Choosing an Emerald: African or Colombian?

Angelina Jolie wearing Lorraine Schwartz Colombian emerald earrings.

Angelina Jolie wearing Lorraine Schwartz Colombian emerald earrings.

To the layman, Colombian emeralds have always been touted as being the best of the best, up there in mystique with Golconda diamonds, Burmese rubies and Kashmiri sapphires.  However, to add interest to the mix and not a little confusion, African (and especially Zambian) emeralds have carved out a considerable niche in the jewellery world.

Emeralds are 100 times rarer than diamonds.  Colombian emeralds (which still account for 50-90% of world production, depending on the year) have long been treasured for their deep, saturated green velvety colour.  Having been plundered by the Spanish in South America, some of the finest examples found their way to India via Europe.  These stones were often magnificently carved and then set into extravagant jewels and objects.

Old vs. New: 16th century watch found in the Cheapside hoard carved from a single emerald, displayed next to a Zambian emerald crystal.

However, Zambian emeralds have become more and more common in the use of jewellery, with Zambia now accounting for almost 20% of world production.  The greatest producer of these is Gemfields, whose company philosophy is to produce ethically sourced emeralds. According to their website, they have achieved over three thousand consecutive shifts free of reportable injuries since taking over the Kagem mine.

Emeralds occur in hues ranging from yellow-green to blue-green; for a stone to be considered a proper emerald, the tone must be medium to dark and green must be the primary hue.  Yellow and blue secondary hues are normal.  Emeralds derive their colour from the presence of chromium and vanadium.  African emeralds have less vanadium and more iron, which makes them bluer.  As African and Colombian emeralds come from different mineral beds, the latter tend to have less inclusions and therefore more clarity.

Bvlgari Colombian emerald and diamond necklace.

So which to buy: greener emeralds from Colombia, or bluish-green, slightly less included from Zambia?  The answer lies entirely with personal preference.  If you place two stones from different parts of the world side by side, the difference is noticeable and the buyer must go with the hue that they like best.  As long as the stone is relatively clean and has a good saturation with as little grey tone as possible, there is no other guideline.  The great jewellery houses pay less and less distinction to the source and you are likely to find both Colombian and Zambian in the collections of Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels and Bvlgari.   Regardless of origin, special attention must be paid to where the inclusion is in the stone- this can almost be done with the naked eye, as flawless emeralds are almost non-existent.  If the inclusion is near the surface and/or close to a facet, it will be a far more susceptible to breakage, and therefore only purchased with caution.

Faberge 'Devotion' ring, set with a Zambian emerald of over 7 carats.