Sofia Rodas ’20: Book VI, Chapter 27 (Of the two Types of Emeralds that Have Been Found on the Mainland)

Book VI, Chapter XXVII

Of the two types of emeralds that have been found on the Mainland, of different estimations and prices, many of them of great value, a vast number of which have been taken to Europe and many other kingdoms from these Indies, in such a degree of abundance that their numbers have decreased their value.

Translated by Sofia Rodas

The treaty De proprietatibus rerum[1] explains the grand properties and virtues of the emerald. They are said to increase riches, grant the gift of beautiful speech, and protect the wearer from gota de coral or epilepsy. When hung around the neck they protect sight and soothe it when fatigued. They also restrict the lewd movements of the lustful, return lost memory, and protect against phantoms and the devil’s deceptions. As is also said in the Lapidario, they calm perturbations and stop bleeding, and they are of great value to fortune tellers. Any of the qualities described by this author or, better yet, my own experiences make me believe in the emerald, and it seems to me that no money can rival it’s possession. There is no color more pleasing, and as we see green in leaves and grass, more so do we see it in emeralds, because no green thing is greener than them. Among the gems and precious stones, they are the only ones that swell the eyes without tiring them, rejuvenating them after becoming tired from looking at other things. Nor can the eyes of gemcutters enjoy a more agreeable restoration, because the emerald’s green stillness mitigates fatigue. This allows them to see for longer stretches of time, imbuing the air around them with its color. Nero watched gladiatorial battles through an emerald.

There are twelve types: those from Scythia are truly noble and named after the land where they are created, and no others are harder or with less imperfections; Bactrian emeralds are close to the above and therefore equally praised, and they are found in the fissures between rocks, but are smaller than those from Scythia. Finally, after Pliny speaks of other emeralds, he concludes that Egyptian emeralds are superior.[2] He says more: some are not meant to be pierced, because they are perfect as they are and exceptionally long, which is why they are made into cilindri or drums for clocks, rather than gems or jewels. Some think they are found already angled or squared, and they become more attractive when pierced because it removes the core from the whiteness; the gold they are mounted on reduces transparency, making the emerald denser and closer to perfection. Everything said is from the cited author’s authority, and he writes a lot more about the emeralds in the final book of his Natural History. Isidore, in his Ethimologias, mostly agrees with what Pliny says. This holy scholar, proposing in his Ethimologias the name and figure of the cilindri, described it and depicted it thus:  Cilindrus est figura quadrata, habens superius semicirculum insolidum, ita (Print 2.a, fig. 5.a). But I do not take such image to be that which Pliny describes, rather I take it to be what Antonio de Lebrija mentions in his Vocabulista (Cilindrus, i, a long red thing or column). Leaving these opinions aside, I say that I have not found in those or other authors as satisfactory an account of the nature and creation of emeralds as what our Spaniards have seen (and what I have understood about the emeralds from these our Indies). My opinion will be based solely on what those with more experience in dealing with them have said. Saying what I have heard and recounting what I have seen, gemcutters should call upon their own experience and doctrine and draw from this what may be useful to them.

In Book XXVI, Chapter XIII, the reader will find what I learned from two captains, friends of mine and recognized people of authority, and the information I gathered from others who saw first-hand emeralds being extracted in the governance of the new kingdom Granada, where they are created and mined. And you will also find, reader, in Book XXXXVI, Chapter XVII, another emerald type very dissimilar in its creation, because the first I mentioned are found in the province of Alcázares, in the jurisdiction of cacique Somindoco and of another cacique called Tena; the ones referred to in book XXXXVI are from Puerto Viejo in Peru. They are excavated in the same way in the land of this Tena, and these were the biggest and best. Unfortunately, an earthquake buried that hill or part of the hill where they used to mine emeralds in Tena’s territory. First, they excavate a sierra by digging, then they let out the water they keep in puddles or pools they fill with rainwater, and this water washes away the dirt and reveals the emeralds. These are long, like a cane stem for the most part, but solid and with six very hard angles or faces of a crystalline transparency. Some witnesses who have seen them, especially Captain Gómez de Corral, say that those that are cleaned are not corrupted by fire. He even offered to demonstrate this in my presence; though he had many emeralds, I did not want to accept his offer, not wanting him to think I was doubting his words. I also heard him say that those that are not clear will break with the fire.

