Emeralds—Treasures from Catastrophe


by Dr. Andrew Snelling on September 26, 2011; last featured August 22, 2012

Diamonds, rubies, and emeralds—the most treasured gems on earth. Each has unique qualities that require special conditions to form. Emeralds, prized for their color, are the most unlikely of all. What unique forces brought this gem to the earth’s surface for us to enjoy?

Diamonds may get all the attention, but green emeralds, like red rubies and blue sapphires, are rarer and just as valuable. They are also featured prominently in God’s Word, even more than diamonds.

For instance, God told Moses to set an emerald among the twelve precious stones, along with a sapphire and a diamond, in the high priest’s breastplate. These gems served as a perpetual reminder that each tribe of Israel was precious to God (Exodus 28:15–21, 39:8–14). And in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, a sapphire and an emerald shine among the twelve foundation stones (Revelation 21:19–20).

Such rich beauty, produced by a mixture of plain ingredients, has always fascinated mankind. How were these gems produced? Can we duplicate that process?

To find clues, geologists have carefully investigated the rocks where emeralds are found. But since no human beings were present to observe how these gems were formed, finding the answers requires the correct starting assumptions. While secular geologists have done a good job cataloguing the physical clues found in the rocks, they have difficulty fully explaining the timing of the unlikely combination of chemicals and conditions that were necessary to form emeralds.

The missing clue is the Bible’s revealed history of the earth. With the Bible as their guide, creation geologists have reconstructed a story of these gems’ origin that is truly fascinating and glorifies the Creator.

What Are Emeralds?

Emerald is the clear green gem and a rare variety of the relatively rare mineral beryl.1 This fairly hard mineral is composed of four elements—beryllium, aluminum, silicon, and oxygen (Be3Al2Si6O18).

The emerald’s beautiful color is due to trace amounts of two other elements—chromium and/or vanadium.2 These elements give emerald a red fluorescence that enhances the luminosity (brightness) of its blue-green color.

Emerald is the third most valuable gemstone, after diamond and ruby. The highest price paid for an emerald is U.S. $1.5 million for an exceptional 10.11-carat Colombian specimen in 2000.3 Unlike other gemstones, the color of an emerald is more highly valued than its clarity or brilliance.

The leading source of emeralds is the Colombian highlands—the same place where the Aztecs and Incas got their gems. Even today, after centuries of production, Colombia still supplies an estimated 60% of the world’s emeralds, some 5.5 million carats per year worth more than U.S. $500 million.4 Although the African nation of Zambia is considered the world’s second most important source of emeralds by value, Brazil currently accounts for 10% of the world’s bulk emerald production. Emeralds have also been mined in the Middle East (Egypt and Afghanistan), Australia, Europe (Austria, Bulgaria, and Spain), Asia (China and India), a few other African nations (Madagascar, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe), and the United States (North Carolina).

Where Are the Necessary Ingredients Found?

Explaining the origin of this gem is a challenge because three conditions must be met. First, you need the mineral beryl, but it is rarely found near the surface of the earth’s continents. Beryllium tends to be concentrated in the base rock of the continents—granites. It is also found in large granitic veins called pegmatites and a clay-rich sedimentary rock known as black shale, which is rich in organic matter. Another source of beryl is the metamorphosed versions of these rocks, which have been transformed by great heat and pressure (thus they are called metamorphic rocks).

The two other ingredients of emeralds, chromium and vanadium, are concentrated in a completely different kind of rock—basalts and related rocks. These rocks are found on and beneath the ocean floors, but they are also found near the earth’s surface wherever earth movements have pushed ocean-floor rocks up onto the continents and transformed them by heat and pressure. Chromium and vanadium are found in these types of rocks, as well as some sedimentary rocks, particularly black shales.

Since the essential ingredients are found in different rocks, unusual geologic conditions and processes had to have occurred for the beryllium to meet chromium and/or vanadium to make emeralds. And the key transport and mixing agent was hot water. Beryl, and therefore emerald, has been shown experimentally to form at temperatures of only 400–650°F (200–350°C) in the presence of water, depending also on the pressures and the coexisting minerals.5

Three Scenarios

Careful investigations of the rocks in the small mines from which emeralds are extracted have revealed three scenarios to explain how most emeralds formed.

In the first scenario, molten rock (magma) deep in the earth’s interior, containing beryllium and water, forced its way upward toward the earth’s surface and was squeezed into near-surface rocks, where it crystallized and cooled as granite. The last stage of this process produced pegmatite veins, which were rich in water and often beryllium. Wherever the molten granite and pegmatite veins (particularly the latter) came into contact with black shales and other rocks rich in chromium and vanadium, the hot water mixed the three essential ingredients to form emeralds.

In Colombia there is no evidence of these granites or pegmatites. Instead, the emeralds are found within veins and fractured rocks along faults. The process of forming these high-quality emeralds began when hot groundwaters mixed with salt beds deep in the earth, causing the water to become highly alkaline and salty. Then the hot water, filled with various dissolved elements like beryllium, moved up along the faults and fractures into the shales.

