It’s spring again, and fittingly, the emerald is on track to become the gem of the moment. Over the past few years, the trade has been abuzz with buyers’ increased passion for coloured gemstones while collectors’ renewed interest in traditional hues has led to a worldwide clamour for specimens from great heritage mines: Mogok rubies from Burma, sapphires from Kashmir and, most alluring of all, lustrous Colombian emeralds from the legendary Muzo mine. After drifting off the radar for decades – due to concerns over integrity, a dearth of good stones and a shift toward more unusual gems – the emerald has made a dramatic comeback.
Beginning some five years ago, greater transparency and stricter certification, along with an influx of distinctive blue-green stones yielded by Zambian deposits, have made the emerald industry stronger. With fashion turning to blocks of intense colour, heritage and nobility becoming hip again, and actresses such as Angelina Jolie stepping onto the red carpet wearing dazzling emerald jewels, demand for the precious gem has ticked upward. Finally, the growth of a discerning connoisseur’s market, where the rarity of the finest specimens is truly appreciated, has propelled the stone to star status.
ACTRESS JAIMIE ALEXANDER WEARING LORRAINE SCHWARTZ EMERALD JEWELS AT THE GOLDEN
GLOBE AWARDS IN JANUARY. KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/NBC.
The emerald is, after all, the perfect answer to a collector’s unstoppable quest for individuality. It is an arch-individualist of a gemstone: Each one is endowed with its own imposing aristocratic personality, each is made dramatically different by its internal structure. It is really no wonder that the age-old lust for the stone’s hypnotic beauty has been rekindled.
This season, thanks to new ownership and a state-of-the-art facility, Colombia’s Muzo mine is presenting its first major collection of newly mined masterpiece emeralds. Impeccably cut and polished in specialist centres in Bogotá, Paris and Hong Kong, the selection includes perfectly matched monumental pear shapes, elegant emerald cuts and entire suites of square cuts reminiscent of Renaissance splendour. These are gems of sublime beauty and quality with classic Colombian characteristics, deep pools of intense velvet green shot through with fiery golden glints. There’s much appeal to the Muzo name: From this mine have come some of the greatest emeralds in history, the New World “green stones” held sacred by the native Muzo tribe, who kept their source a closely guarded secret. To this day the Muzo emerald is emblematic of the lost treasures of pre-Columbian civilisations. After fierce battles and dangerous expeditions, 16th-century conquistadors eventually discovered the Muzo mine, filling treasure chests with immense emeralds that were taken to the Spanish court and, from there, made their way to the collections of European nobility.
A 49.81-CARAT UNMOUNTED EMERALD. SOLD AT SOTHEBY'S NEW YORK FOR $250,000.
The fame of Muzo and its gems spread across the world, and the emerald became the attribute of kings. In India, the Mughal rulers prized fine emeralds to the point of obsession, seeing in them the colour of paradise and purity as well as the spirit of the divine.
SOLD AT SOTHEBY'S NEW YORK FOR $346,000.
As a result, in the 16th and 17th centuries, colossal Colombian emeralds were carved and engraved in Mughal floral style, some of them inscribed with emperors’ names and dates. Similarly, the Ottoman sultans considered the emerald to be the ultimate possession, a symbol of divine power – the famed Topkapi dagger is in fact studded with superlative Muzo stones. Russia’s second ruling dynasty, the jewel-adoring Romanovs, later amassed emeralds in abundance. The dynasty’s theatrical Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna (1882–1957), for one, owned stupendous suites of emeralds; notoriously, her famous set of drop-shaped stones miraculously escaped the Russian Revolution and later found its way, via Cartier, to heiress Barbara Hutton. In turn, the so-called poor little rich girl had the duchess’s stones mounted in a tiara she wore day and night in her house in Tangier, Morocco. In yet another example, a suite of Colombian pear-shaped stones, some of the most fabulous emeralds outside of royal collections, formed the upstanding fringe of the Henckel von Donnersmarck tiara, made around 1900. A prized possession of the German noble family, it was sold for CHF11.3 million at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2011. Now, I may be exaggerating slightly, but just scratch an emerald (not literally, please!) and you’ll find a royal connection. For instance, the late-19th-century pendant-brooch set with diamonds and emeralds coming up for auction in Hong Kong on 5 April once belonged to Princess Amélie of Orléans (1865–1951), the last Queen of Portugal.
In the 20th century, emeralds became accessible to individuals of more recent wealth: The gemstones were, and still are, symbols of success for socialites, style leaders and silver-screen sirens. The Duchess of Windsor chose an emerald for her engagement ring; the celebrated American-born, London-based hostess Lady Cunard was so intoxicated by the gem that she changed her name to Emerald; and Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon enhanced her beauty with an awe-inspiring emerald necklace from Cartier. The stone’s vibrant colour and exotic associations made it a favourite among Art Deco jewellers. Emeralds are notoriously challenging to cut, so along with quintessential 20th-century style, there’s virtuoso craftsmanship in the pair of mystery-set emerald earclips by Van Cleef & Arpels, which sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong on 5 April.
PAIR OF VAN CLEEF & ARPELS MYSTERY-SET EMERALD AND DIAMOND EARCLIPS. SOLD AT SOTHEBY'S HONG KONG FOR HK$775,000 ($99,929).
Proving once more that they are the divas of the jewellery world, emeralds are also featured front and centre in collections by the great heritage houses, as well as in spectacular creations by Moussaieff, Graff and Alexandre Reza. Meanwhile, Muzo is engaged in a holistic “mine to maison” operation, collaborating with some of today’s most innovative designers, including Shaun Leane, Solange Azagury-Partridge and Antoine Sandoz. The resulting collection of emerald-encrusted jewels manages to harness the power of the Muzo legend while rejuvenating the emerald’s magnetic pull. The gemstone of kings is enjoying an appropriately regal encore.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for the Financial Times’s How to Spend It.
Lead image: Pair of 18 karat white gold, emerald and diamond earclips. Sold at Sotheby's New York for $181,250.