Emerald – May’s Birthstone

emerald hart shaped ring

Undoubtedly the most famous person associated with emeralds would be Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. According to Victoria Finlay in her 2006 book Buried Treasures – Travels through the Jewel Box, jewels, and particularly emeralds, were very much part of her artillery of looks, charisma and ruthless determination which she used to influence powerful men. The story goes that Julius Caesar, having been persuaded to help Cleopatra defeat her brother Ptolemy XIII, learnt his first lesson in how to use luxury to exhibit power. On his return to Rome he introduced sumptuary laws that limited the use of purple togas and certain gemstones to Caesar alone. Perhaps this is why the emerald is known as the stone of royalty and romance.

An emerald crystal (right) next to an aqua.

Emerald is a beryl, like aquamarine. But where trace amounts of ferrous iron gives aqua its blue-green colour, the luscious deep green of the emerald is caused by trace amounts of chromium or vanadium. And it is for this green colour that emeralds carry a strong sacred symbolism for Muslims. Green was the colour of the Prophet Muhammad’s coat and therefore the colour of Islam, as can be seen by the flags of many Islamic nations today. But even today there are conflicting opinions on the green the beryl must be to bear the name emerald, and not just “green beryl”, a cheaper and less marketable variety of beryl, but not emerald.

This is one reason the price and quality of an emerald is mostly determined by it colour, and not by its clarity. The other is that emeralds will invariably have inclusions, even to the naked eye. But these do not necessarily detract from the quality of the stone. The emerald comes in at 7.5 to 8 on the Moh’s Hardness Scale, which would ordinarily suffice for any kind of jewellery, but because of the inclusions it is a brittle stone, an unavoidable characteristic of emerald. Therefore emeralds work better as pendants and earrings, and if set in a ring should be for special occasions. The reason why, of the big three precious stones, it is ruby and sapphire that is more popular to adorn engagement rings meant to be worn daily.

This luscious green colour of emeralds has long captivated the imaginations and desires of people, and it is believed they were traded in the markets of Babylon in 4000BC. Various ancient civilisations from the Incas in South America to the Egyptians independently discovered emeralds and revered them in high esteem. Cleopatra had her own mines in northern Egypt named after her, but they have long been defunct. It was the Spanish discovery of emeralds in South America in the early sixteenth century that reinvigorated the stone and its value in the market. The South American stones were far superior in colour, and even clarity, to any that had been seen from elsewhere.

Natural Zambian emerald with black tourmaline in matrix

Today there are five main sources for emeralds, namely Colombia, Brazil, Zambia, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Minor production can be found in Madagascar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Canada and Russia. All beryl is very rare as beryllium is an element that occurs in very small amounts in the earth’s crust, and it is unusual for there to be enough in one location to form minerals. Add to this the conditions where beryllium is present in significant amounts don’t really suit the conditions where chromium and vanadium exist – the key ingredients to the lush green colour for which emeralds are so sought after. It is for this reason that emeralds are rarer than diamonds, and often more expensive per carat. They can be a good investment, but you must bear in mind that most emeralds are oiled and heated to hide their inclusions. A friend bought an expensive emerald and put it in the safe. When the oil dried out it cracked. Therefore emeralds need to be looked after and cleaned often. But it will all be worth it. If you were lucky enough to be born in May, and have someone give you an emerald, you are certainly in possession of one of the most beautiful and historic gemstones.

Have a good month, and until then stay safe,
JD and Jay

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