Emerald – May Birthstone

Emerald – MayPliny the Elder, the great naturalist of Antiquity, once wrote, “Nothing greens greener than emerald.” He was not wrong: to this day, emerald is still the green gem against which all green gems are compared. For over three thousand years, emerald has been treasured above many other gemstones for its rarity, and its largely unrivaled beautiful green.

Pliny the Elder also noted emerald’s use by lapidaries, who “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.” Interestingly enough, the color green has been proven by modern science to relieve stress and eye strain by helping to maintain, rather than strip, what’s known as “visual purple” in the rods and cones of the eyes. Green is the perceptual opposite to purple, so interpreting green – and more specifically slightly bluish green – requires the least work for the eyes. So emeralds really do live up to their reputation of soothing the weary mind. It’s no wonder to me gems of such exquisite color can have such an effect. After all, green is the color of the earth renewing itself.

As far as jewelry goes, emerald is the birthstone for the month of May, and it’s a perennial favorite of most people who love the color green. It’s a member of the beryl family of gemstones, like aquamarine and morganite.

Like any gemstone, one emerald isn’t just one single color. A fine emerald should be overwhelmingly dominated by green, but most have a secondary undertone, like yellow or blue, and pure spectral greens are astoundingly rare. Based on the underlying color, emerald can go in either white or yellow metal. Velvety yellowish-green stones from the premier mines of Colombia radiate their beauty in 18k yellow gold, while some of the bluer toned emeralds from Zambia and Brazil look clean and crisp in the timeless elegance of platinum. But such nuances aren’t for everyone. I’m glad to help you design a piece of jewelry around your emerald just the way you want it, regardless of trends or fads or whatever the latest designer magazines have to say. My philosophy is that the jewelry you wear should make you smile when you look at it, and especially something like an emerald.

According to the Gemological Institute of America, an emerald is a green beryl that is medium to dark in tone with good saturation. Lighter greens are simply referred to as green beryl and are typically colored by iron, instead of chromium or vanadium, which yield the finest greens.

When shopping for emeralds, try to find a stone in which the inclusions don’t affect the emerald’s already modest brilliance, and make sure it is as green as you like it. If you’re think bigger is better, be prepared to pay a premium for fine stones that are one carat or larger.

Emerald is rare as far as many gemstones go. It’s rare enough as a plain, low-grade mineral, but it’s found in gem quality in only a few locations worldwide. The nation of Colombia produces what are usually considered the finest emeralds in the world. Coupled with its beauty, such rarity can make emeralds one of the more expensive gemstone varieties.

This rarity is a result of what makes an emerald an emerald. As a member of the beryl family, emerald’s chemical makeup is beryllium aluminum silicate, and the strong green that classifies a beryl as an emerald is caused by chromium impurities (…usually; more on that in another blog).

The problem is this: beryllium and chromium are almost mutually exclusive in nature; they just do not occur in the same geographic vicinity, almost as a rule. So how does the one get to the other?

Well, to get all of the right pieces in the right places, cataclysmic tectonic events (for Colombian emeralds) or exceptionally long time periods of geologic metamorphosis (for Zambian emeralds) were required, along with a big helping of volcanic activity somewhere above or below the site. Without the proper coloring agents present, a beryl is just a beryl; it is not an emerald, and so this seemingly random series of destructively fortunate events is completely necessary to create an emerald.

Unfortunately, these same necessities of formation cause high levels of damage to a majority of emerald rough. Emeralds are therefore classified as a Type III Gemstone, meaning that some kind of inclusion will be present even in the absolute highest grades, and especially in Colombian stones. The very best emeralds are eye-clean, but the overwhelming majority will have at least one loupe-visible inclusion, especially in stones of any meaningful size.

If you’re hunting for pedigree, the finest qualities can sometimes hide their imperfections at up to 40x magnification, but these are exclusively rare. Loupe-clean African emeralds are more prevalent, but flawless Colombian emeralds of top color are the stuff of museums and the exceptionally wealthy.

For emeralds, inclusions – even eye-visible inclusions – are a given. You can’t get away from them. So the color of an emerald holds a lion’s share of its value. An emerald with fine, but loupe-visible inclusions of pure green will vastly outsell a much cleaner stone of paler or overly modified green.

I feel the need to offer a word to the wise. Due to their level of inclusion, emeralds are fragile compared to other beryls, even though their physical properties are the same on paper. I recommend emerald bracelets and rings should – ideally – not be worn every day. Earrings, pendants, and brooches are fine, but rings and bracelets are inadvertently banged around too much, and emeralds just can’t take that kind of abuse.

But please don’t let that spook you out of enjoying your emerald jewelry. Jewelry is meant to be worn and enjoyed. Emerald is no less durable than gems like fine black opal and tanzanite; extra care and attention just have to be taken, and sometimes it’s a wiser choice to select another piece based on your activities for the day or evening. I’ll go into more depth about this topic in an upcoming blog, so check back in a week or so.

Posted in: Emeralds, May Birthstone

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