerald ring that went missing after she had removed it to cook for a dinner party.  One of her guests apparently found the missing gem when they sampled the desert later that evening.

It is no wonder that with all of these incredible emeralds, this fantastic gemstone also has a storied history in other parts of our cultural heritage. We begin to explore that next with Emeralds in Literature.

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