Of the “big three” coloured gems – ruby, emerald and sapphire – currently enjoying a huge revival of popularity, it’s the emerald that has most sparked the imagination. Driving this fresh verdant vigour is a combination of consistent supplies of emeralds from new mines in Zambia, Brazil and Colombia; a more open-minded appreciation of charm, individuality and personality rather than absolute perfection; and the diversity within emeralds – different tones, translucencies, character and cuts – that invites originality and ingenuity. Add to this today’s fascination with the origins and formation of gemstones (particularly intriguing in the case of the emerald’s hexagonal crystalline structure and varying chemical compositions) and the vivacious character of this heart-wrenchingly beautiful, flawed heroine of a gem – with a backstory of lust and intrigue and just the right balance of magnificence and modernity – and it’s little wonder that the emerald is in the haute‑joaillerie spotlight.
Sun-kissed golden rays illuminating a heart of green are the hallmark of prized emeralds from the legendary Muzo mine in Colombia. Sacred to Aztecs and Incas, these wondrous New World emeralds, after catching the eye of the conquistadors, were loaded onto the galleons of the treasure fleet and sent back to the Spanish court. From there they made their way, via Portuguese traders, to the treasuries of the Mughal emperors. There was a period of disuse, considerable local unrest and lack of investment in the 1980s, but the mine is now in the hands of a consortium of Houston-based private-equity investors – and has been totally transformed, says Charles Burgess, director of Minería Texas Colombia (the mining arm of the business). From a primitive “Victorian tin-mine operation”, it has, he says, become a modern, mechanised, state-of-the‑art facility as well as a mine-to-market business focused on transparency, sustainability, full traceability throughout the chain of supply, and social responsibility – improving the lives of the mining community and benefiting the Colombian emerald trade. After mining under licence since 2009 and taking over 100 per cent ownership in 2014, the Muzo Companies have invested more than $100m. Promoted by the Geneva-based marketing arm of the business, the first Muzo-branded stones, cut and polished in Muzo’s own atelier in Bogotá, appeared on the market this year, some set into contemporary creations by international designers including Solange Azagury-Partridge, Selim Mouzannar and Antoine Sandoz.
Los Angeles-based jeweller and gem dealer Robert Procop, who buys directly from mines around the world, is deeply impressed with the modernisation of Muzo and the benefits for the local communities. He sees too that the new supplies are fuelling both the interest in emeralds and more fashionable, innovative designs. “This is the decade of coloured stones, especially emeralds, through increased certification and identification of origin, colour and clarity and full disclosure of any enhancement. Clients are more informed and more intrigued.” Procop has sold more emeralds in the past two to three years than in his previous 35 years in business put together, and seen a significant increase in prices of around 30 per cent a year for fine stones, although the finest material is scarce these days. This is why, he says, his jewels and the collection he creates with Angelina Jolie – to benefit her charitable foundation – maintain a simple modern classic style.
Gemfields, the mining company that put Zambian emeralds on the map, now also has its sights set on Colombia. Since acquiring its Kagem mine in Zambia in 2008, Gemfields has delivered a consistent supply of distinctive blue-hued emeralds, promoted through a pioneering marketing strategy aimed at designers, retailers and clients. Most recently, Gemfields collaborated with Chopard on a Green Carpet collection – an initiative started by Livia Firth to promote sustainability and ethics in the luxury world and launched at the Cannes Film Festival.
Zambian stones now account for 30 per cent of the world’s emeralds. Their deep, intense bluish tone comes from the iron in the mineral, which also gives the gems a stable crystal structure and exceptional clarity with fewer inclusions, making them easier to cut and set. Gemfields CEO Ian Harbottle has seen a steady rise in demand, which has gathered pace in the past two to three years. “In the past seven years, there has been a 16-fold increase in prices for rough emeralds. We mine 25m-30m carats a year and we plan to increase that to 40m-45m carats over the next two to three years, although the conversion rate from rough into polished stones is just eight per cent.”
Like Renaissance treasure, the new stream of diverse and versatile emeralds is inspiring imaginative design, artistry and craftsmanship. Sameer Lilani, head of UK and Europe at Indian jeweller Amrapali, says, “The emerald has more personality than any other stone. It’s partly the inclusions, which give the stones ‘soul’, which in turn gives jewellers greater scope for creativity.” Amrapali plays with traditional Mughal-style emeralds (price on request); they are carved in Jaipur, as they have been for centuries, and the jeweller contrasts them with contemporary details – diamond briolettes or cognac and yellow diamonds.
Geneva-based jeweller Boghossían is a family of sixth-generation gem merchants under the creative direction of Edmond Chin, a Hong Kong design powerhouse who loves fabulously precious gems as much as he loves uninhibited artistry and ingenious craftsmanship. It mostly uses Colombian emeralds, and CEO Albert Boghossían explains that its philosophy is to present rare gems in thrilling scenarios. “We stay away from classical interpretations. Our clients already have classic jewels. They want to be astonished.” At the front of striking hoop earrings, streaks of emeralds “kiss” diamonds, both set using Boghossían’s signature stone-on-stone technique; on a pair of drop earrings, emeralds are carved into Mughal-inspired tulips; and a ring embeds a 15.02ct cushion-cut emerald with a central diamond, the intensity of colour and brilliance meeting in strong, seamless contrast (all prices on request). The theme of eastern silken sensuality is made possible, explains Boghossían, by “both artistry and the structural complexity of the jewels”.
