Birthstone Guide: Emerald for Those Born in May

Those born in May are lucky enough to count emerald as their birthstone. Here, Gem-A gemmology tutor, Lily Faber FGA DGA EG, explores the history and qualities of this beautiful green beryl. 

The emerald is arguably the most well-known and desired member of the beryl family with its brilliantly verdant colour. Green stones have been called emeralds for thousands of years -  since around 4,000 BC - regardless of whether they actually were what we know as emeralds today.

Emerald Meaning and Myths

At one time, emeralds were believed to give one the ability to predict the future, especially when held underneath the tongue. They were also believed to confer riches upon the wearer and were used as protection against poison and demonic possession. Used as a symbol of immortality and wealth, emeralds have been valued for centuries for both their appearance and symbolism.

 Beryl Emerald Crystal in Calcite Matrix and Carbonaceous 9767 GemA PDEmerald crystals in calcite. Photographed by Henry Mesa.

Finally, it is said that emeralds are beneficial for the eye and it is reported that some lapidaries keep an emerald on their bench to look at, giving relief to their  tired eyes after a long day of cutting gems.

Emerald Gemstone Localities

Emeralds have been mined for thousands of years, stretching back to Egypt near the Red Sea around 2000 BC in what were known as Cleopatra’s emerald mines. While Egyptian emeralds were some of the first to be mined and traded, it was the discoveries of Colombian emeralds by 16th century Spanish conquistadors like Pizarro that brought strikingly saturated green crystals to the European market - particularly to the Spanish court and beyond.

Emerald Crystal Emerald and Emerald Cut Connection Gem A BlogA large Colombian emerald crystal. Photograph by Henry Mesa. 

It is still thought that emeralds from the Colombian mines such as Chivor, Muzo and Cozquez are the finest in the world. Other localities that produce emeralds are Brazil, Russia, India, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and North Carolina, USA. 

Emerald Crystals

Emeralds typically form as hexagonal prisms with a flat pinacoid top and base. Sometimes, they can have rectangular etch pits on the prism faces and hexagonal etch pits on the top of the crystal.

Pyrite Inclusion in Emerald.

Due to their brittle nature, these gemstones often have internal fractures along with many different types of inclusions. Emeralds are routinely oiled or even resin-filled, to reduce the appearance of these internal fractures. It is possible to see a blue or yellow flash within the stone if it has been filled with a resin, but careful observation is needed. 

Read more: What Can Emerald Inclusions Tell Us About Their Origin? 

Also found in Colombia are trapiche emeralds, in which an emerald forms with a central, hexagonal crystal from which radiate six emerald segments that are separated by a fine-grained mixture of colourless beryl and nearly black albite. 

Emerald Gemstones Inclusions 

Inclusions are numerous and varied, and sometimes one can tell where the emerald was mined based on what lies inside the gemstone. Colombian emeralds, for example, typically have three-phase inclusions, which consist of a liquid, a solid mineral inclusion and a gas bubble contained in a jagged cavity.

Read more: What Makes a Gemstone Rare? 

Other inclusions typical of their localities are comma-shaped two-phase inclusions found in Indian emeralds, and long, curved tremolite inclusions in emeralds from Zimbabwe. There are many other inclusions such as bamboo-like actinolite, pyrite and colourless rhomb-shaped crystals.

 
Three Phase Inclusion in Emerald.

Emerald Cut 

There is a type of square or rectangular step-cut with truncated corners that is so often used for this gemstone that it is more commonly known as the emerald cut. The corners are removed so as to protect the brittle stone from unwanted chipping and breakage at the stone’s most vulnerable points.

Read more: What is the Link Between an Emerald and the Emerald Cut?

Claw settings are used, particularly at the corners and along the sides, but a more practical setting would be the bezel or rub-over setting in order to form a barrier around the entire stone. Whether you love emeralds or prefer another type of beryl, there is no arguing that its deep green colour and lore make it a gemstone to be admired. 

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Cover image: Emerald in quartz by Henry Mesa.

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Retail Focus: Exploring the Emeralds of Colombia

From the Summer 2018 issue of Gems&Jewellery, Gem-A gemmology tutor Beth West FGA DGA EG explores the Musica people and the emeralds of Colombia. 

