Coconino Lapidary Club




A Short History of Emeralds


The emerald is the chromium-containing variety of the mineral beryl [Ref 1]. Its’ beautiful, vibrant, deep green color has made it a great favorite among those that create beautiful jewelry and art works from it, gem & mineral collectors and those who wear it. Witness the Hooker Emerald, set with diamonds, in a brooch, seen in Figure 1 [Ref 2]. Mined in Colombia, polished in Europe, and sold in the 17th century to the ruling family of the Ottoman Empire, it was then auctioned in 1911 to Tiffany & Company and ultimately set in a brooch. It finally sold to Janet Annenberg Hooker who donated the brooch to the Smithsonian Institution.

Figure 1. An Emerald with a history. [Ref 2; Ref 3]


In this blog I’ll describe the ancient history of the emerald as a gemstone, beginning

with their earliest-known written description in the Egyptian Papyrus Prisse during the twelfth dynasty of Egypt, from 1991-1802 BC [Ref 4], and arbitrarily ending with jewelry of the Georgian Era[Ref 5] in Europe and the end of the of the Ottoman Empire[Ref 6] in the East at the end of World War I. 

Ancient History of Emeralds As A Gemstone 

The name Emerald, evolved from esmeralde in 16th century Latin. 

Emerald is an ancient gemstone. The first known written word about emeralds appeared in the Papyrus Prisse [Ref4] dated in the twelfth dynasty of Egypt (1991-1802 BC [Ref 7] and in which was written “But good words are more difficult to find than the emerald”. Emeralds were mined in Egypt, with the earliest-known mines operating from at least 300BC into the 1700s. Emeralds, highly prized by Cleopatra, probably came from these mines.

The Roman scholar Pliny, was first to suggest that emerald was a member of the larger family of the mineral beryl. Only in the 19th century did science recognize this relationship.

The emerald mines of ancient Egypt, known as the mines of Cleopatra, were located approximately 180 miles (300 KM) SSE of present-day Cairo, in a coastal region along the Red Sea, as shown in the map in Reference 8. Their history and locations are further discussed in Reference 9. The mines were the major source of emeralds for both Europe and the East, until emeralds of finer quality and greater abundance were found in Colombia in the 1520’s [Ref 8, Ref 9]

History of Emeralds in the Americas

Emeralds were prized by the Aztec, Olmec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of Middle and South America. They have been mined since early times, in areas of what is now Colombia, as evidenced by the Olmec carving “Emerald Man”, shown in Figure 2, which dates from approximately 500 BC to 250 AD [Ref 10].

Figure 2. Olmec emerald carving, “Emerald Man” [Ref 10]

Upon arriving in Mexico and Peru in the 16th Century, conquistadors discovered the natives of these lands possessed large, beautiful emeralds in the form of carved jewelry and artworks. Five gemstones brought by Cortez to Spain were cut into shapes of flowers, fishes and other natural objects. Emerald carving was an ancient art in the cultures of central and south America. 

Emeralds were prized as an ornamental gemstone and held to be sacred. They were offered to their Gods and buried with their dead. However, the Conquistadors failed in their search for the sources of emeralds in Mexico and Peru. They desecrated sacred places in their searches, amassing a large treasure trove. Jose d’Costa reported that the ship on which he sailed from Peru to Spain in 1587 carried two cases, each with at least a hundredweight of emeralds.

The conquistadors failure in their search for the sources of the emeralds in Mexico and Peru was because the emeralds were mined only in the heartlands of the Chibcha Indians at Chivor, and the Muzo Indians at Muzo, in what is now Colombia. (Mines in these places still produce emeralds). Trade routes for emeralds extended to Mexico in the north and to Bolivia in the south. Ther’s a good chance that the “Emerald Man” was carved from a stone from one of these mines.

Ancient Emerald Jewelry of Europe and the East

Through trade routes, emeralds from the mines in Egypt were disseminated and reached artisans in ancient Europe [Ref 11], and in the Middle East, as evidenced by their creations of jewelry and art works. The craftsmanship and beauty of their works are exemplified in Figures 2-34.

