Emerald Jewelry Through The Ages - History & Lore

Ancient Emerald Jewelry

In or around 1500 BCE, the Egyptians began to mine for Emerald, mostly around Mons Smaragdus region of the eastern Egyptian desert. 

By the reign of Cleopatra around 50 BCE, Egypt had become a Roman province. These mines were very well known and have been documented by writers and chroniclers such as Pliny the Elder, who regarded the green gems as having healing powers and soothing to the eyes in particular. He wrote:

"Indeed no stone has a color that is more delightful to the eye, for whereas the sight fixes itself with avidity upon the green grass and foliage of the trees, we have all the more pleasure in looking upon the emerald, there being no green in existence more intense than this. And then, besides, of all the precious stones, this is the only one that feeds the sight without satiating it…If the sight has been wearied or dimmed by intensively looking on any other subject, it is refreshed and restored by gazing at this stone. And lapidaries who cut and engrave fine gems know this well, for they have no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green color comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude."
Ancient Emerald Jewelry
Cleopatra herself was well-known for her adoration of Emerald jewelry. During her 21-year reign, she claimed ownership over all the emerald mines in Egypt. She reportedly gifted dignitaries with emerald, wore it herself and adorned her palace with emerald gems. The Egyptians believed emerald was a symbol of fertility, immortality and good health and the green color was associated with restoring speech.

Egypt continued to be the go-to source for emerald and towns began to form around the mines as the business boomed. The mines were in use for thousands of years and were used by the Romans and later by the Byzantines and finally, the Islamic Conquerors. The mines only fell out of use when the Spanish discovered deposits in Colombia, allowing the Christian European traders to bypass the often dangerous and hostile Islamic-controlled Egyptian mines, leading to the abandonment of these mines. Today only ruins remain.

MEDIEVAL EMERALD TRADE

Emerald retained its popularity long after Rome had fallen. With the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, some symbolism and mythology around emerald began to spread with it.
In Judaism, emerald was one of the 4 precious stones given to King Solomon by God. Emerald was one of the gems that adorned the Breastplate of Aaron and emeralds are amongst the foundation stones of the Heavenly City mentioned in the Christian Book of Revelations. 

In the West of Europe, Rome's' destruction brought long spells of lawlessness, a loss of art and culture and general decline in wealth and living conditions in territories that were once controlled by the Empire. Only the Church and select Kings retained their wealth and emeralds were often used to adorn gem-encrusted Bibles, chalices and altars as well as crowns and sceptres.

There was also medieval superstitions and belief that emeralds had a curative ability and would ail a plethora of illnesses or ward of 'evil spirits'. The Crusades and pilgrimages brought trade between the East and West but social norms and poverty meant that only the wealthiest of Europeans could afford to wear or own any gems, and emerald was no exception!
Emerald Gemstone Rings

EMERALD MINING IN THE AGE OF EXPLORATION

Egypt wasn't the sole source of gemstones, but it was the primary source until the 1500s CE. The sea-faring Spanish had begun their voyages to the New World in search of treasure, plunder, glory and to spread the word of their God. Hearing tales of cities such the mythical 'El Dorado', the Spanish must have really believed they hit the jackpot when they discovered civilizations that were filled with gold, gems and other riches! The Spanish soldiers conquered the Muzo people in modern-day Colombia, seizing the mines as spoils of war. Colombia quickly overtook Egypt as the hotspot for emerald mining. The Colombian emeralds were of incredibly high quality, their color was a vibrant green and there were not as likely to be full of inclusions, as the Egyptian emeralds had been.

The gemstone trade made its ways from shore to shore. Spanish traders would sell to Portuguese explorers and it is through the territory of Goa, which was under Portuguese control for over 400 years, that these high-quality emeralds began making their way to Indian royalty and jewelers. Sanskrit manuscripts have shown that emeralds were revered for almost as long as their Egyptian counterparts, but things really kicked up a notch during the 1500s-1600s.

Zambian Emerald Jewelry

This was around the time of the Mughal expansion in India and the Mughal royalty really loved their jewelry. Indian craftsmen have produced some of the finest examples of royal jewels and treasures such as the Moghul Emerald, which can rival any royal treasure anywhere on earth.

One British trader who lived in India, near where Shah Jahangir, the 4th Mughal Emperor resided, reported that the Shah had over half a million carats of emerald in his treasury.

From Portuguese Goa, these emeralds were also taken to Jaipur, which had become a major source of gem cutting by the early 1700s. Gem cutting was such a revered practice in India that its was even contained in educational texts such as the Karma Sutra.

Jaipur is still an important hub for the Indian jewel trade and emeralds are imported from Zambia and Brazil to be cut and polished to this day.

EMERALD IN FASHION FROM RENAISSANCE ONWARDS

As the flow of emeralds and other riches from the New World increased, and with further developments in metalworking, Europe became a more prosperous place and this impacted fashion tastes and styles amongst royal courts. Europe's supply of emerald was so plentiful that the value of the emerald began to plummet, making emerald jewelry far more affordable.
Monarchs and their nobility in Europe began to enjoy displaying their wealth with jeweled crowns and rings as well as embroidered clothing. 

The nobility and wealthy merchants began to flaunt their newfound wealth to show their status. The Renaissance was characterized by a rediscovery and renewed appreciation of Classical Roman and Greek art styles and fashion and this was reflected in jewelry as well as fantastic architecture.

