Green Stardust and Peru, the Mystery of Emeralds

Gems. Jewels. These are words that prick the ears and cause people to lead salty lives of sea and sweat to attain them. Gems have carried fabled histories of love, violence and special powers. To emerald is attributed the special power of knowledge, a gem of profound worth that draws men and women. Perhaps there is truth to that particular mythology allowing my story a starting place.

Emerald in Its Matrix
Emerald in Its Matrix

Recently I was in the small town of Delta, Utah and chanced upon a display in a local museum. There were pictures of locally mined ores, including beryllium rich ores from which are made many ‘space age’ materials used in rockets. There were also samples of similar ores from ‘South America’. I wanted to tug on this thread that seems to bind the two places together and see where it would lead.

Checking out the basic chemistry, I found that beryllium (Be) is basic to emeralds. Beryllium is created through stellar nucleosynthesis, which is a fancy way of saying that it is made in the hearts of stars when the elements are heated and pressured so much they begin to fuse together.

Beryllium is star dust! The same ore that was producing the beryllium necessary for space flight and rockets is also the same type of ore in which emeralds are found. Although they have undergone different geologic stresses of pressure, water inclusion, and may have different trace minerals, the types ore which is mined in mountains near Delta, Utah are also responsible for producing some of the most famous Peruvian Emeralds.

Atahualpa, Last Inca, from the Brooklyn Museum
Atahualpa, Last Inca, from the Brooklyn Museum

Peruvian Emeralds? When the Spanish came to South America, they found there were abundant amounts of beautiful green gems in Peru. English merchant John Campbell, writer of the 1747 book, The Spanish Empire in America, talks of Peru by saying, “This country alone might satisfy the desires of any people, since it is both pleasant and rich, abounding with all things necessary to life, and having besides very rich mines of gold and emeralds, especially of the latter, which are of prodigious value.”

Pizarro and crew also recorded in the far reaches of the Inca Empire he encountered the “river of emeralds” His account of his voyages along the coast says, according to Prescott:

The sandalwood and many balsamic trees of unknown names scattered their sweet odours far and wide, not in an atmosphere tainted with vegetable corruption, but on the pure breezes of the ocean, bearing health as well as fragrance on their wings. Broad patches of cultivated land intervened, disclosing hillsides covered with the yellow maize and the potato, or checkered in the lower levels, with blooming cacao.

Detail of Emeralds and Gold from the Crown of the Andes
Detail of Emeralds and Gold from the Crown of the Andes

The men also noticed that the women wore gold and emeralds, which commanded their attention, not only because of their value, but because the Inca required gems be sent to him. The surmised the reason was that the area of Tawantinsuyo, the Inca Empire,  in which they found these beautiful gems had only recently come under the control of the Inca.

The draw of these green gems brings people still today to Peru. They believe “the mines from which the ancient Peruvians wrested their most beautiful and precious stones are unknown today”, and men continue to search for stardust.




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