There he was, standing in his undershorts and shirt, in a small private office in the Miami airport that seemed, under the circumstances, as big and public as Grand Central Station. The gem dealer, an emerald specialist, had just returned from a routine buying trip to Colombia, the world’s leading producer of the most famous of green gems.
But emerald isn’t what the six customs agents were looking for in the linings of his luggage and clothes. They were looking for Colombia’s #1 cash crop, cocaine. After a fruitless 90-minute search, the agents told the dealer to get dressed and go home.
The drug war hasn’t made things easy for emerald dealers in search of the ultimate green: emerald from the legendary mines of Colombia: Muzo, Chivor, and Cosquez. The emerald’s reputation as portable wealth and the level of violence that mar the beautiful mountains of Colombia’s countryside have made the trade in emeralds a dangerous game that many are not willing to play.
And some of those who do play are not, properly speaking, interested primarily in the gem business, when there is so much money to be obtained in other businesses. The life expectancy of a Colombian emerald baron is, after all, is almost as short as that of a drug lord and the pay can’t compare.
So why do emerald dealers from Tokyo and New York brave the dangerous streets of Bogota? Because nothing is quite as green as the emerald of Colombia. That green makes Colombian emerald the best in the world. In emerald, it’s the color of money.
Certainly, those looking for emerald have other options. Zambia’s emeralds are admired for their deep bluish-green tones and the best clarity, on average, of the emerald world. Brazil produces light, bright, large stones. But put fine emerald from each of these sources in a row and dealers will choose the Colombian stone as the best, every time. The reason? Its green has the same glow-in-the-dark intensity as the red in a fine Burmese ruby. And the same coloring agent gives each its traffic light tones: chromium. Next to a fine Colombian emerald, the Zambian version has black notes in its color that mute the overall impression of the green, no doubt due to the fact that its color is due to vanadium, not chromium. And the Brazilian version lacks the same intense saturation, even though its hue is more similar to Colombian than that of African emerald.
But just because fine Colombian emerald is considered the best does not mean that it reigns supreme in the middle and lower end of the market in America. Because more inexpensive qualities of Colombian stones tend to have lower clarity than emerald from other sources, manufacturers are likely to look to other emeralds for the best looking affordable emerald jewelry.
The other reason is that emeralds from other sources are more likely to be cut in the standardized sizes that make manufacturing jewelry possible. Most emerald that is mined in Colombia is also cut there and cutters are more known for maximizing the weight and color of the stone than fitting into standard shapes and sizes. The most common emerald shape, the rectangular cut-corner step cut known as the emerald cut, is seen in a wide variety of length to width ratios: skinny to fat. The uniqueness that might inspire the gem collector frustrates the manufacturer who wants to make 100 of a standard ring with cookie-cutter precision. As a result, Colombian emerald has become a connoisseur gem most often found in high-end, one of a kind jewelry.
The government would like instead to make Colombian emerald as common a luxury as Colombian coffee. In 1997, they organized a World Emerald Congress in Bogota to try to convince buyers to come to Colombia to buy and trade emerald to encourage legal exports. The armed guards at the conference and the arrest a few months later of the most important mine owner for vigilanteeism for funding his own army to battle rebels and protect his interests probably didn’t convince the attendees from around the world that regular visits were a good idea.
Perhaps it’s just as well. The government estimates that the existing mines, which have been producing for centuries, have only a decade left of production. No doubt other emerald deposits worthy of the country’s emerald reputation exist but finding them is difficult in the current climate of instability.
In the meantime, Colombian emerald may become as treasured for its rarity as for its beauty.