Some evidence and tales tell us about the exploitation of Emeralds thousands of years ago, their use in religious rituals and as a token of hierarchy by the natives of the territories that today constitute the mining regions of Colombia, but the most supported historical remains of over-exploitation of Emeralds lead us to Upper Egypt -B.C – to the Sikair-Zubara mines, near the port city of Berenice (Medinet-el Haras). The mines were known as ”Mons Smaragdus” (Emerald mountains).
It is believed that the exploitation of these mines dated back to 1800 B.C. but its production was already in danger of exhaustion by the time of Cleopatra, who had a soft spot for Emeralds. This queen encouraged the exploitation of these sites that eventually were called “The Mines of Cleopatra”. After the death of Marc Antony and later Cleopatra in the year 30 B.C., the exploitation of these mines was abandoned, which were later rediscovered in 1816 by the French mineralogist, Frederic Cailiaud, along with the site of Gebel Zubara, and later in 1818, the Wadi Gimal and Wadi Sikait mines.
They have been used in religious rituals and as a pledge of hierarchy by the natives of the territories that today constitute the mining regions of Colombia.
In ancient times, they were often confused with several types of green gems that would also then be called Emeralds. Pliny the Elder who lived in the first century of our time and can perhaps be considered as the first gemologist of mankind wrote in Chapter XVI of her book:
“The best Emeralds were coming from Tartary (Northern & Central Asia), named as Scithya as to their place of origin. Then Emeralds called Bactriana were deemed, found in the crevices of rocks and reportedly collected in the days when the Etesian winds roared, because they shone when rising between the sands that wrapped them around the site”.
In this paragraph of Pliny, the Spanish Gemological Institute in the journal “Gems and other precious materials” in its 1968 edition dedicated to the Emerald, argues that it is possible that in ancient times the name of Scithya was given to the Indian green sapphires and that the Bactrianas, were in fact, the real Emeralds of the Urals.
History of the Colombian Emerald and the discovery of America
The history of the Colombian Emerald with the discovery of America in 1492 gives a historical break on the presence of the Emerald in the world. When in the sixteenth century the Spanish expedition reached Peru and they found the Incas wearing their gold ornaments and large Emeralds of very good quality, this drew the attention of the Spaniards who subjected the Incas to severe punishments and tortured them into revealing the location of the Emerald mines. The Incas were unable to indicate the location since in their territories there were no deposits and the Emeralds were obtained by trade with the tribes that inhabited the Colombian territory at that time. In 1537 Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada got the first real indication of the source of the Emeralds when he reached the Colombian village of Guachetá.
Lenguazaque, Cucunubá Suesca Nemocón, Zipaquirá and Tausa, are the Colombian villages where they found large amounts of gold and Emeralds. Jimenez de Quesada and his men coordinated explorations from the Savanna of Bogota, in search of the mines of Muzo. The Muzos knew them due to the campaign of Luis Boatmen in the year 1539, who was the first conqueror who came to subdue them. Diego Martinez was the second that failed in the year 1544. Melchor de Valdez was the third failure in 1550. Subsequently, Pedro de Ursua, a skillful and brave man, wanted to use persecution for submission, but his plans failed again in 1551. Finally, in the year 1559, Luis Lancheros, with the help of Juan de Ribera defeated and virtually exterminated the Muzos natives.
The Muzos, a warrior tribe of people, fought for 20 years against the military superiority of the Spaniards and did not reveal the location of the mines, even if it meant their extermination. The deposits were found by chance by the Spaniards, who attempted to establish the first mining work in 1558 without success because of the constant attacks of the Indians. Nearly in 1600, the Spaniards were able to discover the sites of the current mines of Muzo and achieved a major production for 15 years. This production nevertheless failed, partly because of harsh working conditions, and by the mid-seventeenth century, the Spanish Crown reorganized the industry under the leadership of the Royal Treasury, without obtaining major results due to the increase in mortality during working development, civil servants’ dishonesty and decreased production. This inefficient mining exploitation continued until the XVIII century, when the works were carried out intermittently.
The exploitation of the Colombian Emerald in the independence period
The XIX century was significant in the history of Colombia and changed the course of the exploitation of the Emeralds that was being taken over by the liberating army and the new government. On July 20, 1810, the First Independence Uprisings burst that ended nine years later, with the Battle of Boyaca, on August 7, 1819. From there, times of extreme change and conflict were experienced because of the building of the new homeland. Colombian Emeralds also lived their own history and their mines were unexploited until 1824, when the Ministry of Finance, with a share of 10% of the Colombian government, granted the exploitation of the mines of Muzo to Charles Stuart, Mariano Rivera, and Jose Paris, General of the Republic and a fellow soldier of Bolivar, in the war of independence. In 1828 José Paris obtained the exploitation of the mines and an agreement of government ownership of 5%, and this agreement was extended until 1848. The mineral Parisite-(Ce), owes its name to Mr. Paris when its discovery was reported in the mines under his exploitation in the 40’s. In 1849 the government reached an agreement with Francisco Martin and Patrick Wilson for the exploitation of the mines for 8 years, later extended to 12, with a lease of 14.200 pesos, plus a 5% of profits. The civil war frightened investors interested in exploiting the mines of Muzo and Coscuez, leaving the sites without proper administration from 1861 to 1864. Frenchman Gustavo Lehmann, took over of the exploitation of the mines from 1865 until 1875 in exchange for 14.700 pesos per year.
In the year 1886 the Constitution was written, in which reservation and ownership of the Emerald mines to the Colombian state were included.
The national government released the law Nº 31 in 1870, in which the state claimed as their property any deposit that was discovered from that date on, along with the properties that include them, with the exception of the mines from Muzo that had an existing contract until 1875. Bill 31 created the special reserve of Muzo in the Colombian region of Boyacá which comprised deposits in Muzo, Peñas Blancas, and Coscuez.
Colombians Juan Sordo and Antonio Samper alternated in the exploitation of the mines in exchange for 20.606 pesos annually from 1875 to 1886, when the handling of them returned to the national government in 1886.