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The growth of the African emerald

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(Emerald in quartz produced at Gemfields Kagem emerald mine in Zambia)

While the experts agree that Colombian emeralds and the finest examples, their lighter-hued African counterparts are carving out a low to mid market niche. The principle emerald producing countries are Colombia, Brazil, Afghanistan, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The African stones are not as rare as Colombian emeralds and not as dark in colour so they are more affordable. African emeralds tend to be more blue-green in appearance and are often slightly more included. One similarity they do have to Colombian stones is they are both available in a wide array of colours, tones and intensity. Due to their intense, deep green colour, Colombian emeralds have always sat at the top table of coloured gemstones and production in the famed Muzo region dates back at least 500 years to the time of the Spanish conquistadores. Interestingly gemmologists can very accurately determine the exact origin of an emerald to a particular mine of origin and this makes the emerald unique among coloured gems. They achieve this by analysing its crystalline structure and the inclusions within it, known as “gardens,” and these can be mapped to the unique geology of the region in which the stone was mined.

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(It is still impossible to match the deep green hues of the fine Colombian emerald)

As the market for emeralds has grown sharply over the past ten years, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of African emeralds appearing in fine jewellery collections. Examples of this include a Bulgari showcase in which a pair of Diva African emerald earrings were displayed alongside a Colombian emerald necklace. Gemfields, with significant emerald mining interests in Africa, have done much to promote Zambian stones in recent years. In order to aid them with this Gemfields have hired Hollywood superstar Mila Kunis, for a fee rumoured to be over $5 million US, to be their “Global Emerald Ambassador.” The brand wasted no time in arranging a photo shoot in which Kunis was adorned with a beautiful Fabergé emerald necklace in a collar style named ‘Romanov’ (in a nod to the final Russian Imperial dynasty who were Fabergé’s keenest of patrons), featuring coloured gemstones from Zambia. Whereas Colombian emerald production dates back to at least the time of the Spanish conquistadores in colonial Latin America (and in fact this was probably pre-dated by many centuries of Aztec and Inca emerald mining) African emerald production has only been underway for around half a century.

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(An emerald and gold Mogul seal dating back to sixteenth century India)

Much of the historical trade in emeralds was driven by the Mogul rulers of India in the late medieval period. Due to green being associated as the colour of Islam emeralds were revered by many Arabic races and were even thought to have mythical powers, affording the owner protection from evil spirits and medicinal qualities that cured diseases and ailments and even acted as an antidote to poison. Translated into ancient Arabic, emerald means “tear of the moon” and many Middle Eastern cultures believed their supernatural powers were heightened if they were kept close to the skin. In the post De Beers dominated gemstone world, coloured stones are mounting a comeback. There are two tangible reasons as to why African emeralds are increasing steadily in popularity. Firstly, there has been a marked increase in the price and reduction in the supply of Colombian emeralds. A good example of this has been cited by Jeremy Morris, a precious gem expert at the London based fine jeweller David Morris, who stated: “While a 10 carat gem-quality Zambian emerald could cost in the region of £200,000 to £300,000, a Colombian equivalent would be worth £1 million.” This is presenting a real opportunity for those jewellers and gem dealers that can avoid the middlemen and have access to the top of the Colombian emerald supply chain.

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(Gemfields have shaken up the emerald market the way De Beers changed the diamond industry)

Secondly, African emerald production is growing, new mines are opening and their degree of organisation is improving. This process began in earnest with Gemfields acquisition of the Kagem emerald mine in Zambia. Gemfields are aiming to operate at the high end of the ethical spectrum and they are taking a ‘mine to market’ approach, allowing for a transparent supply chain whilst maintaining environmental and social responsibilities. There is also the matter of increasingly nuanced consumer tastes, some of whom now show a preference for the lighter coloured stones over the deeper more intense Latin American emeralds and it is possible to identify a Colombian stone from an African one with the trained naked eye. Louis Vuitton have recently joined the list of high end jewellers experimenting with African emeralds. It is however abundantly clear that despite the increasing pulling power of Zambian emeralds, thanks in no small measure to the financial clout of Gemfields, Colombian emeralds remain the most sought after coloured gem.

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Zambian emeralds, like their counterparts from other regions, do have some unique qualities. These include their strength, rated as 7.5 to 8 on the Mohs scale of hardness, they are just behind corundum (ruby and sapphire) at 9 and diamond at 10. They can also be enhanced without any intrusive or long lasting treatment. This is done most easily by applying a small quantity of cedar oil to the stone, which has the effect of filling the minute cracks, or fissures, that extend to the surface of the stone. Emeralds have been given as special gifts for many centuries and in addition to being the birthstone of May, they are also associated with 20th and 35th wedding anniversaries. Gemfields purchased the Kagem mine in Zambia in 2008 and succeeded in transforming it into one of the world’s most profitable and productive mines. The mine now directly employs over 600 local workers, in addition to the many livelihoods that depend upon providing services to the mine and its workforce.