Emeralds: The journey of a gem

We examine the undeniable allure of the emerald and trace the journey of the iconic Romanov necklace from mine to masterpiece.

An emerald in the rough. Courtesy: Gemfields
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Our story begins some 500 million years ago, deep beneath the surface of the Earth, in what is now central Zambia.

In an incomprehensibly rare occurrence, two very different types of rock come into contact – a 500-million-year-old white pegmatite nudges up against a 1.6-million-year-old high-grade metamorphic talc-magnetite schist. And in the pitch-black “reaction zone” between the two, one of the most striking substances known to man begins to mineralise. Emeralds are born.

These vibrant green gemstones are exceedingly rare – fine emeralds are said to be around 20 times scarcer than fine diamonds, and boast an equally distinguished history. First records of the gemstone date back 4,000 years, to Egypt; Cleopatra had a habit of presenting visiting dignitaries with emeralds carved in her likeness as a symbol of her eminence. The stone has had high-profile admirers ever since, from the Aztecs, who considered it holy, to Indian maharajas and Turkish sultans, who filled their treasure chests with these illustrious gems (as the richly adorned daggers, writing instruments and jewellery in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace will attest to).

Admittedly, recent history has seen the popularity of coloured stones wane. The folks at Gemfields, the world’s largest producer of coloured gemstones and now owner of the House of Fabergé, will be the first to admit that clear stones have dominated the market in recent decades, with white diamonds leading the way. But they will also point to the runways of Paris and Milan, to red carpets and even to the ring finger of the Duchess of Cambridge – not to mention Gemfields’ own healthy revenues – as proof that there’s a coloured-stone revolution underway.

“Most of the most famous historic jewellery collections, such as the crown jewels, provide a clear indication as to the importance that coloured gems have played throughout history. However, the trend over the past 50 years or so has been towards more conservative tastes when it comes to personal jewellery purchases, with much of this change being driven by post-war conservatism and the extensive marketing initiatives of some organisations,” says the CEO of Gemfields, Ian Harebottle.

“I believe that we have entered a new era, in which colour is going to play an increasing part in our lives, and our jewellery and luxury purchases. Which, as you may have guessed, is rather pleasing from a Gemfields perspective.”

The mine

To get to Gemfields’ Kagem Emerald Mine, one must travel deep into the woodlands of central Zambia, to the surrounds of the Kafubu River. Extending across an area of around 43 square kilometres, this is the world’s largest working emerald mine and home to one of the richest emerald seams ever discovered – although one tonne of solid rock still has to be removed for every single gram of emerald extracted. The terrain is remote and inhospitable, and despite significant advances in mining methods, the final stages of the process are still carried out by hand.

The stones unearthed here are known for their deep green hue, darker than that of the more plentiful Colombian emerald, and often tinged with a fine, slightly bluish undertone. Zambia is the second largest producer of emeralds in the world and around 25 per cent of the world’s rough emeralds originate from the Kagem mine, which is owned and operated by the UK-based Gemfields, in partnership with the Zambian government.

The company prides itself on its ethical approach to mining. But the term “ethical” is oft abused – and subject to myriad interpretations. So what, exactly, is the Gemfields definition?

“For Gemfields, the cornerstones of responsible and ethical behaviour are honesty, integrity, transparency, and the commitment to constantly trying to do our best while recognising that this is a constantly evolving process,” says Harebottle.

It starts with a basic, seemingly obvious premise. You cannot just take from the land – you have to give back, too. Kagem is home to the world’s first underground mine shaft, which reduces the amount of earth removed per carat and the amount of energy expended in the process; harmful chemicals have been eliminated from the process; and through a partnership with the World Land Trust, the biodiversity of the surrounding landscape is being maintained.

There’s the old adage: Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life, but in Kagem, this is more than a convenient turn of phrase. Where, in the past, old mine pits used to be abandoned, leaving visual scars of the ravages being wrought on the landscape, today many of those holes are being filled with water and fish, introducing life and sustenance where otherwise there would be only damage and devastation.

