Birthstone Friday – Emeralds’ Bloody History

In 1558, the Spanish began drawing on the vast emerald mines at Muzo, Colombia, which produced high-quality emeralds. This style of cross, with large cut stones, was favored by wealthy aristocratic women of the Spanish court including Archduchess Isabella. Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Birthstones often have swashbuckling histories, but for me, one of the swashbuckling-est is emerald.

I always think of Spanish conquistadores, those blood-thirsty, gold-hungry invaders of South America when I think of emeralds. They terrorized the native populations, tortured, enslaved and slaughtered them, and once they had their booty on heavily loaded ships, they were hunted by pirates themselves. Often those overloaded ships went down in hurricanes in the Caribbean. Some truly amazing emeralds have come up with divers to those galleons.

When I worked for an appraiser, I was fortunate to see one such necklace of emeralds that had been hauled up by a group of divers. At some point the emeralds had been cut (crudely by today’s standards) and set in 24 karat (pure) gold. Whether they were heading to Spain or returning to South America with some wealthy land-grantee’s wife, I don’t know. But oh, the color of those emeralds! They were magnificent—and huge—stones probably from the Muzo mines in Colombia, which have produced some of the most breathtaking emeralds ever known.

I’ve never forgotten handling that necklace, once treasured by a woman of inestimable wealth, in a world I can hardly imagine. Her sense of entitlement would have made her oblivious to the appalling methods by which her gold and emeralds had been acquired. But if she was traveling to South America—or home to Spain—with her jewelry, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the terror that must have been hers when that tiny ship was caught in the maelstrom of the hurricane that sucked it to the ocean floor where it, and she, lay forgotten for centuries.

2 thoughts on “Birthstone Friday – Emeralds’ Bloody History

    • Thanks for writing, Noella!
      Gemstones have been around for centuries and passed through so many cultures that they drag their history and lore–the good, bad and ugly–behind them like comet tails. Thinking of all the people who handled them, how they got from one place to another, and at what cost, makes them fascinating. It would be wonderful if they could talk. What things we would learn!
      Liz

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