May Birthstone - Emerald

May’s birthstone, the emerald, has been captivating cultures for almost as long as civilization has existed. The allure of this entrancing stone has frequently been used to decorate shrines and tombs in countless cultures including the ancient Egyptians and Etruscans. Even today, the belief that demons guard the Emerald mines is said by many to be just as strong as it was in Roman Times. Its name comes from an ancient Persian word, which reads “smaragdus” when translated into Latin, meaning “green gem”.

Emerald Rings
Emerald rings.

An ancient and biblical history of emeralds

The first references to emeralds date all the way back to the stones being traded in Babylonian markets as early as 4000 BC. The Chaldeans, a civilization that thrived between the tenth and sixth centuries BC, believed the emerald contained Ishtar, the goddess of love and war.

The earliest recorded emerald mine can only be dated as far back as 2000 BC. These mines, named after the Empress Cleopatra, who cherished emeralds far more than any other stone, operated until the thirteenth century AD. Many Ancient Egyptian mummies have been found buried wearing emeralds, a way to ensure eternal youth in the afterlife.

Legend also states that emerald was one of the four precious stones given by God to King Solomon, which endowed the king with power over all creation. On the Ephod, the ritual breastplate worn by the High Priests of Ancient Judaism, an emerald was mounted with the name “Judah” inscribed on the stone.

A greek history of emeralds

Ancient Greeks, associating the emerald with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, were the first to recognize the stone an eternal symbol of love. Many Greeks made it a ritual to wear the gemstone on Fridays to honor the goddess.

It is also recorded that the messenger god Hermes engraved what was considered to be the most powerful words in the word, the Words of Creation, on an emerald tablet.

The earliest recorded reference to emeralds in western literature comes from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He had a deep fascination with the stone and believed that owning an emerald increases the owner’s importance in presence and speech while conducting business.

He also wrote that the gem had the ability to give the wearer victory in trials and comforts eyesight. He is recorded to have also written that “An emerald hung from the neck or worn in a ring will prevent the falling sickness (epilepsy).” He encouraged noblemen who had the ability to adorn their children with these stones.

This strong belief may have influenced one of his most famous students, Alexander the Great, who is said to have worn a large emerald set into his girdle.

Ancient Greeks were also known to crush emeralds into a fine powder to be used as eye lotion.

a roman history of emeralds

Ancient Romans associated the emerald with Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and it was said to protect lovers from unfaithfulness. The Romans firmly believed that this stone’s purity was so strong that no evil presence could exist around it. The gem was said to recognize treachery and falsehood by turning pale and changing color. Once the emerald’s powers had been used up, it is said that the stone would fall from its setting (something that was considered to be a very bad omen).

Emeralds were rumored to help heal eye problems as well. The Roman historian, Pliny, stated that early lapidaries had “no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green color comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude.”

According to recorded text, the infamous Emperor Nero used an emerald eye-glass to watch gladiator contests (a way to curb his short-sightedness). Even today, many psychologists claim that the color green is known to relieve stress and eye strain.

an incan history of emeralds

Not surprisingly, emeralds played a very important role in the Incan culture. One of the most famous of these gems was said to be the size of an ostrich egg and was believed to be inhabited by Esmerelda, the chief goddess of the Incans. Emeralds were believed by the Incan people to be the daughters of their chief goddess, and it was customary for worshippers to present her daughters to the goddess when they were seeking her good favor. Unfortunately for the Incans, these stones eventually fell into Spanish hands when the temples of Esmerelda were looted and destroyed.

the incan myth of tena and fura

Yellow gold and platinum with mine cut diamonds and emeralds.
Yellow gold and platinum with mine cut diamonds and emeralds.

One Incan myth states that the ancient god Ares, created one woman, Fura, and one man, Tena, to populate the earth. Ares told them that if they could only remain faithful, that they would be granted the gift of eternal youth.

One day, Fura gave into her temptation and immediately began to age. Tena saw her and immediately recognized she had been unfaithful and took his own life, a fate he deemed more attractive than spending the rest of his life alone.

As Fura cried for her lost husband, it is said that her tears turned into green rocks, emeralds.

Once Ares returned, he realized that his law had been broken, and he turned the both of them into large crags. Today, the Fura and Tena crags rise high above the Colombian emerald mining district and the valley of the Minero River.

a spanish history of emeralds

It took many years and lives before the Spanish finally discovered the Incans source for their massive collection of emeralds. One day, by accident, a Spanish soldier’s horse kicked up a pile of green rocks during a battle, revealing to the Spanish, the Muzo mine, which is still known for producing the some of the finest quality emeralds in the world.

Emeralds of enormous size and unprecedented color were discovered in numerous locations as the Spanish explored the new world. Unfortunately for everyone, Spanish contemporary writer, d’Acosta, tells us that many Spanish soldiers destroyed these gems by mistake. A priest had told them that placing them on an anvil and striking them with a hammer was a way to test whether they were genuine.

According to Spanish legend, Hernando Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, looted hundreds of emeralds, delicately carved into shapes of flowers, fish, and one that was said to be the size of a man’s fist. Unfortunately, the ship sank, and these treasures have not been seen by human eyes since.

Emeralds from what is now known as Colombia and Mexico were widely plundered as the Spanish had their way with the land in the new world and the people who occupied it. Although gold and silver were seen as more valuable to the Spanish, these stones of unprecedented color became widely popular amongst Asian and European royalty.

mystical properties of emeralds

Lineage by levys diamond and emerald ring.
Lineage by levys diamond and emerald ring.

Emeralds have been known to have many healing and mystical properties according to ancient traditions spread across dozens of cultures. Various cultures believed that when an emerald is placed under the tongue or worn on the left side of the body, it allows to wearer to see the future and reveal truths. It was also said that wearing an emerald would reveal the truth or falsehood in a lover’s oath, as well as making one a more honest and eloquent speaker.

In Egypt, they were known to represent fertility and rebirth. In many Asian and Hindu cultures, emeralds are seen as good luck. Many Chinese healers still use the powder from poor quality emeralds for certain medicines.

The healing powers of emeralds have been associated with the skeletal system, flesh and skin, the cardiovascular system, the adrenal glands, kidneys, liver, intestines, and of course, the eyes. It was once also believed that a woman wearing an emerald would prevent her from having problems during childbirth.

Disorders that emeralds have been used to treat or prevent include colic, burns, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, neuralgia, cholera, malaria, cancer, syphilis, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, fevers, asthma, headaches, tension, influenza, epilepsy, and anemia.

fun facts about emeralds

  • Thailand’s most sacred religious icon is called the “Emerald Buddha”, even though it is carved from jadeite.
  • In some legends of King Arthur, the holy grail is said to be carved from an emerald
  • In the Middle Ages, it was believed that an emerald could prevent a virgin woman from being tempted by suitors (the same was not said to be true for men)
  • Emeralds are amongst the most included of gemstones. There are fewer internally flawless large emeralds in the world than there are diamonds. In fact, a flawless emerald can sell for substantially more than a flawless diamond of the same size.
  • It is believed that 99% of emeralds on the market have been treated in some way to enhance color or clarity
  • The largest collection of emeralds is said to be the crown jewels of Iran. Even the royal Nadir Throne is adorned with 1500-2000 emeralds.
  • The rare “trapiche” emeralds, only found in Colombia, are distinguished by a six-pointed radial pattern (looks like a star) of dark carbon impurities radiating from the center of the stone.
  • The finest and most highly prized emeralds are mined in Colombia (along with 50% of the world’s total production), but are also found in Afghanistan Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Italy, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
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