Late in the 1970s, when ads hawking emeralds for $5 apiece started appearing nationwide, gem dealers weren’t sure if these dull, opaque stones with their mottled, dusty sage-brush color should be called “emerald” or “beryl,” emerald’s family name.
Now, long after the $5 emerald campaign has joined the annals of schlock, experts begrudgingly call these stones “emerald” because they contain chromium, a greening agent that renders beryls emerald. This gemological verdict didn’t improve the standing of the source of these fish-tank stories: Brazil.
Ever since Brazil became the breadbasket for affordable emerald in the early 1960s (emerald was first discovered there around 1920), the country’s major mines, for two decades located exclusively in the northeastern coastal state of Bahia, had been saddled with a reputation for lackluster quality. Even today, many dealers liken the importance of emerald-rich Brazil to that of sapphire-rich Australia whose blackish stones were, until recently, a staple of low-end jewelry.
Today, however, Brazil has radically upgraded its image as an emerald mining center. Finds made since 1980 at Itabera in Minais Gerais, Santa Teresinha in Goias, and Nova Era near Itabera are supplying the best emerald Brazil has ever produced. Indeed, top stones from these mines beg comparison to Colombian emerald—the highest accolade this species can earn.
The emerald world as we know it today emerged in the late 1970s and is composed of three mining powers: Brazil, Colombia and Zambia. Until very recently each country played a fairly static role in terms of market preference. Colombia dominated the high end, Zambia occupied its middle and Brazil was left with the bottom. While this pecking order is still pretty much intact, Zambian and Brazilian goods have won enough trade admiration to seriously challenge the status quo.
The upheaval began in Israel around 1977 when colored stone dealers in Tel Aviv set out to make a market in a recently discovered variety of African emerald from Zambia whose stark, bluish green at first offended purists.
To cultivate higher regard for this material, the Israeli cutters who made a commitment to craeting a market for this gem simply skirted the color issue altogether. Their shrewd end-run maneuver consisted of two parts. First, they cut stones to emphasize their glassy brilliance and above-average (for emerald, that is) clarity—a tactic especially endearing to America where the all-pervasive 4C’s diamond aesthetic had given cleanliness parity with, and sometimes an edge over, color. Second, the Israelis offered calibrated stones in a wide variety of fancy shapes, a boon to mass-producers of jewelry.