The emerald mines of Las Pavas, Colombia
Colombia is world renowned for the quality of its fine emeralds. What is not so well know is the fact there are subtle differences between the colours and characteristics of Colombian stones originating from different mining areas within the country. An example of one of the lesser known but highly productive mines is that of Las Pavas, sometimes referred to as La Pava. La Pavas is to be found approximately 120 miles to the northwest of the capital city of Bogotá in the western emerald production area of Muzo. Colombia contains the largest emerald reserves on earth but much of the production is located in the foothills of the Colombian Andes range, making exploitation physically difficult. In addition to the Muzo region, significant emerald production also takes place in Coscuez, La Pita and Chivor. Exact production figures are hard to obtain, as much of the activity is small scale and goes unrecorded, although it is estimated there are at least 157 separate mining sites in the Boyacá region. The total land area of the emerald mining operations in Colombia is thought to cover nearly 100,000 hectares, just 9,000 hectares of which currently contain licensed mining plots. Up until the 1960s Colombia enjoyed a monopoly of emerald production in South America, however since the early 1970s Brazil has begun to produce significant (if lower quality) emeralds).
Geologists believe the Muzo emerald deposits to be the largest single source of economically recoverable, high quality emeralds anywhere on earth. To place this in context, in the first 3 quarters of 2016 Colombia exported over 279,000 carats of cut and polished emeralds, at a market value of over $100 million and totalling around 70% of global supply. What sets Colombian emeralds apart, aside from their quantity, is their quality – they are renowned for their transparency and depth of colour. Las Pavas is an area of unique mineralisation and very high potential reserves. The area is currently producing emeralds of a consistent quality and size. Licences to operate in this region are issued by the National Mining Agency of Colombia (ANM) and title holders are granted a 30 year exploration and exploitation agreement. This licence grants the owner permission for the exclusive right to extract minerals from the ground, to conduct exploration activities to find new deposits and to process, ship and sell the resulting finds.
Health and safety regulations have improved significantly in Colombia in recent times and the Las Pavas mines have a good safety recorded under the stewardship of their owners EMPAVA S.A.S. Everyone on the site, including the workforce and any visitors, must wear high visibility jackets, hard hats and steel-toed rubber boots. Everyone entering the mine collects a pass which they must return as they leave, ensuring there is an exact head count of those on the premises at all times. The mining region of Colombia has been dogged with a bad reputation for violence and exploitation, which is now largely undeserved. After a long and bloody struggle with Farc guerrillas, the Colombian authorities have finally brought a degree of good order to the rural parts of the country. Furthermore the death of Victor Carranza, famed as the ‘Emerald Tsar,’ has resulted in a measure of calm and reconciliation which has seen the entry of a number of large international companies into the fray. These most notably include Gemfields and Muzo International. Keen to attract much needed foreign investment, the Colombian government have financed and co-ordinated infrastructure improvements, including the construction of new roads, aqueducts, sewerage and telecommunications networks. In parallel the military and security forces have implemented a programme to police the region and deter or detect criminal activity or subversion.
(Gachalá Emerald is one of the biggest stones ever donated to a museum)
One of the most famous emeralds to originate from this region is, in an unlikely British connection to the region, known as the Devonshire. At 1,383.93 carats it is one of the largest uncut emeralds in the world. It is believed to have been either sold or gifted by Emperor Pedro I of Brazil to William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, in 1831. It came to fame as a central exhibit of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 but has more recently found a home at the Natural History Museum in London, where it has resided since 2007. Another very famous gemstone, the Gachalá Emerald, was discovered in this area in 1967. It is an intense green emerald of an enormous 858 carats, it is 5 centimetres in length and weighs 172 grams. It can now be found in the vast gem collection of the Smithsonian Institute, to whom it was donated in 1969 by the great (and highly philanthropic) New York jeweller, Harry Winston. It owes its name to the municipality of Gachalá, where it was discovered.
(Hooker Emerald Brooch on display at the Smithsonian)
The Hooker Emerald Brooch also originates from the Muzo region and it too has found its way into the Smithsonian’s collection. It consists of an open ended circular band of platinum connected by a round brilliant cut diamond and it is studded with 108 other round brilliant diamonds. The centre emerald itself is 75.47 carats and 2.7 cm in diameter. It is believed to have been extracted from the Muzo region in the 16th or 17th century by the conquistadors, who exported it to the ruling family of the Ottoman Empire, where it ended up in their crown jewels. In 1911 the Turkish royal dynasty decided to auction the piece, in order to clear some debts, and it was purchased by Tiffany & Co, who initially set the emerald in a tiara. Due to this remaining unsold for many years, Tiffany re-set it into a brooch and advertised it with matching earrings and it was eventually purchased by Janet Annenberg Hooker, an heiress and philanthropist of considerable fortune. Hooker decided to donate the piece to the Smithsonian, along with a sizeable donation of over $5 million, in 1977.