May’s Birthstone, the Emerald: It’s Not Easy Being Green…

By Nina Glaser May 22, 2014

Emeralds have been among the most valuable of all gems on earth for 4,000 years. The most famous member of the Beryl family of stone-rocks, they are mined in the ground and have a timeless appeal that has spanned generations. An emerald’s journey from the mine to a store involves tons of earth and countless hours of labor.

The name “emerald” comes from the ancient Greek word for green: “smaragdus.” The literal translation of the word is “green gemstone”. The color green is credited with relieving stress and eye strain. It is the color of peace, love and harmony. Green is the holy color of Islam and regarded as the most natural and elemental of the liturgical colors in the Catholic Church. Venus (Roman culture’s goddess of love) is green. It is not coincidence that Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle,” as its lush fields are the same vivid shade of green as the gemstone. The color is taken very seriously among the Irish, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, when the color may extend to just about everything, from cupcake icing to beer!

Robert Pelliccia Emerald Ring

A fragile gem with a tendency to have numerous inclusions and surface breaking fissures, emeralds have a low resistance against damage or breakage. Despite their fragility – or perhaps even because of it? --  emeralds have been held in high esteem since ancient times. The Incas and Aztecs of South America regarded the emerald as a holy gemstone. Other legends endowed emerald owners with foresight, good fortune an youth. They have been said to bring the promise of enhanced well-being and are believed to be the gemstone representative of intelligence and agility.

Top-quality, fine emeralds – those with a pure verdant green hue, and a high degree of transparency and saturation – are even more valuable than diamonds.

Almost all the recorded jewelry collections of royal families include emerald gems. Shah Jahan, the ruler who built the Taj Mahal, loved emeralds, inscribing them with sacred text and wearing them as talismans, which can be seen in museums and collections today.  The most famous of these engraved emeralds is the 217.80 carat table-cut emerald with two rectangular flat face known as the Mogul Emerald.  In 1922, England’s Princess Mary appeared in public wearing an emerald engagement ring, sparking great interest in – and demand for -- the stone. And Cleopatra was known to be passionate about emeralds and have them as a part of royal adornment. Today some members of “Hollywood royalty” are following suit: actress Halle Berry’s engagement ring from actor Olivier Martinez is an emerald, and actress Olivia Wilde’s engagement ring from actor Jason Sudekis has the fresh, vivid gems surrounding her diamond.

Emeralds have been part of the jewelry collections of many famous people, including legendary actresses Gina Lollobrigida, Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Taylor. The “green gem” has made appearances on the red carpet more recently as a popular choice with actresses’ Julianne Moore, Mila Kunis, Sophia Vergara, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Debra Messing and Reese Witherspoon, as well as businesswoman Victoria Beckham, and singers Celine Dion and Beyonce.

Famous emerald stones – in their natural state –  include:

Large Emerald Ring

  • The 1,759 carat Guinness Emerald crystal, found at the Coscuez mine in Colombia. It is part of the collection of the Banco Nazionale de la Republica in Bogota, Colombia.
  • The Patricia Emerald Crystal, discovered in the Colombian Andes Chivore mine in 2910 is one of the largest gem-quality emeralds in the world. The hexagonal (12-sided) stone is at the New York Museum of Natural History.
  • The Devonshire Emerald (named after the Duke of Devonshire), one of the world’s largest and most famous uncut emeralds, is renowned for its rich color. It weighs 1,383.93 carats.

Like diamonds, emeralds are graded with four basic parameters: color, cut, clarity and carat weight (but the grading of emeralds is done by eye). Here are some shopping considerations to keep in mind when you go in search of your emerald – loose stone or piece of jewelry:

Hue – Most emeralds have a blue-green tint, while others are yellow-green. The most valuable have no tint at all, and are as pure green as possible.

Tone – Natural emeralds range from very light to very dark. Look for a deep tonal color, as those with the most valuable fall on the darker side of the spectrum. 

Saturation – The stronger and richer the green is, the more brilliant and reflective the emerald will be. Select a stone with strong saturation.

Cut – Some cuts reflect an emerald’s light more easily than others, like the one that is the stone’s namesake. The rectangular “emerald” cut is the most common, but round, oval, pear, teardrop and cabochon cuts are also options.

Expect Inclusions! – The Gemological Institute of American (GIA) rates emeralds as Type III gemstones, meaning that they will have some inclusions. Every breaking fissure and inclusion is unique…and unique to each individual stone.  Interior inclusions, rather than surface or near-surface inclusions, are preferable and less likely to cause breakage. Look for inclusion rankings from VVS (very, very slightly included; identifiable under magnification but not to the naked eye) to I3 (included, with inclusions large enough to potentially affect both appearance and durability negatively.

Clarity Enhancements – It’s an acceptable practice to use an oiling process or method of augmentation to help seal some fissures.

Carat – An emerald’s high – or low-quality will be more obvious in larger stones.

Origin – Find out where the emerald was mined. The finest stones come from Colombia’s Muzo, Chivor and Coscuez facilities. Spiral inclusions are common to all Colombian emeralds.  Other high-quality emeralds are mined in Brazil, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar, Nigeria, Russia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Special Characteristics – Certain peculiarities of emeralds are associated with particular mines: Muzo – deep green stones with a slight trace of yellow or blue, along with mineral parasites that appear as yellow-brown or red-brown needles; Chivor – Deep blue-tinted emeralds and, often, two-phase tubular inclusions; Coscuez – stones with a faint hint of blue and intense saturation.

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