What is Colombian emerald
The driver crosses himself before he steers into the tunnel. He makes the gesture unconsciously. Obviously, there is reason to be afraid when driving down «La Rampa», a wide, sloping tunnel in the Muzo mining area in the north of Bogotà. It's exhausting hot here underground and it's dripping from the ceiling. At the end of the tunnel, 400 meters underground, Charles Burgess is waiting. The director of the mining company MTC, a former US diplomat, has a demonstration of how emeralds are mined today: Blasts drive the tunnel forward, then machines transport the rock away.
Where the miners suspect emeralds, they work by hand. The black slate breaks away easily under a blow of the recovery iron, almost without resistance. Narrow white stripes run through the dark wall. They are marine deposits called calcite. The workers follow these lines, mostly in vain. But as soon as someone finds a stone, says Burgess, a fever takes hold of the crew. Then nobody wants to stop digging. A worker monitors and films so that the fever does not turn into greed. After larger finds, the miners whisper that the mine is “painted”: “La mina est pintada”.
Wealth and misfortune
The forests of the hills, in the flanks of which man digs, shine in the same green as the emerald in its dark solitude. Ronald Ringsrud, who traded in the stones for a long time and wrote a book about them, explains that they are categorized according to hue, saturation and lightness. Dark green stones with an intense color are rare and sought-after. Attractive qualities cost 1,000 dollars per carat (0.2 grams), the best ten times as much and more. The emerald grows as a hexagonal prism, its color comes from traces of chrome and vanadium.
The mining company MTC, which belongs to the Muzo Group, has invested millions in modernizing the mine. The difference that makes can be seen in “La Catedral”, a decade-old tunnel that is still in operation. It's narrower and more stuffy than the new tunnel. You can hardly move without bumping into it. The workers drive away the excavation, every single ton of it, in handcarts. Women operate the lifts, which is a sign of modernity; It used to be said that their presence in a mine would bring bad luck.
Muzo is one of the oldest emerald sites in the world; the Rio Minero winds down between the green hills. «Fura», the largest unpolished emerald in the world, weighing more than two kilograms and of inestimable value, comes from here. The emeralds also brought much misfortune to the country in the past. The population had to defend themselves against greedy conquistadors with poison arrows. The Spaniards transported the emeralds, back then still mined by opencast mining, around half the world. Many richly laden galleons sank, including San José, which was recently discovered off the coastal city of Cartagena.
Emeralds bring good luck
A wonderful example of the craftsmanship of this time is the so-called Mughal emerald of 217 carats, richly decorated with floral patterns and calligraphy. Whoever owns this magic stone is under special protection from God stands on the stone. The Romans already expected the emerald to have a special effect: They believed that it would change its color when someone lies. Emeralds are also said to be beneficial in business, but only as long as the wearer does not act with bad intentions.
Honesty and truth are not only attributes that are ascribed to the emerald, but also aspects that interest today's buyers in jewelry stores. Corentin Quideau, Brand Director of the Muzo Group, to which the mining company also belongs, knows this. With the help of certificates, the origin and quality of the emeralds mined here are to be documented. Muzo is a supplier for world-famous jewelry brands, but wants to make its own name known around the world with large advertising budgets. If the strategy gets stuck and the end customers ask for Muzo stones, the mine can sell its products with a premium.
The raw stones are brought from the mine to a simple building in Bogotà. Grinding noises are reminiscent of a dental practice. Two dozen gem cutters with years of practice work here. The shape they give a stone is not only given by nature, explains Luis, the most experienced of them, but also by the market. The step-shaped emerald cut is just one variant of many. Basically, the stones for a facet cut must be of higher quality than if they are round, made into so-called cabochons. The grinding on a rotating plate needs a good interaction of eye and hand.
Inclusions are the norm with emeralds. Dealers call them “jardins” as if they were small gardens. At Muzo, almost all stones are treated with cedar oil, a recognized method. The oil penetrates the tiny channels and reduces their visibility. This means that emerald rings are not a problem; you should only take them off when washing your hands, Luis warns, because otherwise dirt particles will accumulate.
Bandits try their luck
Given the value of the emeralds, it is surprising that the mine was forgotten in the period before Colombia's independence. It was not until decades later that the mine was rediscovered and exploited by syndicates from Colombia, England and France, and finally it was nationalized. In the late 20th century, so-called “guaqueros”, independent emerald seekers, fought with bandits. If you were lucky, you bought a Browning pistol first and a car second. The Emerald Wars raged for thirty years until 1991, killing 7,000 people.
Today Muzo is no longer mined in the Wild West manner, but within regular, commercial structures. With the Muzo Group, the mine has a state-licensed owner who maintains order, supports the local population and pays his workers well, 420 dollars per month, twice the minimum wage. Sometimes “guaqueros” try to dig stones with illegal crawling tunnels from the MTC company. Once they blew open a closed tunnel. The area is guarded by riflemen. Compared to before, however, there is calm today.
Not only the area around Muzo, but Colombia itself has become peaceful today and has little more to do with what the Netflix television series “Narcos” conveys to viewers around the world. The peace treaty that the government is negotiating with the Farc rebels is currently the talk of the town. The desire for safety is still evident: in the streets of the city there are no bright sports cars, but dark, often armored, off-road vehicles. And at least the young artists in the country, says Gaviria, are interested in topics other than the violence that has long been dominant.
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