Known for his love of colour and use of unexpected, un-jewel-like materials (such as ceramic, rubber or steel), French-born, New York-based designer-jeweller James de Givenchy has a penchant for antique emeralds, including carved plaques and beads, which he revamps in his contemporary style of French couture sensibility mixed with graphic American modernism. In pieces (ear pendants, price on request) for his brand Taffin he likes to play with hues and tones – green on green, or emerald with copper or verdigris. “Emeralds are also wonderful for creating strong contrasts – with white, vibrant reds or black.” A carved heart-shaped emerald is pinned by seed pearls onto a square slab of bright Chartreuse ceramic. The rigid blackened steel lines of his “match-stick” earrings swell into luscious pavé-emerald drops, the sleek industrial toughness of the metal contrasting with the romantic softness of the emerald. “You fall in love with emeralds, but I want to make jewels that people like to wear as well as treasure, and the variety within the emerald field today offers great possibilities for wearable, fun cocktail jewellery.”
In Russia, where emeralds have always been a passion, Alexander Tenzo, the quiet but determined gem hunter-turned-jeweller and renovator of traditional Russian craft skills such as stone carving, has a very profound and purist taste in emeralds. “For me, they should be completely natural, almost clean, with a pure, distinct emerald warmth – no blue or yellow tints. The colour can be light or dark, but it should catch your eye and capture your heart.” For one of his brand Tenzo’s most spectacular creations, he selected from his treasure trove of rare gems a 19.89ct Russian emerald from the fabled Ural mines, a source now virtually depleted. A cabochon with a faceted underside and bright, clear and full of life, it was found some 50 years ago and has been in his collection for about three years. He used to take it out and look at it, wondering how to use it, and then on an impulse he took it to one of his artisans and its fate was decided. The stone is carved in a fluid, organic style, cocooned in smaller Ural emeralds and overgrown with diamond tendrils that make it into a ring ($290,000). Tenzo enthuses, “It looks as if it is still growing, part of nature. It is a colour you can never forget, with all the spirit of the emerald.”
All this year’s major high-jewellery collections showcase superb emeralds. Van Cleef & Arpels has dedicated one of its two high-jewellery collections, Emeraude en Majesté (price on request), to the gemstone of Mughals, maharajahs and movie stars. President, CEO and creative director Nicolas Bos explains, “Usually a high-jewellery collection brings together the two main elements: gemstone selection and design theme or narrative. This year, we decided to separate them, to revisit our long tradition of coloured gemstone expertise by focusing on the emerald.”
Emeraude en Majesté strips back the usual elaborate storytelling to highlight emeralds of different varieties – Colombian and Zambian – and all cuts and shapes. These include the classic emerald cut, as in the Canopée ring fanned with diamond palm fronds; fluted, seen in the old-mine Colombian beads hanging from the Grand Opus necklace; smooth beads, on the Drapé Majestueux necklace; cushion cut, on the Serrania necklace; baguettes and pear shapes, on the Lune d’Eau between-the-finger ring; and carved into flowers, on the Bouquet d’Emeraudes clip.
Bos explains that Van Cleef had a good selection of emeralds, gathered over many years, to form the core of the collection. “There is great diversity in emeralds. Some crystals are more metallic, more masculine, suggesting an art deco style. Others, with more ‘jardins’ [inclusions], are lighter and more feminine. We matched the quality and character of the stones to the designs. It has been interesting to focus on this one stone.”
At Bulgari, where colour is lifeblood, emeralds are the focus of stunning necklaces (prices on request). Medallion-like pendants recall 1960s sautoirs and Elizabeth Taylor’s fabulous emeralds bought for her by Richard Burton – a nod too to her role as Cleopatra and ancient Egyptian emerald mines. The Metamorphosis suite in Louis Vuitton’s Acte V collection (prices on request) shines with rare Panjshir emeralds from Afghanistan. Giampiero Bodino’s Zambian emeralds in his Primavera and Tesori del Mare collections reference the sea and springtime, or, mixed with amethysts and black spinels in the Rosa dei Venti choker and ring (prices on request), contribute to a Renaissance-inspired cruciform.
Cartier’s close links to the maharajahs’ vast emerald treasuries play out in the Apparition suite of the Magicien high-jewellery collection, featuring a necklace (€1.8m) composed of 66.83ct of emerald beads centred on a cushion-shaped Colombian emerald of 14.71ct, which radiates graphic waves of diamonds streaked with black onyx – an echo of one of Cartier’s signature colour schemes from the 1930s. At Dior, Victoire de Castellane draws on the emerald’s regal classicism for her dreamy Dior à Versailles collection, which contrasts crisp cuts such as octagons, kite shapes and those set on the slant with intricate rococo decorative details.
Tellingly, even Chanel veers from its usual restrained colour palette to introduce a suite of sumptuous Colombian emeralds into its wheat-themed collection Les Blés de Chanel. Inspired by one of Mademoiselle’s favourite lucky charms, the collection follows the life cycle of wheat. In the Epi d’Eté series, which captures the radiance of golden wheat burnished by late-summer sunshine, three pear-shaped Muzo emeralds, cut from the same rough, are set into a necklace and two rings (prices on request), depicting the energy of roots deep within the earth.
Indeed, so great is the lure of the emerald that dedicated diamond houses are also punctuating their jewellery with pools of emerald – such as Graff’s Peacock earrings and Nirav Modi’s majestic multistranded necklace of colossal Brazilian beads (price on request), which channels maharajah splendour. So, 2016, it would seem, really is the year of the emerald.