The Story of Sandawana and Columbian Emeralds

Sandawana emeralds are the most beautiful and sought after in the world. Technically, Columbian emeralds aren’t emeralds at all.

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out Angelina Jolie wearing emeralds. Photo: Fair Use

The Most Famous Emeralds in History

The Mogul emerald was found in 1695 and weighs 217 carats. It was last seen in 2001 when it was sold to an unknown buyer for $2.2 million.

The Devonshire emerald is in a vault at the Natural History Museum in London and weighs 1386 carats. It belongs to the Duke of Devonshire and is from Musa in Columbia.

The Gachalá Emerald was mined in 1967, Gachala, Colombia. It was obtained by New York jeweler, Harry Winston, who donated it to the Smithsonian.

For about three hundred years (until just before WWII), emeralds were highly sought after by royalty, the aristocracy, and the very rich as they signaled high status and incredible wealth. When looking at various diadems and crowns made for monarchs, a high percentage of them were not only set with numerous emeralds but had the central stone as a large emerald (or a sapphire).

So how do emeralds compare with diamonds?

They don’t.

Sir Ernest Oppenheimer created an artificial scarcity of the stone in the early 40s by mining them and only releasing a few into the market place. Then he used an American advertising company to create the ‘A diamond is forever’ campaign.’ It was arguably the most successful advertising campaign in history as many a lady is convinced that a man’s love can only be demonstrated by a ‘valuable diamond.’

The Sandawana emerald is probably one of the most prestigious, beautiful, and rarest stone in the world, so it holds its value well. Liz Taylor and Angelina Jolie have both dazzled many when wearing them. The Columbian emerald comes second to the Sandawana emerald, but is also noted for some of the most fabulous finds in history.

Famous Emerald Mines

Emeralds are mined in most countries in the world, but two particular types of emeralds stand out for their beauty and quality — the Sandawana emerald from an area in Zimbabwe with the same name and the Colombian emerald from Colombia.

Colombian emerald tends to be the popular choice as they are more freely available and, therefore, less expensive. It is has a more yellow tint. The Sandawana emerald has a rich blue green tint, and the mines are almost mined out, so they have a rarety value that the Columbian emerald does not have.

The colour ranges from a yellow green to a very dark blue green.

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The History of Zimbabwean Emeralds

Emeralds were originally discovered in the the Sandawana area of (then) Rhodesia in 1955. Initially emeralds greater than three carats were found quite frequently at the Sandawana mine, but that is not so anymore. The norm is now about half a carat. The largest mine in Sandawana, Zimbabwe, closed in 2012, leaving another twenty seven mines currently operating.

These stones have a far higher value than those mined in Colombia or elsewhere.

As a jeweller once said, “The finest emerald I’ve ever seen was a 3-carat Sandawana stone shown me in 1980. It’s owner, an Indian dealer, wanted a mind-boggling $60,000 per carat. He got it.”

The colour and clarity of the stone has a lot to do with the price . In the early 80s, when the Sandawana mine production was still in full production, this African emerald was fetching twice the price of emeralds mined elsewhere — $1,600 versus $700 per carat.

These emeralds saw their peak production in the 50s and 60s, and it’s possible that political factors, like UDI interfered with the increasing rarity of the stones.

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Emerald Ring Pixabay Photo ThefSS

The History of Columbian Emeralds

It is believed that the indigenous people of Columbia started mining for the emeralds about 500 AD. However, it was the Spanish conquistadors that brought the stones to Europe.

Many enormous stones were discovered, for example, the Devonshire Diamond in Musa, Columbia.

The stones began to develop a much higher market value during the 50s, and as a result, quaqueros (smugglers) began to steal from storage houses where the gemstones were stored before they are cut and polished. There have been ongoing ‘green wars’ since there. During the 80s, there was a civil war over these stones. There are still conflict and murders, and assassinations are frequent. Smugglers still search alongside the Río Itoco river in the Muzo valley for stones, and they are quite likely to kill each other if they meet perchance.

Their history has been no less bloody since the Spanish left. In the 1980s, the mines of Muzo found themselves in the sights of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel, who thought the emeralds could be a means to launder the profits from the cocaine industry. Source.

Both attacks were widely attributed to Pedro Rincon, alias “Pedro Orejas,” another prominent emerald businessman considered to be Carranza’s most powerful rival. In what may have been a retaliation killing, one of Rincon’s lawyers was shot dead in January 2013. Source

Unusually, emeralds in Colombia are mined from sedimentary host rock as opposed to igneous rock. This means that they are far more pure than emeralds found in other countries. Their green colour comes from vanadium, so technically they wouldn’t be classified as an emerald in countries outside the USA.

Most of these precious stones are mined in the east Andes mountain range between Boyaca and Cundinamarca. The top producing mines are Coscuez, Chivor, and Muzo, with Muzo being the most important mine internationally as it produces a grass-green coloured emerald.