For slide shows of the galleries please make two, one for ancient Europe and one for the Eastern Mughal and Ottoman jewelery and separate references accordingly. Thanks.

A Gallery of Emerald Jewelry of Ancient Europe  

The jewelry in this gallery spans the time period between the 2nd Century BC to 1780 AD in the Georgian Era.

Figure 3. Grecian emerald and gold ring, Hellenistic Period. 2nd Century BC [Ref 12].
Figure 4. Pair of Grecian gold bracelets with emeralds, garnets, amethysts, pearls, chrysophase, glass, and enamel, 1st Century BC [Ref 13].
Figure 5. Roman gold bracelet with emeralds and colored glasses, 
300-500 AD [Ref 14].
Figure 6. Emerald and pearl ring, Byzantine, circa 300 AD [Ref 15].
Figure 7. Byzantine emerald, pearl, and gold cross, circa 6th – 7th Century [Ref 16].
Figure 8. Byzantine emerald and pearl necklace set in gold, probably 6th -7th Century AD [Ref 17].
Figure 9. Medieval gold, emerald, and sapphire ring, circa 14th Century AD [Ref 18].
Figure 10. Enameled gold ring set with an emerald and rubies, Baroque Period, 
Circa 1600 – 1750 AD.
Figure 11. Engraved emerald cabochon set in a gold ring, circa 1500-1750 AD [Ref 19].
Figure 12. The Caravel Pendant, created in Colombian emeralds, gold and white 
enamel crafted in Spain in the 1580s to the 1590s in the Renaissance Period [Ref 20].

The hull, mast, and sail are of emerald. The caravel is a small ship designed for maneuverability [Ref 21].

Figure 13. Spanish gold and emerald pendant, circa 1680 – 1700 AD [Ref 22].
Figure14. Georgian Era emerald and gold pendant, circa 1780 [Ref 23].
Figure 15. An emerald decorated Georgian dove mounted on a contemporary ring shank [Ref 24].
Figure 16. Emerald and pearl necklace, circa 1800 [Ref 25].

A Gallery of Jewelry of the Ancient Eastern Mughal and Ottoman Empires [Ref 26, Ref 27, Ref 28]

Figure 17. Emerald carved with floral motif and an Islamic Prayer in the Mughal Era and dated from 1695 AD [Ref 29].
Figure 18. Mughal parrot finger ring set with emeralds, rubies and pearls, circa 1600-1625 .
Figure 19. Emerald and diamond macles, 2nd half of 17th Century [Ref 30] .
Figure 20. Mughal emerald and ruby set gold bracelet. 18th-19th Century [Ref 31].
Figure 21. Mughal necklace set with mirror-cut diamonds and carved emeralds in gold, 18th to 19th Century [Ref 32]
Figure 22. Mughal emerald and diamond necklace [Ref 33]. It seems that polishing by tumbling is not a new art..
Figure 23. Mughal emerald and diamond set in an enameled gold ring, 20th century and earlier.
Figure 24. Mughal jade ring decorated with emeralds and rubies set in gold [Ref 34].
Figure 25. Mughal pendant with carved emeralds, diamonds and pearls [Ref 35].
Figure 26. Pendant of Sultan Suleyman with emeralds and pearl, and other gems [Ref 36].
Figure 27. Women’s hair ornament of gold with emeralds, a ruby, diamonds, and feathers, Ottoman empire, 18th Century AD [Ref 37].
Figure 28. Ottoman turban ornament set with emeralds, rubies, and diamond, early 20th century [Ref 38].
Figure 29. Rose-cut diamond ring framed with emeralds and diamonds, circa 1890s [Ref 39].
Figure 30. Buckle set with jade, emeralds, and other gems, 17th century [Ref 40].
Figure 31. Otttoman head ornament with emeralds and other gemstones, 19th century [Ref 41].
Figure 32. Giant emerald and pearl pendant in Ottoman empire Treasury [Ref 42].
Figure33. Ottoman crown with emeralds and a ruby for a king’s wife [Ref 43].
Figure 34. Emerald and diamond brooch among the Ottoman Crown Jewels. [Ref 44].


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