And just as the land is protected, so, too, are the people. From a fair and competitive wage to a safe and secure working environment, Gemfields is ever mindful of its responsibilities. This extends beyond the security officer, Ollen “Animal” Munyama, the geological handyman, John Chanda, or the sorter, Fidelis Moyo – whose artful portraits are so proudly displayed on the company’s website – to include the entire community.

Gemfields supports several primary schools and local clinics, and has set up two farming cooperatives in the surrounding Lufwanyama district, which provide agricultural training and education.

“Over the next two years, the company will also fund a US$1-million [Dh3.67m] upgrade of the local clinic into a hospital, construct a new secondary school and provide sports equipment to the existing primary schools,” Harebottle explains.

“The needs of the communities in which we operate are large, too large in fact for even the government to be able to address them all, but our aim is to focus on projects that make a meaningful and lasting difference within our communities.”

This is viewed not only as good ethics but also as good business. And in an era when even your average consumer is familiar with terms such as “conflict diamonds”, it may well be the only way to do business.

To market

In the Kagem sorting house, mounds of rough emeralds sit on stark white benches. Once they have been wrenched from the belly of the Earth, these emeralds must be washed, sorted and graded. They are examined, divided and categorised, based on size, quality and suitability for specific cutting requirements.

Zambian emeralds generally contain fewer inclusions than their Colombian counterparts, but a “clean” emerald is almost impossible to find. Imperfections – affectionately known as jardins, the French word for garden – are commonplace and readily visible to the naked eye. To many, these telltale signs of each emerald’s individual journey are merely a part of its uniqueness and, ultimately, its beauty.

Then, it’s off to auction. A 2013 ruling by the Zambian government dictates that all emeralds mined in the country must be auctioned at home, so Gemfields’ sales of natural emerald rough are now generally conducted in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. The world’s top gem houses and emerald lapidaries are invited to spend up to five days viewing and selecting the stones, before placing sealed bids.

It’s big business. In an emerald auction held in February, Gemfields reported record revenues of $36.5m (over Dh134m), with the average price per carat hitting a high of $59.31 (Dh217.85), up from $54 (Dh198.34) in July last year.

The masterpiece

It took Katharina Flohr, the creative director of Fabergé, one year to source the 79 emeralds that were needed for the iconic Romanov necklace. She was looking for exceptional quality stones that were perfectly matched in both colour and character, and that could be cut to the very precise specifications required. The stones all came from Gemfields’ Kagem mine, and were hand-picked at auction by Flohr, stone by stone, over a period of 12 months.

Inspired by an archival gouache design dating back to 1885, the Romanov necklace acts as a dramatic reminder of Fabergé’s long and illustrious history, and harks back to the bejewelled extravagance of the Russian tsars and tsarinas, including the larger-than-life Catherine the Great and the Grand Duchess Vladimirovna (sister-in-law to Tsar Alexander III and aunt to Nicholas II), who was known to have a particular penchant for emeralds.

It took Fabergé’s in-house team two months to design the updated Romanov necklace and then a further 14 months for artisans, goldsmiths and gem-setters to craft it.

Designed to extend across the shoulder and neckline, the openwork trellis is set with 2,225 gemstones, totalling 363.48 carats, including 1,991 round white diamonds and 151 rose cut diamonds.

“Few names in the history of jewellery-making have about them such an aura of romance and genius as that of Fabergé,” Harebottle points out. And in the Romanov necklace, there is a bold statement of intent, in terms of plans to restore the brand to its former glory, while championing the cause of coloured stones.

In the first century AD, the famed natural historian Pliny the Elder wrote of the emerald: “No stone has a colour that is more delightful to the eye, there being no green in existence more intense than this.”

And in 2014, thanks in part to the toils of those working deep underground in central Zambia, it appears that more and more people would agree.