Tracey Ellison TDG
Updated: Apr 24
Where to even begin writing this post! How can I possibly capture the magic of the past few days? As most of you know, my passion for beautiful gemstones goes back to when I was very young! But as I’ve become more and more involved in the industry, I’ve better understood what it is that attracts me (and so many others!) to gemstones. And it’s the romance of knowing that this beautiful object has been created by nature. It’s natural. It’s magnificent! So when the opportunity arose for me to visit the source of the world’s finest emeralds - the Muzo region in Colombia - I grabbed it with both hands!
Before I jump into the details about my trip, let me give you some background to both emeralds, and to my amazing host, the renown George Smith of International Emerald Exchange (IEEX). Instagram is a funny thing - we interact, message, comment, and engage with one another without ever meeting. But we are able to build trust and a connection, so much so that we end up purchasing jewelry and gems from one another, or, in my case, flying to another country as the guest of someone I've never even spoken to, yet have shared years of friendship. George, who has a Colombian mother and a British father, is one of those universal people who are at ease wherever they are!
Beginning his career as a financier in the City of London, George realized his passion lay elsewhere, and he made the life changing decision to give it up, move to Colombia, and become an emerald trader in Bogotá. Today he is a shareholder in an emerald mine in the Muzo Region, and his company, IEEX Emeralds is an international Colombian emerald dealer specializing in high quality polished Colombian emeralds, catering to the global jewellery trade. IEEX are proud suppliers to a truly international clientele of high-end jewelers, craftsmen and private clients with the very finest polished Colombian emeralds. They exclusively deal in the very finest emeralds from the leading mines in Colombia, and have detailed involvement at each stage of the buying chain, sourcing and supplying optimum grade Colombian emeralds for high-end jewellers, boutiques, wholesalers and private collectors. With their head office located in Mayfair, London and their buying office in the heart of the Bogota emerald district, the business has a truly international presence. This ensures the constant sourcing of extra fine superior quality Colombian emeralds for the international market at competitive prices.
FUN FACT: “Emeralds are exceptionally rare, in fact, for every thirty diamonds that get cut, only one emerald gets cut.” George Smith, IEEX
Let’s talk about these magical green gemstones! Emeralds are a member of the Beryl family. A fine emerald is a truly breathtaking sight, and this member of the beryl family deserves its placement among the traditional “Big Four” gems along with diamond, ruby, and sapphire. According to Diamond Rocks
“The oldest emeralds date back almost three billion years. However, they were first mined in Egypt around 1500BC, where it was believed that emeralds stood for fertility and rebirth. Mummies were often buried with them to symbolize eternal youth. The Incas and Aztecs also valued these rich green gems, worshiping them as gods."
So perhaps not surprising, then, that the world’s best emeralds come from South America. Today, Colombia yields the largest number of emeralds, contributing to more than 50% of worldwide production.
"Emerald remains the most in demand colored stone in North America, beating both sapphires and rubies" IEEX
When it comes to rare and expensive gemstones, most of us immediately think of diamonds, but, in fact, emeralds are more than 20 times rarer than diamonds and, therefore, often command a higher price.
"Emeralds are exceptionally rare, in fact, for every thirty diamonds that get cut, only one diamonds gets cut." George Smith, IEEX
That said, emeralds are an ideal option for those looking to maximize size of stone with budget, since they appear larger than a diamond of the same carat weight because they are less dense.
The Gachala emerald found in Colombia in 1967 weighs 858 carats and is among the world's largest and most famous examples of the stone. Passionate about all gems, Elizabeth Taylor had several important emerald pieces and, in 2011, an emerald pendant necklace owned by her sold for $6.5 million - that’s about $280,000 paid per carat.
FUN FACT: The largest and most extraordinary emerald I’ve ever seen belongs to Bayco Jewels. It is aptly named THE IMPERIAL EMERALD, a one of a kind, 206 carat, unenhanced Colombian Emerald of gemstone quality. The Imperial Emerald has been praised with the highest-grade certificates, from global gemological entities that are highly regarded as the authority in the industry. The certificates contain extensive special comments by all the labs which certified it including Gubelin, AGL, GIA, C. Dunaigre Consulting, and GRS.
Let’s dive in and talk about my incredible experience as a guest of IEEX. This was my very first trip to South America, and I truly did not know what to expect. But whatever preconceived expectations I had, were soon blown away by the vibrancy of Bogota, the beauty of the Muzo region, and the warm and wonderful people I met every step of the way! George was a wonderful host, taking care of me from start to finish. From the moment I was picked up at the airport to the moment I was safely dropped off at the airport, I felt secure and comfortable at all times - the bullet proof vehicle and the two armed guards definitely helped! Jokes aside - had I not been in Georges competent care, I would have taken the same precautions I take when visiting any county - Keep to the safer areas, and exercise common sense. I was also relived to see everyone practice COVID precautions - wearing masks, fist bumping instead of hand shaking, and regular hand washing/sanitizing.
After a rest up at the hotel (J.W Marriott - highly recommended!) we had an early dinner at a beautiful restaurant, Harry Sasson, the highlight of which was the crab nachos!
We headed back to the hotel for an early night, as we were to start bright and early the following day - pick up at 6:45am to head to the airfield to take the 40-minute helicopter ride to Muzo. And so began one of the most unforgettable days of my life. Flying out of Bogota and towards the mountainous region of Muzo was surreal. Approaching the legendary two mountain peaks Fura and Tena, bordering the Carare River, was surreal!
