Written by Tom | 29th November 2019 | Updated 26th April 2022
Emeralds have a long-standing association with women throughout history. These luscious, green gems–considered to be 20 times rarer than diamonds–were the birthstone of the Roman goddess Venus and Ancient Egypt’s leading lady Cleopatra’s favourite jewel. For centuries, these glittering, green rocks have seduced and endured. With the help of gemstones expert, Naomi Howard, we went to find out about the history of emeralds and how they have a few women to thank for their appeal.
Perhaps the most fervent advocate of emeralds, Cleopatra adored these jewels. But her love for them was already tied up with the beliefs and time of Ancient Egypt. “The first known emerald mines were found in Egypt as early as 330 B.C.E. (long before Cleopatra’s reign)” says Naomi. “This contributed to the country’s long standing attraction to emeralds. In fact, Cleopatra herself was so obsessed with emeralds, that it is believed that she claimed ownership of some of the mines that belonged to the Greek as her own because she wanted the jewels for herself.”
Though Ancient Egypt was the home of emeralds, this wasn’t the only thing that gave the stones their broad appeal. “Their rich green colour represented rebirth, fertility, power and most importantly, eternal youth,” explains Naomi. Emeralds were used in burial rituals as a reminder of youth, while they were also believed to have the ability to treat eye diseases, possibly linked to their alleged property of clairvoyance. And Cleopatra helped bestow upon these jewels not just a confirmation of their more magical properties, but an enduring regality that has survived for centuries. “It is said that Cleopatra even had the habit of presenting visiting dignitaries with a particular gift – a large representation of herself, carved entirely out of emeralds,” says Naomi.
Elizabeth Taylor once famously said: “I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can't possess radiance, you can only admire it.” In fact, Taylor was so enraptured with jewellery that her name has become almost synonymous with emeralds. By the time of her death, she was widely known for having one of the world’s most expensive private jewellery collections in the world and one of her most prized pieces was the emerald-studded diamond necklace. The piece contained 16 step-cut, octagonal Columbian emeralds, all encased in pear-shaped diamonds.
In almost fateful fashion, the emerald necklace was rumoured to have been an engagement gift to Taylor by her then fiancé Richard Burton, after they met on the set of Cleopatra. Whether or not Cleopatra’s spirit and love was passed on to Taylor when she played the role of the Egyptian queen remains a mystery, Taylor’s love for emeralds was equally incomparable, leading her to amass an entire suite of Bulgari emerald pieces. Taylor embodied the beauty she saw in emeralds and while these eventually sold for auction (the necklace for millions), for Taylor it was never about something as trivial as money. “I've never thought of my jewellery as trophies. I'm here to take care of it and to love it, for we are only temporary custodians of beauty.”
Taylor had a whole suite of emerald jewellery – complete with a ring, pendant and brooch
If Cleopatra gave emeralds in Ancient Egypt their royal associations, then Princess Diana helped cement this for the 20th century. While known for her sapphire wear, one of Diana’s most well-known pieces was an Art Deco emerald choker. First worn by Queen Mary in the early 1900s, it was gifted to Diana by Queen Elizabeth II. A piece she wore for many royal occasions, she adapted the choker as a headband, another reflection of the way she used fashion to help bring the royals and tradition into the modern day. The choker’s most poignant appearance was perhaps on her 36th birthday, when she wore it for one last time as a necklace, before her death two months later.
Diana was a symbol of grace and compassion and another figure who helped confirm emeralds’ place among the world’s most famous female faces. While Cleopatra’s emeralds represented power and Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty, Diana’s emeralds were another accessory for her to showcase her streak of individuality and difference.