The Ottoman Empire was growing in prestige and influence during this period also and they too began to display their opulent wealth with fantastic jewelry. Sultan Mehmet I gifted the famous emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger to the ruler of Persia Nadir Shah although this was recovered by the Ottomans when they learned of the assassination of the King by his disgruntled subjects in 1747.
Emerald Rings

EMERALD IN THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT

As so often is the case, the French really set the standard for what is/was considered fashionable. A 'parure' was a matching set of jewelry or other ornaments that became fashionable in France and later elsewhere during the late 1700s/ early 1800s.

With Napoleon Bonaparte turning the French Republic into an Empire under his command, his second-wife Empress Marie-Louise was gifted what became known as the "Emerald and Diamond Parure of Marie-Louise" on the day of their wedding in 1810. The French conquest of Algeria in North Africa also impacted the designs of French jewelry, with inspiration being drawn from the French colony and brought back to Europe.

VICTORIAN EMERALD

The long reign of Queen Victoria saw the British Empire ascend to new heights. The 'sun never set on the Empire' and Britannia ruled the waves. With the British Empire expanding its territory the world over, fashion tastes began to reflect their wealth and power. The British Aristocracy had access to jewels and styles from China to India and South Africa to Australia.

The popularity of emerald fluctuated with differing periods, but on the whole, remained quite popular. Queen Victoria was herself presented with an emerald and diamond tiara by her husband, Prince Albert, along with matching emerald and diamond brooches, necklaces and earrings in 1845.
Emerald Pendant

EMERALD JEWELRY  IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY 

The grandeur of the Victorian and subsequent Edwardian eras began to give way as Europe's great powers clashed and tore each other apart during the Great War. The Art Noveau style that had been in vogue from the 1890s onward fell out of fashion and was replaced by the Art Deco style that came in post-war France and spread internationally, dominating the 30s. Women had been largely granted more freedom throughout Europe and the United States, with suffrage and relaxation of social norms, this period was known for contrasting and clashing colors, geometric patterns and filigree work.

After the Second World War, with the rise of celebrity culture and the advent of television, fashion trends began to be dictated by the Red Carpet and Silver Screen, instead of courtiers or nobility. These trends continue today, with notable celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Catherina-Zeta Jones and Taylor Swift all known to wear emerald jewelry pieces.

Old habits die hard though, with royalty still influencing tastes today, such as the glamourous Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and many female members of the Dutch Royal family wearing and collecting emerald jewelry.

Emerald Jewelry Stack of Rings

THE EMERALD ISLE OF IRELAND

If you asked most people for a common nickname of Ireland, they would likely reference the 'Emerald Isle'. Ireland's connection to emeralds is simple: The lush rolling hills with their 40 shades of Green are deeply reminiscent of emerald's gorgeous green hues. Ireland is not a source for emerald mining but poetic tradition and popular culture has linked the wind-swept North Atlantic island with the time-honored gems for centuries.
Emerald Isle of Ireland
In the 1790s, Ireland was a tumultuous place, with clear legal and societal distinctions for "Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter". The Anglican Church of Ireland (Protestant) was favored by the Anglo-Irish/English authorities, at the expense of the Catholic (the majority of the native Gael Irish population) and the Dissenters (Mostly Presbyterian Scottish settlers planted in the 1600s) who had little to no say in their day to day affairs and were forced to pay tithes to the Anglican Church.

Europe was ablaze with revolutionary ideals of Democracy, Republicanism and 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' and Ireland was no exception. The Society of the United Irishmen was founded in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell and Dr. William Drennan, amongst others.

Drennan, son of a Presbyterian minister, who was appalled at the conditions endured by the Catholic Irish working for British landlords on Irish soil. He was also noted for supporting the radical practice of washing hands to prevent disease and providing inoculations against Smallpox. His lasting contribution to Irish and world history? 

He wrote the poem "When Erin First Rose", which contained this stanza:
When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless'd the green island and saw it was good;
The em'rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone.
Emerald Gemstone Jewelry History
Although the United Irishmen would go on to stage an ultimately ill-fated uprising in 1798, Dr. William Drennan abhorred violence and did not fight in the revolution, sparing him the same fate of the other United Irishmen. He lived until 1820 and remained a staunch defender of Catholic rights, despite his Presbyterian background. His funeral followed his instructions: “let six poor Protestants and six poor Catholics get a guinea apiece for carriage of me, and a priest and a dissenting clergyman with any friends that choose". 

His gravestone is inscribed with:
"Pure, just, benign: thus filial love would trace
The virtues hallowing this narrow space
The Emerald Isle may grant a wider claim
And link the Patriot with his Country's name"
He has been credited with giving Ireland its' famous (and apt) nickname, but he never claimed to be the first. The moniker of the Emerald Isle made its way over to Canada and the United States, where many Irish fled to in the wake of continued colonial oppression and crippling poverty, particularly after An Górta Mór 1845-52 and the Emerald Isle continues to enjoy its' association with this special gem.

EMERALD MINING TODAY

Colombia remains the primary source of emerald today, with Zambia being second place. Zambian mines were discovered in the 1920s but only became viable towards the 1980s. Brazil is another major source of emeralds but they can be located on nearly every continent.


Emerald remains one of the most popular and high-sought after gems and all of our emeralds are ethically sourced from Brazil and Zambia