People look a lot like magpies. We like things that shine. From the beginning, we have valued pretty rocks with little practical value. In an attempt to explain their obsession with these stones, people have described them as having mystical properties. Emerald is often associated with eloquence and foresight, in addition to being the gemstone of lovers. Despite its amorous connotation, the truth is that emerald mining has a long and often bloody history.
Rough emerald from the Muzo mine in Colombia. (Géry Parent / CC0)
The story of emeralds through the ages
The first emerald mines were Egyptian. They date back to around 1500 BC and were first located on and around Mount Smaragdus. It is however from 330 BC. J.-C. that the exploitation of the emerald in Egypt takes off. The pharaohs owned the mines and therefore the stones they contained. One ruler in particular was particularly fond of emeralds.
Cleopatra VII who reigned from 51 to 30 BC. AD adorned itself and its palaces with emeralds. She also used to give some to foreign dignitaries. Cleopatra’s obsession with emeralds had two sides. First, emeralds were closely associated with fertility and immortality. Second, and perhaps more importantly, adorning everything with emeralds was a way to show off one’s wealth.
During this period, the emerald was one of the most prized gemstones and could only be found in Egypt. During the reign of Cleopatra, the Romans also developed a taste for emeralds. They drilled holes in stones and wore them like talismans. Emperor Nero was even known to wear emerald glasses to gladiatorial games to help his declining eyesight.
The Egyptian and Roman love for emeralds caused a problem for Egypt. The ancient mines of Mount Smaragdus eventually began to run out, producing increasingly lower quality gems. This caused Cleopatra to commission several more mines in an effort to keep pace with demand.
The Romans then took control of these mines, operating 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 disrepair and were largely lost over time. The original mines were not rediscovered until 1816 by Frenchman Frédéric Cailaud, a mineralogist.
Cleopatra depicted wearing an emerald, by Władysław Czachórski. ( Public domain )
The Spanish conquerors and their hunt for jewels in South America
For centuries, the majority of the world’s emeralds came from Egyptian mines. However, from around the 14th century AD there is evidence of emerald mining in India and Austria, although not on such an industrial scale.
Everything really started to change with the Spanish discovery of the New World at the beginning of the 16th century. For the Spaniards, South America seemed to be dripping with emeralds. While the conquistadors were traditionally more interested in precious metals than gemstones, the Spaniards were smart enough to know the value of emeralds. Greed quickly took over and the conquistadors demanded to know where the Incas had found all their emeralds.
The Inca of modern Peru had been mining and trading emeralds for at least 500 years before their discovery by the Spanish conquistadors. These lands were so rich in gold and emeralds that the Spaniards believed they had found the mythical city of El Dorado. What followed was a long, bloody and destructive war. The conquistadors killed countless natives trying to find the mines and seized all the jewelry they could get their hands on.
Originating in Colombia, the Crown of the Andes comprises over 400 emeralds and dates back to the 17th or 18th century. It was made for a sculpture of the Virgin Mary of Popayán, in gratitude 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 taken out of her temple by priests so that her devotees could worship her. They did this by bringing his daughters (more emeralds), which meant the town had a huge store of emeralds. A store that the Spaniards quickly caught wind of.
They stormed and conquered the city, seeking Umina but never finding her. The conquistadors suspected the locals of deception and began smashing emeralds on anvils, believing that real emeralds would survive the test. They were wrong and needlessly destroyed a fortune in precious stones.
Eventually, the Spanish prevailed by seizing the mines once held by the Aztecs and Incas. Colombia has proven to be particularly rich in emeralds. It is to this day the world’s leading producer of emeralds and according to the years 50 to 90% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia.
The Spanish victory in Colombia was going to cost them dearly. After their victory in South America, the Spaniards flooded the European market with vast amounts of gold and emeralds. It had the opposite effect of what they wanted. 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, Colombians began to revolt. A series of uprisings led to the signing of the Colombian Constitution in 1886, which returned the Colombians not only their independence, but also their mines.
18th century bodice ornament in Colombian gold and emeralds from the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Pillar in Zaragoza. (Vassil / CC0)
Blood emeralds in the modern world
Thanks to modern mining technology, emeralds can be found all over the world today. Unfortunately, their increased availability failed to stop the bloodshed. As recently as 2016, the Colombian government was trying to clean up the country’s emerald trade. Not surprisingly, white powder wasn’t the only valuable 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 producer of emeralds. It made international headlines in 2018 when it was claimed that Elon Musk’s father made his fortune owning a controversial Zambian emerald mine. This spotlight on the trade in Zambian emeralds has caused a lot of talk about what have come to be known as ‘blood emeralds’.
To this day, many people claim that emeralds have some kind of mystical properties. Many of these people also own stores that sell emeralds. Whether or not a stone has special powers is a matter of personal belief. The fact that throughout history, and even to this day, the mining of these gemstones has led to death and bloodshed unfortunately is not.
Top Image: Emerald is known as the gemstone of lovers. Source: Balazs /Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell