Zambia’s place on the Emerald timeline
In 2008, commercial Emerald mining began in Zambia. This most beloved of green gemstones has been held in special regard for centuries, but for the last 400 years, Emeralds from Colombia had been heralded as the finest source in the world. With such tough competition, how could this new Zambian source possibly hope to compete?
A rich history
For millennia, Emeralds have been prized for their colour. They are unquestionably the archetypal green gemstone in most cultures and have held this privileged status across centuries of human history. In cultures as diverse as Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Mayans of Mesoamerica and the Mughals of India, Emeralds were prized above all other stones.
Generation after generation learned to love Emerald’s natural inclusions, calling them its jardin, turning these unique characteristics into a marketing point.
Later, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), classified Emerald as a ‘Type 3’ gemstone, literally defining it as a gemstone in which inclusions ‘should be expected’. And so, with a near-perfect correlation, as mankind’s capacity to analyse an Emerald’s inclusions developed, so too did man’s capacity to forgive and embrace these inclusions.
For over four centuries (ever since the Incans showed the conquistadors of Charles I the mountain of Emerald that would become the Muzo mine), Colombia had been unchallenged as the finest source of Emerald in the world. Discoveries from as far afield as Brazil, the Ural Mountains of Siberia, as well as the now-exhausted Botli deposit in South Africa, all failed to challenge Colombian Emerald’s supremacy.
Whilst the most experienced lapidarists will always judge material by its quality, this is not always true of the buying public. The myth was born that Colombian Emeralds of all qualities were inherently valuable due to their provenance. In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, this myth resulted in the gemstone industry actually valuing Colombian Emeralds as worth more than comparable stones from other locations. The phenomenon of provenance-based valuations was born, and it didn’t take long for gem dealers to apply this model to other gemstones (e.g. Burmese Ruby, Ceylon Sapphire and Cooper Pedy Opal).
Clearly, Zambian Emerald wouldn’t just have to match Colombian in quality to compete, it would have to surpass it and consistently so.
A worthy adversary
Picasso once said that ‘every act of creation is first an act of destruction’.
In order to create a gap in luxury gem leagues, Zambian Emeralds would first have to break this Colombian Emerald myth. Overturning a myth that has persisted for over 400 years and into modern times (and even endorsed by established gemmological schools!), is no small feat. In order to do this, Zambian Emerald couldn’t simply match Colombian Emerald. It was not enough that the famed ‘blue-green’ hue (the definition created by the GIA) of Colombian Emerald could be seen in the iron-rich Zambian material.
Even if the Zambian material were consistently more saturated in this hue, this would not be enough for the deposit to overturn the market’s established rules of valuing Emeralds. To achieve this, any Emerald deposit would have to defy the expectations of the market. They would have to do the seemingly impossible and produce Emeralds of unrivalled beauty.
Read part 2 here or shop Zambian Emerald here.