What Is An Emerald?


An emerald is part of the beryl mineral family, and is arguably the most precious stone mined from those ores. Aquamarine, morganite (named for the American banker J P Morgan), and heliodor, or golden beryl, are other gemstones in the beryl family, but emeralds are by far the rarer and more desirable stones. In fact, many jewellers consider diamonds to be second to emeralds in rarity and fineness.


Cleopatra was famous for her love of emeralds; so was her equally famous film portrayer, Elizabeth Taylor. The Duchess of Windsor was famous for a lot of things, her unparalleled collection of emerald jewellery being one of the more positive--and her 19-carat emerald engagement ring is a beautiful example.


More recently, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie stunned the red carpet with a pair of 115-carat pear drop earrings. Emeralds are gorgeous against any skin tone, from the ivory decolletage of Taylor, to the deeper olive complexion of Mila Kunis.


Emeralds in History and Culture


Ancient traditions give mystical healing powers and meaning to gemstones. Emeralds have some qualities that are consistent across cultures--green signifies renewal all over the world, so emeralds are a herald of spring, new growth, and rebirth. Here are some of its history from different cultures.


Ancient Egypt and Jerusalem


Cleopatra was probably fond of emeralds for a couple of reasons--they could be set in gold and silver for her fabulous jewellery as well as other adornments; they were abundant in Egypt around 300 BC. Ancient lore bestows magical properties on most gemstones, and emeralds are no exception.


When placed under the tongue, an emerald is supposed to let you foresee the future, reveal secret truths, and protect against evil spirits. Along those lines, an emerald renders the wearer able to discern in particular a lover's intent, and provide unusual eloquence. These powers, along with Cleopatra's rather complicated history with Marc Antony, may well have been why she found emeralds useful as well as attractive.


Biblical legend also says that an emerald was among the four stones that God gave King Solomon, to give him power over all creation. Emerald deposits were found in the Jerusalem quarries that Emperor Sulieman named Solomon's Quarries in 1536. Historians believe King Herod used emeralds from this mine to build his temple in 19 BC.




Emeralds were not mined in India, but early trade sent the stones through, probably on their way to Europe. In Hindu mythology, emeralds are associated with Wednesday, the planet Mercury, and the god Budha. Emeralds were a favourite of the Mughul emperors, and there still exists an historical carved emerald of 380 carats that Cartier set into a headdress. The emerald, from the Al-Thani collection, is carved to depict gods from the Hindu epic Ramayana and was probably worn as an amulet by its original owner.


South America


Emeralds are also abundant in South America, primarily in the area that is now Colombia. The Incas had been using emeralds in their jewellery and religious rites for centuries, but the Spaniards who invaded Colombia in the sixteenth century favoured gold and silver over any gemstones, and traded emeralds for metals. They did bring some of the gemstones back to Europe and Asia, where royalty was more taken with the brilliant green lustre of the stones than the Spanish mercenaries.




Emeralds became de rigueur for any respectable collection of Crown Jewels--the stunning emerald tiara and parure (set of necklace, earrings, brooch, rings) that Napoleon gifted Josephine are part of the Norwegian Queen's collection. The Cambridge Emeralds are part of Elizabeth II's Vladimir II tiara, and these emeralds far outshine the diamonds. The wealthy and more practical Europeans and British treasured their emeralds for status and convertibility to currency more than mystical powers - monarchs and noblemen were forever hocking their jewels to fund wars and armies.


Where Emeralds Are Mined


South American emeralds are abundant and large--and also infamous for their inclusions and flaws--but until the 1970s those mines yielded the bulk of the world's emerald production. A rich deposit of emerald was found in Zambia in 1976, and those stones are slowly overtaking the South Americans in desirability.


Zambian emeralds, on the whole, have fewer inclusions and a vibrant, blue-green hue that emerald enthusiasts love. The 5,655 carat Lion Emerald--weighing over 1Kg-- was found in the Kagem mine in Zambia in late 2018. This emerald is notable not only for its size, but for its remarkable clarity and lack of the usual flaws.