The very dark green emerald which is so highly prized internationally is only found at great depth in these mines. As a result of their value, there is a large illicit market operating.

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Emerald necklace Pixabay Photo: Engin Akyurt

Characteristics of Emeralds

Some stones, found in the same mines as emeralds, are a lighter green. These are called green beryl. It is the intensity of the colour which differentiates green beryl from an emerald. The price difference between an emerald and green beryl is significant. This is a result of the rarity of the green coloured stones.

Emeralds are very soft so they break easily and need to be worn with care. In technical language, they have a MOHS hardness of between 7.5 and 8. Should the stone be without inclusions, this would be considered quite strong/hard, but any inclusion within the stone weakens it. Jewelers add oil to the stone to make the inclusion less obvious to the naked eye.

There is a difference of opinion between the American Jewelry Council and the international standard as to when the beryllium stone is to be considered an emerald and when it is not. The American Jewerly Council indicates that when the vanadium is responsible for making the stone green, then it is an emerald. The international standard, however, believes an the beryllium stone only to be an emerald when it is coloured green by chromium.

Columbian stones contain vanadium, so they are technically not considered to be emeralds outside America. Sandawana stones contain chromium.

Stones which obtain their colour from vanadium are less expensive than those which are coloured by chromium. This means that a four carat emerald can be bought in the USA for about $800. If you could find a Sandawana emerald of that size, it would cost many thousands of dollars.

Unusually, whereas prized diamonds have no inclusions, this is not so for this beryllium stone.While an instrument is used to determine the purity of a diamond, the human eye is sufficient to determine whether the green gemstone is to be highly prized for its clarity or not. It is rare for an emerald not to have an inclusion. Regardless of this, they are still the most valuable of all stones.

Emeralds are valued according to the depth of green color, how pure they are, their weight (number of carats), and brilliance. The way the stone is cut is also important.

Synthetic emeralds have been produced and their chemical and gemological composition is identical to mined stones. Ultraviolet light is used to establish whether stones are mined or manufactured.

For decades, women like Rosalba Canon were banned from Colombia’s emerald mines: men said they brought bad luck. The women who came here, some running from violent relationships, could not work in the tunnels alongside the men because of the macho prejudice that they brought bad luck. The country’s laws additionally prevented women from going down the mines. Every day for more than three decades, Canon has put on her rubber boots and joined dozens of other fortune hunters sifting through the mine waste in the fast-flowing Las Animas river. Source

Sources of Emeralds

Colombia is the world’s leading producer of diamonds, producing between 50% and 95% of the world’s total, depending on the year. Zambia is the world’s second largest producer. The most recent discovery of emeralds has been in the Yukon in Canada.

Emeralds are mostly mined in Colombia, Zambia, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. However, they can also be found in smaller numbers in Madagascar, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Canada, and Russia.

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Emeralds are flattering on any hand, but be careful of the wording when purchasing. These rings are available on Amazon. For instance, a piece might read “emerald cut” and ‘genuine gemstone.’ That doesn’t mean that it’s an emerald. It might be a green tourmaline (one of my favorites) which is a genuine gemstone, but not an emerald. Query before you purchase.

Columbian Emeralds vs Sandawana Emeralds

There have been some spectacularly large Colombian emeralds found, and their colour has been as good as those of the Sandawana mines. They also have fewer inclusions. However, there are those who will tell you that the colour of the Zimbabwean emerald is superior, and they still fetch a higher price.

It doesn’t really matter where emeralds are mined. Their value is determined according to their colour, their weight (number of carats), and their clarity (number of inclusions).

Emerald Jewelry

Emerald rings range in price from about $300 for a vanadium emerald under one carat to a few thousand pounds in the UK for a three carat chromium emerald (Sandawana). Synthetic emerald stones start from about $15.00 up. It’s impossible to differentiate between a natural emerald and an artifical emerald with the naked eye, as they are produced using the same minerals as mother nature. A special instrument has to be used to assess whether they are man-made or mined.

As human beings, we are drawn to blues (sapphires) as they echo the colour of sea and sky and green (emeralds) because they echo the colour of trees and grass.

Emerald gemstones are used in tiaras, rings, earrings, pendants, and bracelets. Angelina Jolie has worn emerald earrings with matching pendant and Elizabeth Taylor owned some magnificent and very sizable emerald rings and chokers.

Royalty has a preference for blue or green stones for engagement rings rather than diamonds, and it is possible, as the general public begins to realize that diamonds are pretty worthless, that there will be an increase in the popularity of emeralds as engagement rings and dress rings. Currently, they are mostly worn in spectacular earrings and pendants.

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In the interest of air disclosure, if you purchase one of the rings, I might earn a a few pennies.

Written by

Global citizen. Author. Thinker. Polymath. Climate change. Progressive. Loves photography, beauty, dancing, and believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.

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