Humans have loved emeralds for millennia. Emeralds were mined as early as 1500 BCE, in Egypt, around Mount Smaragdus, in the so-called Cleopatra mines. In more recent history, emeralds were mined in India and Austria in the 1300s. While Egypt’s emerald mines are now defunct and completely in ruins, we still find a large number of emeralds in newer locales, such as Colombia. Today, Colombia is the world’s largest emerald producer, accounting for up to 95% of the world’s emerald production, according to some estimates. The world’s current second-largest producer of emeralds is Zambia. Colombian vs. African Emeralds: What’s the Difference?
If you’re considering buying an emerald, chances are very likely that it came from one of these two countries. But are there differences between emeralds sourced in Africa versus emeralds sourced in South America? Would you prefer one over the other?
Here’s everything you need to know.
Colombia’s primary emerald mining regions are Muzo, Coscuez and Chivor. The Chivor and Muzo mines are the oldest, located near Bogota, and are known for producing stones with a particularly high level of quality.
Colombian emeralds were prized as early as the 1500s, when Spanish invaders claimed the gemstones. Given the country and the gemstone’s long shared history, then, it’s no surprise that Colombia is responsible for a wide array of the world’s most famous and notable emeralds throughout the ages. These include the Chalk Emerald and the Gachala Emerald, both of which now live at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; the Duke of Devonshire Emerald, which was discovered before 1831 and was more than 1,300 carats when uncut and which now lives in London’s Natural History Museum; the Mogul Mughal Emerald, which is featured at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar; the privately-owned Rockefeller Emerald; the Mim Emerald, which lives at the Mim Museum in Beirut; and the Patricia Emerald, which is found at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Geologically speaking, Colombian emeralds are known to have more inclusions than Zambian emeralds. The emeralds found in Colombia were formed millions of years ago, when hydrothermal liquids cooled within sedimentary rock and were exposed to high heat and pressure. Colombian emeralds include the rare trapiche emeralds, which are, uniquely, prized for their impurities, which form large wheel spokes across the stone.
Colombian emeralds are known to be a more pure-green hue and are similarly renowned as more vibrant, when compared to their Zambian counterparts. Depending on where in Colombia an emerald was sourced, however, it may show off different tints or tones. Muzo emeralds, for example, may be more of a saturated yellow-green, while Chivor emeralds are more blue-green and less saturated. Cosquez emeralds are often on the darker side.
Zambia produces emeralds primarily in the Kafubu River region. There, the Kagem mine is the largest emerald mine in the world.
Compared to the Colombian emerald trade, the Zambian emerald trade is significantly younger, as emeralds were not discovered in the country until the 1920s and not even really mined on a significant scale until the 1970s. The only really notable emerald throughout history that’s come from Zambia is the Chipembele, discovered as recently as 2021, and which was measured at 7,525 carats.
In terms of geology, African emeralds have less vanadium content and more iron content, which gives them a blueish tone. Zambian emeralds are found between metamorphic and granite rock. They’re not as pure-green as the Colombian emeralds and are lacking a little bit of that Colombian vibrancy that is synonymous with the look of a traditional emerald.
However, despite this lack in vibrancy, Zambian emeralds are known to be slightly higher in clarity, as compared to Colombian emeralds. In fact, Zambian emeralds were so clear and clean when they first arrived on the market in the latter half of the last century, that dealers claimed that they had to be fakes. It was only when Tiffany & Co. began using Zambian-sourced emeralds that the gemstones became more widely accepted.
Zambian emeralds are known to be a little bit more affordable than Colombian emeralds.
Check out this stunning David Webb Diamond Sapphire and Emerald Bracelet
What About Emeralds From Other Countries?
While Zambia and Colombia may be responsible for the majority of the world’s emeralds, there are still other countries producing the occasional emerald or two as well. One of those countries is Brazil, which comes in as a far third in emerald production.
Brazil’s Itabira/Nova Era belt is responsible for the country’s stream of emeralds. Nova Era offers relatively high-quality stones in a country where the quality of its emeralds isn’t quite as well known.
Russia has also produced a few emeralds throughout its history. The Russian Malysheva mine is predicted to contain 80% of Russia’s emeralds; the mine was quite active in the 1980s and 1990s. Russian emeralds are typically rare, light or medium green, and feature a yellow undertone.
What to Consider When Buying an Emerald
The good news no matter which option you go with? Buying an emerald is much less difficult than buying a diamond and there are far fewer technicalities to consider. Just like when buying a diamond, though, you’ll want to consider the four C’s as you shop: color, clarity, carat weight and cut.
For emeralds, color is the most important of the four factors. Since an emerald’s color is unmistakable, you want the best color and the most vibrancy, possible. The color can range from light to dark and vividly saturated to dull. The darker the emerald and the higher the saturation, the more expensive an emerald will be. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider emeralds that are lighter in color; you may find that you prefer those, just due to personal taste, and that’s perfectly fine.
Clarity is less important, but still something to consider. The higher an emerald’s clarity, the higher the price tag.
The cut will obviously impact the emerald’s color. A perfect emerald will be cut symmetrically, with uniform facets that show off its color and brilliance. The classic emerald cut is, of course, the best way to go.
Lastly, carat weight isn’t always a determining factor in an emerald’s price. An emerald with a very high clarity but a very low carat weight is going to be more expensive than a high-carat weight emerald with a low clarity and poor color.
Which Emeralds are Right for Me?
If you’re shopping for a piece of emerald jewelry, you’ll find a mixture of Colombian and Zambian emeralds scattered across offerings from favorite designers such as Bulgari, David Morris, Louis Vuitton and more. But what are you looking for in an emerald or piece of emerald jewelry?
If it’s convenience (as in, you’ll be able to find it in any jewelry boutique you walk into), vibrancy and that classic emerald hue and appearance, then you’ll want to go with a Colombian emerald.
If, however, you don’t mind doing a little shopping around and you’d prefer a better price on an emerald, with greater clarity, and you’re not as concerned about the color, you might opt for a Zambian emerald.
For something entirely unique and not at all common, ask your favorite jeweler about sourcing an emerald from elsewhere.
Whichever option you go with, though, a Yamron jeweler or gemologist can help. With our team’s thorough knowledge of the industry and inside connections to the emerald trade, we can help you find the perfect gemstone for your collection. To learn more, stop into our location in Naples, at 555 Tamiami Trail N, #11, Naples, FL 34108, or give us a call at 239-592-7707.
Sources and Further Reading
A Complete Guide to Emerald Jewelry (The Diamond Pro)