Flaws and Inclusions


If you look closely at royal emeralds, or the priceless Indian Mughul stone, you'll see something surprising--flaws that are visible to the naked eye.


Even the finest emeralds are often known for their flaws and inclusions. The chromium or vanadium that bond to beryl to form the green emerald also create a molecular matrix that holds air bubbles, bits of other minerals, and other stray particles. These inclusions are what render emeralds quite brittle relative to their hardness on the Mohs scale--emeralds rate a 7.5 to 8, just below sapphire and ruby (corundum). So when you hear emeralds are "soft" and not suitable for a ring you'd wear every day, that's not entirely accurate. Rather, the stone is brittle and more prone to chips and breaks.


Although it seems counterintuitive, a flawed emerald is more desirable than one with no imperfections. Why? Because an included stone is much more likely to be a genuine, untreated emerald. Even ancient dealers in jewels realized the brittle nature of the stone, and so developed a method of treating the stones with cedar oil, which filled the inclusions and made the stone stronger. Modern gemologists still treat stones with oils, but can also use lasers and irradiation to smooth over flaws.


Cutting Emeralds


Stonecutters analyse every component of a stone before they begin the cutting. Their goal is to create the best possible gemstone out of the rough mineral--not only in size, but in clarity, colour, and durability. Emerald cutters are the magicians in the emerald's journey--they can darken a pale stone with a deeper cut and just a few facets, or lighten a dark stone with a larger table and shallow cut.

Emeralds are unusual in that they can be cut two ways--the traditional faceted cut, and the less common cabochon cut.




A cabochon (French for rounded) stone is shaped and polished. It's an ancient cut, developed well before stonecutters had the technology to facet a stone. Larger emeralds are often cut as cabochons since the inclusions are not endangered with polishing. A stone with good colour and size, but with significant inclusions, can be cut as a cabochon without compromising the stone's strength.




The facets of the cut are the depth, table (surface) and cuts to reveal brilliance that the cutter has implemented. Cut also means the symmetry, polish, and proportions of a finished stone, rather than the actual shape. The emerald cut, a rectangular cut with a visible step-down pattern in the stone, is an early medieval technique that produced the least waste on rough stone and brought out the sparkle of the emerald. You can also buy round and oval emeralds, although these are more expensive as more rough is wasted in the creation of the table facets.




The setting you choose for your emerald jewellery is a key component in protecting the stone.


Bezel Setting


A bezel or rub over setting wraps the stone in metal, leaving the top exposed. Bezel-set jewellery is an ancient method, developed before cutting was invented. All of Cleopatra's emeralds were bezel set--it is the way stones are set in goblets and plates. A modern bezel is not flush with the metal, but raised like the standard prong setting.


Semi-Bezel Setting


A semi-bezel setting still protects the stone, but allows more light to enter through the gaps in the metal.

Claw settings are the most common for emerald jewellery. The prongs bend over the stone to secure it in the mount, four or six prongs are the usual number. Some jewellers will add more claws for more stone protection. The best claw for an emerald-cut stone is the V-prong, where the claw end forms a v-shape to better grab the stone.


Flush and Channel Settings


Flush and channel settings are used for smaller stones in rings like eternity bands, where a series of emeralds is set into a groove in the metal and sit beneath the band for the greatest protection.

The merry month of May--and certainly any Wednesday--is a wonderful time to invest in emerald jewellery.


Choose the Perfect Emerald Jewellery Gift


Jewellers can discern the extent to which an emerald has been treated. By the time a stone reaches the jeweller's showcase, it has passed through several other merchants, and has likely been enhanced in some fashion. In Reading, Jacobs the Jewellers has established, long term relationships with emerald dealers, so when you shop with Jacobs you can be confident that in the history of your emeralds.


Contact us at Jacobs the Jewellers and allow us to advise you on emerald choices--a ring for every day or special occasions, a pendant, maybe a bangle bracelet with cabochon stones and earrings to match. At Jacobs in Reading, we not only have an extensive inventory of jewellery, but a designer who can help you create bespoke pieces for your collection.