The legend of Fura and Tena is a part of the cultural heritage of Emeralds in Colombia and there are two mountains that represent them: of 840 meters of height (Tena) and 500 m (Fura), over the mining Guaquimay River, Carare or Zarbi as is described in the legend and that is divided in two. Legend states that the Muzo creator God, ARE formed two figures on the shore of the sacred Minero River. One was male (Tena) and the other was female (Fura). The Muzo people believed Fura and Tena were the parents of humanity and legend states that the tears of Fura became emeralds. Today, the Fura and Tena mountains, as well as a bountiful source of fine emeralds, are the lasting symbols of that ancient culture.
We first set down at La Pita Mine. The mine was not operational,
improvements and construction are under way, but we ventured down to the tunnel opening none the less, down a winding path surrounded by the most spectacular jungle scenery. Next, we flew to the Coscuez mine, operated by Hexa Mining which is the second largest mining conglomeration in Colombia. It is here that George has a stake in one of the mines, and it was with great excitement that we donned our hard hats and boots and entered the mine. Previously, emeralds were mined in an open pit on the mountain side. today, that form of mining is banned by the Colombian government in an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the mountains, and all mining is tunnel mining.
Walking into the entrance of the mine is a surreal experience. Heading into total darkness in a confined, wet space, with only the light from your headlamp illuminating the way. Its pitch black. water drops from the ceiling and oozes out the walls. Our shoes had been exchanged for miners boots, ans we began wading through water and walking deeper and deeper into the mine. Passing signs on the wall for 50M, 100M, 200M, 500M, 1000M .... and deeper! The tunnel is so small, when carts came past carrying rubble out the mine, you had to press up flat against the wall to let them through! Seeing the quartz veins that potentially carry emeralds is an unforgettable thrill. Seeing the miners drilling holes to plant explosives to explore new areas - unforgettable! The heat - unforgettable! I walked out that tunnel with a profound respect for the men who spend their days working down there. They are the true heroes of the gemstone industry. The mine manager told us before we entered that if we could spend eight hours working in the mine, we could keep anything we found! Truth is... I could never do it! There is a constant fear (speaking for myself here) that this narrow tunnel could collapse...it's a frightening thought.
After exiting the mine, we had a delicious lunch with the mine team. It's impossible to describe the warmth and friendliness, the gracious hospitality, of the Colombian people. It's truly heartwarming. From there, we flew to the town of Muzo, setting down the helicopter on a soccer field, to the delight of the children playing there, who ran to greet us, and see the helicopter. We were surrounded by local artisans, with emeralds to sell, both rough and polished. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of George, I left with a beautiful rough emerald still in its quartz, a wonderful souvenir of the trip of a lifetime. We flew home for a good night’s rest in preparation to visit the IEEX offices the following day.
We began our day with a delicious breakfast, and then headed up the hills of Bogota, to view the city from the peaks of the mountains surrounding the city. Breathtaking views, of this amazing city with over 11 million inhabitants! FUN FACT: Bogota is the largest city in the world at its elevation. There is no urban area that is both higher and more populous than Bogota. We visited the Old Town - a historic area, the colonial center of the city also known as La Candelaria, which has perfectly preserved pieces of old world architect, brightly colored houses, and grand plazas. I could have spent hours wondering the streets, but time was marching on, and we were ready to hit the emerald district, and the offices of IEEX. Reminiscent of New York's diamond district, the streets in the emerald district are filled with those in the industry, hoping to sell their emeralds. We went up to the IEEX offices, into the heart of the business, where the buying, trading, cutting and polishing takes place. in one part of the office, George was meeting with potential sellers, viewing a selection of rough and polished emeralds to see if they meet the stringent selection criteria for IEEX. In another part, the legendary Ricardo was cutting and polishing emeralds, with a precision and skill that takes a lifetime to develop. Elsewhere, emeralds were being graded and sorted into layouts, ready for for setting into jewelry. Upstairs, master gemologist Rodrigo Giraldo grades the emeralds, with sophisticated equipment that allows his laboratory to verifying the presence of treatments that can alter the emerald Clarity (with resin, oil or wax) and identifying their source when possible, even going so far as to able to determine if an emerald is from the Chivor or the Muzo mining regions.
For a jewelry lover like myself, it was hugely exciting to see how IEEX are progressing into manufacturing beautiful, finished pieces that showcase their emeralds in a range of rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. A highlight of my trip was wearing a pair of 22 carat cushion cut emerald studs for a day - so beautiful in their elegance and simplicity, that they drew stares wherever we went! I am excited to see how George will continue to push into the finished jewelry world. With his eye for exceptional gemstones, and his ability to source them at the best possible prices, I have no doubt that this part of the business will continue to grow from strength to strength.
Our last night was spent at one of the most incredible restaurants I've ever been to, Andres Carne de Res, a six story restaurant /bar serving traditional Colombian cuisine, complemented by a vibrant,
world class exquisite design and upscale ambience. Between the art, the cocktails, the live music and the food…we dined (and drank!) like royalty. As I looked around the table, and the wonderful people I had met along the way, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would be back, and soon!
Massive thanks to George for making this all happen. If you are not already following him on Instagram, do so now by clicking here to enjoy daily posts and updates about the emerald world we all love so dearly.