She has been worn by queens since the Egyptian days. Cleopatra wore emeralds mined from her own mines and considered them among her finest jewels. It's said that the Emperor Nero soothed his eyes during gladiatorial games held on the bright sands of the Roman arena wearing what may be the world's first sunglasses - spectacles made of emeralds. In fact, the ancient writer Pliny states without question that the emerald has the power to relieve and restore tired eyes because of its soothing green color. The rich green of emerald makes it a fitting birthstone for the month of May, when the world grows green again after a long winter.
The sacred stone of Venus, the goddess of love, the emerald represents love in all its facets. The ancient Greeks wore green in Aphrodite's honor, and it was a mark of piety and devotion to Love to wear emeralds on her sacred day, Friday. Hermes, her consort, is said to have inscribed the Words of Creation, the most powerful words in the world, on a tablet of emerald. In Sanskrit tradition, mantras are inscribed on emeralds and worn as talismans of protection and prayer, and rabbinic tradition claims that the emerald was one of the four precious stones given to Solomon. On the Ephod, the ritual breastplate worn by the High Priests of Judaism, emerald represented the House of Judah and was engraved with the name of Judah.
Aphrodite was not the only love goddess to be associated with emeralds. In Peru, the Incas worshipped the goddess Umina, who took the form of an enormous emerald the size of an ostrich egg. All smaller emeralds were said to be her daughters, and when the people sought her assistance in love, they brought emeralds to her as a gift. When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they raided the temples' stores, and the daughter's of the goddess fell into their hands - but the Emerald goddess herself has not ever been found, despite decades of efforts by conquerors like Pizarro and Cortez. Umina and her whereabouts remain a mystery to this day, but the emerald's association with love and the protection of lovers lives on.
The verdant sparkle of the emerald has captured the fancy of rulers throughout history. Charlemagne wore them in his girdle, Alexander the Great in his crown. From Persia to England, royal houses adorned their crowned leaders with the power and beauty of Green Fire - the sparkle of emeralds.
In composition, emeralds are green beryl, tinted by chromium. The incomparable flare of green fire coupled with the rarity of the stone make the emerald one of the most valued and valuable of gems. Emeralds rate at 7.5 to 8 on the Mohs hardness scale, durable but subject to chipping. Because of this tendency, jewelers developed a special cut to be used with emeralds, a rectangular cut that is known now as 'emerald cut'. The emerald cut reduces the stress on the emerald during cutting, making it easier to carve out a perfect gem.
Perfection is a relative term with emeralds, though. Few emeralds are found without inclusions and imperfections, which is why most emeralds are 'oiled', a treatment that diminishes the visibility of flaws in the stone.
While modern tradition names the emerald as the birthstone of May, there are other traditions. Astrological tables name emerald as the star stone for Taurus and Cancer, both of which share May birthdays, but also of Sagittarius, with a birthday in November/December. According to tradition, emeralds represent pure, true love - and change color when the loved one is unfaithful. A soother of hearts, granter of visions, healer of body and soul and harbinger of love, the emerald is truly the Queen of Gems.
Known since ancient times and a favorite of Cleopatra, emeralds are still among the most popular and beautiful stones in the world. It is both the birthstone for May and the official gemstone of the 20th anniversary. The most beautiful emeralds today are mined in Colombia and other parts of South America.
The emerald is actually a green beryl that gets its color from impurities in the stone. This has led to some controversy on exactly what constitutes a 'true' emerald with purists insisting that only stones with chromium in them are true emeralds.
Although emeralds rank high on the Mohs scale for hardness, they are relatively fragile stones that are subject to cracking and breaking - which is one of the reasons that jewelers developed the emerald cut. The long, shallow shape presents far fewer fracture points and shows the emerald's fire to its best advantage.
Emerald buying guide
Look for deep, medium tone green when you're looking for an emerald. Emeralds vary in color from pale yellow-green to nearly black. The most valuable are pure, transparent grass green - the color that gives Ireland its nickname of the Emerald Isles.
Few emeralds are free of inclusions or faults, and emerald pricing accounts for that fact. In addition, nearly all emeralds sold as gemstones have been oil-finished or filled with resin to give the stone a smooth surface. If you're buying an emerald, assume that it has been treated in some way unless otherwise told. Untreated emeralds of high quality will fetch a premium price.
Because emeralds are seldom found without fissures and surface cracks, it's common for them to have been oiled, waxed or filled with resin. Because of the likelihood of those treatments, special care is called for when cleaning and handling emeralds.
Avoid situations where your emerald could knock against things and be damaged. In addition, remove your emerald rings when doing dishes or immersing your hands in water as soapy solutions and hot water can damage the finish on the stone. Finally, avoid sudden temperature changes which could cause color change and cracking in your emerald.
Cleaning your emerald jewelry
Use warm water with a very mild detergent and a soft brush to clean your emerald jewelry. Between washing, clean emerald jewelry with a soft, dry cloth. Do not use an ultrasonic cleaner or steam cleaner on emerald jewelry, and avoid harsh chemicals. Every 2-5 years, have an experienced jeweler re-oil your emerald to keep it looking its best.
Storing your emerald jewelry
Store emeralds in velvet lined boxes with individual compartments or inside cotton bags in a jewelry box. Avoid storing them in the same compartments of bags as diamonds and sapphires to prevent scratches to the emeralds. Also avoid extreme temperature changes and prolonged exposure to bright light which can change the color of your emeralds.