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Diamonds are forever? But historically speaking, emeralds are the most prestigious gems.
In ancient history, Egypt was the only major source for emeralds. According to legend, Cleopatra once greeted Caesar from atop a pile of emeralds. Egyptian emeralds and gold funded Roman coffers. In the sixth century Emperor Justinian decreed that only aristocracy could wear emeralds. Napoleon favored emeralds because of its connection to ancient imperial power.
Why does history favor emeralds over diamonds? Diamonds require facets for their brilliance, and faceting technology wasn’t developed until the late 15th century. Before the art of faceting, diamonds were secondary, emeralds were king!
Emeralds don’t need complex faceting. Emeralds don’t sparkle – they shine! They look wet. That’s why emeralds are usually made with a “table cut” – a long flat surface – instead of with many facets.
The emerald’s crystal structure creates that natural luster. Emeralds naturally have a long hexagonal crystal. The crystal shape is due to the fact that an emerald is a beryl mineral (beryllium aluminum cyclosilicate).
Pure beryls are naturally white and called goshenite. But when the beryl contains chromium, then the beryl turns green. An emerald is born! Incidentally, aquamarine is a beryl too – or if you rather – just an emerald with an iron contamination.
That chromium combines with beryllium at all is a freak occurrence in nature. Chromium occurs on the ocean floor. Beryls are born in the granite hearts of mountains. When two continents collide, the ocean floor is pushed under a continent (subduction). When the ocean rock melts, the chromium mixes into the rising fluid and finds its way into the growing beryl crystals.
Author and jeweler Aja Raden writes that beryllium and chromium are “the Romeo and Juliet of elements” because under “no normal circumstances should these rare substances ever find each other.” Raden’s book "Stoned" is a must-read for gem enthusiasts and history buffs.
Emeralds are filled with inclusions, which are the stone's jardin – or garden. Using a 10x loupe, the inclusions look like a jungle or coral reef. Each jardin can be as unique as a snowflake.
But beware! Often, emeralds are treated with oils and fillers. That’s why you should never wash your emeralds in an ultrasonic cleaner.
Today Colombia dominates emerald production. Scattered lesser sources for emeralds exist, even in the United States. In fact, North America’s largest emerald was discovered in North Carolina in 2009. Starting at an impressive 310 carats, it was cut down to about 65 carats and named “The Carolina Emperor.”
The Green Envy
Cone cells in the human eye see red, blue and green. But all cone cells are sensitive to light wavelengths of 510 nanometers, i.e. the eye is most receptive to green! It’s the color of life, especially as life renews in spring. Appropriately, May’s birthstone is the emerald. Emeralds are prestigious, but spring…that’s priceless.
Finlay, Victoria. Jewels: A Secret History. New York: Ballantine, 2006. Print.
Raden, Aja. Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print
Gast, Phil. "North Carolina emerald: Big, green and very rare." CNN.com. 1 September 2010. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/08/31/north.carolina.emerald/ (Accessed March 27, 2016)
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.