There is a brooch displayed at the heart of the Geology, Gems and Minerals Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, USA.

It is centred on a large luminous green emerald surrounded by diamonds as sharp as stars. It is undoubtedly beautiful; designed by Tiffany & Co. in the 1950s, it evokes an era of glamour and grace. But as exceptional a piece of design as it may be, the brooch is little more than a throne for the emerald that it carries.

The Hooker Emerald, named after the Institution’s principal benefactor, Janet Annenberg Hooker, weighs 75.47 carats and was originally extracted from present-day Colombia in the 16th century, when talk of the majesty of these gems had only just begun to travel.

Emerald, Composite Soude, Image Credit: Gem-A

READ MORE: Steve Moriarty on a Lifetime in Gems

The Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the ‘New World’ in the last decade of the 15th century.

When Hernan Cortez was presented with emeralds by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II in 1519, the allure of the green gem incited the greed of the invaders and a bid to uncover their source was advanced, often leading to violence and the ultimate mistreatment of the indigenous tribes.

While emeralds became symbols of status and wealth at the end of the trade route set up by the Spanish to India and Europe, what did these stones mean to the original inhabitants of the luscious and majestic Andean terrain?

The first of the tribes’ emerald deposits was located by Conquistador, Gonzalo Jimenez de Queseda in 1537 in the village of Somondoco – home to the Muisca (or Chibcha) people.

This deposit would come to be known as ‘Chivor’, meaning ‘our farm fields, our mother’ or ‘green and rich land’ in the native tongue of the Chibcha, a reference to the emeralds un-earthed there.

Lush Colombian Landscape. Image Credit: Pixabay.com

The Muisca people were one of the four principal civilisations of the Americas.

The other three, the Incas, the Mayans and the Aztecs are perhaps more prevalent in Western thought due to the grandeur and ceremony of the architecture that remains as evidence of their complex culture.

But the Muiscas were no less advanced; they were a self-sufficient people existing in comparative isolation in the highlands of the Cordillera Oriental of the Northern Andes.

It is in this Eastern chain of peaks that pockets of the finest emeralds had formed.

READ MORE: Journal Digest, Blue Zircon from Cambodia

The abundance of the precious mineral within the Muisca’s territory, and the ability of the people to mine it efficiently, made it an important economic resource.

Markets were held regularly in conjunction with calendared festivals during which the Muisca would trade the emeralds with gold from the Guane people from north of the Chicamocha River, yopo (a hallucigenic snuff), exotic feathers and jaguar skins from the lowlands, marine snail shells, avocados and the still celebrated ‘ice-cream bean’ from their coastal cousins, the Tairona people.

Emerald in Matrix. Photo Credit: Henry Mesa. 

There is no evidence to suggest that emeralds were ranked higher in value than the other traded goods, but it is apparent that the stone held substantial symbolic weight.

In 1637, the writer Juan Rodriguez Freyle documented an initiation ceremony performed by the Muisca. On the event of a ruler’s death, the successor would be covered with a fine dusting of gold and placed on a raft at the centre of Lake Guatavita.

As music and dancing defined the shores, the new leader would throw gold and emerald votives into the lake as offerings to the Sun God.

This became known as the myth of El Dorado and rumours of a place saturated with such potential material wealth have been, from the time of its discovery to the present day, exploited by the greed of Western adventurers.

This imposition of material desire on the lands of the natives has ultimately led to wars and bloodshed over the centuries.


Emerald in Matrix. Photo Credit: Henry Mesa.

Therefore, is it perhaps worth considering the stance of the Muisca, who did not covet the emerald as their own but accepted it as a spectacular gift from the mountains, and one that they would happily relinquish to maintain harmony with the gods.

If we were to eliminate the profitability of the gem, could we too be able to see deeper into that mesmerising green? Idealistic? Perhaps. I cannot see anyone throwing the Hooker emerald into a lake any time soon. ■

This article originally appeared in Gems&Jewellery Summer 2018/ Volume 27/ No.2 

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Cover Image: Emerald with Quartz. Image Credit: Henry Mesa.  


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