The second emeralds that I spoke of that are allegedly created in Peru (Book XXXXVI) are found inside pebbles or rocks resembling marble. Until now the manner of their creation has been unknown to Spaniards; but I believe this to be true because credible men have told me they have found them in such rocks. My opinion and truth can be confirmed by one of these emeralds I once had. It was made into a round piece, like those ovals worn by the Indians. On one side it looked like a crystalline stone or some sort of white transparent pebble, and on the other it looked like a very fine emerald, like a gem one could make a jewel out of, one even fit for a prince’s ring. I had another emerald mounted on a ring that cost me 250 gold pesos, and I would not give it away for 500. And if there wasn’t such an abundance of emeralds (those emeralds from the provinces I have discussed having been taken to Spain), I would estimate mine at more than a thousand pesos of good gold. In addition to its cleanness and beauty it is a grand piece and almost half the size of the nail of the thickest finger on a man’s hand. These last ones are said to be from Puerto Viejo, because their trade had been contracted there even before the Christians had won the land, and they had been greedy in that region. But it is thought that these emeralds are actually found on the land and lordship of cacique Tangarala, near a great river of the same name. The city of San Miguel was settled on the banks of said river, six leagues from Puerto Viejo, which is on the part or promontory of San Lorenzo, a little over a degree to the other side of the equinoctial line; this would make the ones coming from this side, at the degrees I have mentioned, emeralds of Somindoco, and those on the other side, which are the best, should be considered to come from Tangarala, until we know more.

To further certify what I have said, I made an Italian stonecutter named Roco work the round emerald I mentioned and even had him work two others stones. He produced pieces of great perfection and greenness. This stonecutter also removed some other emeralds of lower quality and some white gems from the same stone. For me this was something quite new and offered confirmation of what I said before.

I have addressed this here because of the diversity of subject matters that appears in Book VI, and because what I have said about the emeralds seems to me to belong in this book, where I can consider what Pliny and other authors write of these gems and show that no other author has been able to testify so extensively from what he has witnessed regarding emeralds as I have detailed here. Very rich and valued pieces of the various types found in the parts of these Indies have been taken to Spain, as I mentioned. In my opinion I hold in higher regard the second emeralds that I have discussed, those from Puerto Viejo or from New Castile, or from Tangarala, as I prefer to call them, although to this date, the year 1548, the origin of these emeralds is not yet known; some suspect and others believe they are found on the banks of the San Johan river, which is near Puerto Viejo, and this river is two degrees or so from this side of the equinoctial line. So you can understand better, reader, let me say that those that are said to be from Granada are the ones from the Alcáceres or Somindoco or Tena or Bogotá, since the name of New Granada was given to this province by the Spaniards who discovered it; while others call it Alcázares. The most powerful man of that province was called Bogotá, and to the north of Bogotá’s territory was the land of cacique Tena, where the richest and best emeralds were said to be mined. To the south of Bogotá’s territory there was another emerald mine on the land of cacique Somindoco. From one mine to another there were twenty leagues, and between both mines, there was that great man called Bogotá. All three positioned as in a triangle, in a lovely, fertile valley that rises little by little for many leagues, as if one were coming from Sevilla to Burgos. Those Spaniards who have seen it claim that to reach the valley or chiefdom of Bogotá the land rises and one must cross many tall sierras. And this is enough about emeralds.

[1] Book XVI, Chapter 87.

[2] Pliny, Final book, Chapter 6.

Figure above. Cross finial, Colombia or Ecuador, circa 1600. Gold, emeralds, pearls. Denver
Art Museum, Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art made possible
by the Renchard family; 1990.526.