The third scenario took place as sedimentary rocks were crumpled and squeezed by earth movements. Water was already in these sediment layers, as the heat and pressure metamorphosed the rocks into schists. Fault zones developed during these earth movements, which provided conduits for heated waters to dissolve the required elements and form emeralds.

When Were Emerald Formed?

It is clear that the formation of emeralds was closely linked to major earth movements and rising waters during mountain-building. But the required beryllium also needed to be concentrated near the hot waters and then brought into contact with chromium and vanadium. This rare juxtaposition explains why emerald deposits occurred in so few places.

These findings help us to place emerald deposits within the biblical Creation-Flood framework of earth history. The global Flood of Noah’s day involved a series of catastrophic plate movements and collisions, each step of which would explain the different scenarios to form these gems.6

When the Flood event began, the pre-Flood supercontinent was torn into pieces. The catastrophic collision of these jostling crustal plates caused new mountains to rise, with the accompanying formation of the granites and metamorphic rocks associated with the creation of new emeralds.7

The Flood helps explain the rare combination of events that produced emeralds.

The first mountains built early in the Flood year would have been deeply eroded, as the subsequent water movements scoured all previous sedimentary deposits. Any emerald deposits were then exposed and washed into new locations. This may explain why there are so few emeralds within early Flood deposits, such as those in Madagascar, Australia, and the United States, and why these are so small.

On the other hand, the emeralds in mountains built late in the Flood, even though partially eroded by the Flood waters retreating off the continents, would be more likely to survive. This is the case in Colombia, where the shales were formed so late in the process that they were not even metamorphosed. In this marvelous way, God made sure that post-Flood peoples would have access to this precious stone, despite the cataclysmic destruction of the old earth.

Since emeralds are likely products of the Flood, they aren’t mentioned in the Scriptures until the time of the Exodus. By then, post-Flood populations had migrated from Babel to places where they found emeralds.

If this interpretation is correct, the biblical worldview explains why emeralds are so rare. It also may explain another reason why emeralds were in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. They are not just beautiful reminders of God’s majesty and creativity, but they also testify to God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy. By His grace He can produce “beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61:3). And according to John’s vision, gems will become so commonplace that we will walk on them.

Three scenarios have been proposed to explain how the necessary ingredients of emeralds came together . . .

  1. Rise of Magma To Form Granite Veins: Molten rock deep in the earth’s interior, containing beryllium and water, squeezes into near-surface rocks. Emeralds form wherever the magma comes into contact with black shales and other surface rocks rich in chromium and vanadium.
  2. Rise of Hot Groundwater Along Faults: Hot groundwaters mix with salt beds deep in the earth. Then the hot water, filled with dissolved elements like beryllium, moves up along faults and fractures into shales and other rocks containing chromium and vanadium.
  3. Fracturing of Metamorphic Rocks: Water erodes different rocks that contain the necessary minerals, and then the water deposits them in sediments. Pressure from earth movements converts these sedimentary layers into metamorphic rocks. Continuing earth movements then fracture these rock layers, creating conduits for heated water to dissolve and mix the ingredients.

. . . and the global Flood provided the mountain-building forces necessary for all three scenarios!

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  1. W. A. Deer, R. A. Howie, and J. Zussman, An Introduction to the Rock-Forming Minerals (London: Longman, 1971), pp. 80–83.
  2. L. A. Groat, G. Giuliani, D. D. Marshall, and D. Turner, “Emerald” in Geology of Gem Deposits (Short Course Series Volume 37), ed. L.A. Groat (Quebec: Mineralogical Association of Canada, 2007), pp. 79–109.
  3. M. Zachovay, “What Is the Price of an Emerald?” ExtraLapis English 2 (2002): 93–96.
  4. L. A. Groat, G. Giuliani, D. D. Marshall, and D. Turner, “Emerald Deposits and Occurrences: A Review,” Ore Geology Reviews 34 (2008): 87–112.
  5. M. D. Barton, and S. Young, “Non-Pegmatitic Deposits of Beryllium: Mineralogy, Geology Phase Equilibria and Origin,” in Beryllium-Mineralogy, Petrology, and Geochemistry (Reviews in Mineralogy & Geochemistry Volume 50), ed. E. S. Grew (Washington, D. C.: Mineralogical Society of America, 2002), pp. 591–691.
  6. A. A. Snelling, “Can Catastrophic Plate Tectonics Explain Flood Geology?” in The New Answers Book 1, ed. K. Ham (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2006), pp. 186–197.
  7. A. A. Snelling, “Towards a Creationist Explanation of Regional Metamorphism,” Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal (1994): 51–77; A. A. Snelling, “Catastrophic Granite Formation: Rapid Melting of Source Rocks, and Rapid Magma Intrusion and Cooling,” Answers Research Journal 1 (2008): 11–25; A. A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past: Geology, Creation and the Flood (Dallas, Texas: Institute for Creation Research, 2009).

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.