Sonia Basso
GIA Graduate Gemologist & Jewellery Advisor
March 2022

The emerald: history, characteristics and famous stones

“Oro e argento fine, cocco e biacca,
Indaco, legno lucido, sereno,
Fresco SMERALDO nell’ora che si fiacca,
Da l’erba e da li fior dentr’ a quel seno
Posti, ciascun saria di color vinto,
Come dal suo maggiore è vinto in meno”.

(Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, VII, 73-78)

A valley full of flowers welcomes Dante and Virgil for the night before their ascent to purgatory: flowers that shine with colour, like the most beautiful precious stones. Among them, the splendid and shining emerald.
Gems in the Divine Comedy represent above all Wisdom, Beauty and Virtue, and have deep hidden and symbolic meanings: surely the Supreme Poet was well aware of their theological, medical and astrological value.
But where did the emeralds known in Dante’s time come from?

Emeralds throughout history

Before the discovery of America, the oldest deposits were Egyptian, active as early as 3,500 BC and located in Upper Egypt south of Kosseir, near the Red Sea coast. They were also known as ‘Cleopatra’s Mines’ because Cleopatra was particularly attracted to them.
Their splendid green colour was also appreciated in ancient Rome and it is said that Emperor Nero used to watch the games through an emerald lens.

The main emerald deposits

The most beautiful emeralds, however, came in the 1500s from the legendary deposits in Latin America that are still active today: those of Muzo and Chivor in Colombia and those of Goias, Minas Gerais and Santa Terezina in Brazil. Russian emeralds (discovered in the Ural mines at Ekaterinburg in 1830) and African emeralds (from the Transvaal, Zimbabwe and Zambia) are also highly prized today.
In Europe, emeralds have been found in Austria in Habachtal, which were famous in the Middle Ages, and even in Italy: in the 1960s, a small deposit, now exhausted at Pizzo Marcio, was found.

Characteristics of emeralds

As for the ruby, the main characteristic that gives the gem its value, uniqueness and rarity is its colour (in fact, the term “emerald” derives from the Latin Smaragdus, in turn from the Greek Smàragdos and before that from the Semitic Izmargad or the Sanskrit Maragata, which literally means “Green Stone”): In the emerald, a variety of Beryl, the green colour is due to the presence of Chromium, Vanadium and Iron and can vary as a result of various factors, especially depending on where it comes from (Colombia Brazil and Zambia hold the record for producing the best emeralds in the world).
Very clear gems (with little or no inclusions) with an intense colour reach very high market values. However, the presence of inclusions is important because it testifies to the natural origin of the emerald and thus its rarity.
The most popular cut for emeralds is the rectangular step-cut, the famous “emerald cut”: it protects the stone and enhances its tone and colour saturation; the cabochon is widely used, especially for Transvaal and Ural emeralds.

Famous emeralds in history

Here are some of the most famous emeralds: the 1695 Mughal emerald (217.8 ct and 10 cm long) fetched £2.2 million at a Christies auction; the 632 ct Colombian emerald in New York’s Natural History Museum; the one on the diadem of former Empress Farah, part of Iran’s treasury.
But what makes emeralds immortal are the legends and popular beliefs that narrate their charisma and beauty, their power and almost supernatural significance: in Buddhism, the emerald is one of the Seven Treasures and symbolises wisdom; for the ancient Romans it was Venus’ favourite gemstone, endowed with regenerating and aphrodisiac virtues; it is also the gem of harmony and according to ancient Hindu sacred scriptures it improves the wellbeing of its owner.

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