EMERALDS: A Family of Precious Beryl Revealed

Emeralds originated in ancient Egypt

We humans have considered emeralds particularly valuable for a very long time. Ancient Egyptians are credited with being the first to mine these jewels, out from the shadows of what Romans would later call Mons Smaragdus or ‘Emerald Mountain.’  Just a short thousand years later the Spanish returned from new world conquest, flaunting richly green emeralds from present day Colombia (a region which now accounts for an overwhelming majority of the world’s supply). By the early 20th century, Art Nouveau and Art Deco era designers made the gem their centerpiece, solidifying in our minds emerald as a thing of opulence and fortune.

An emerald’s distinct coloring is owed to trace ammounts of chromium, vanadium, and iron. The emerald cut – with its precise facets and steps used on a variety of other gems - is best suited for emerald’s long six-sided prisms (hence the cut’s name.)

Emeralds are Green (Right?)

Emerald’s lush hue speaks to the renewed promise of spring, when the world comes alive once more with vibrant, green life – the gem’s deep, almost blue-green coloring is why we designate it as the birthstone for May. Lately, however, a whole host of colored gems are being dubbed emerald too: Pink, yellow, and even red ‘emeralds’ have begun popping up in jewelry stores. Like emeralds, these gems are indeed of the same mineral (beryl), but are every beryl qualified to be emerald?

From left to right: Heliodore, green beryl, morganite, aquamarine, bixbite, goshenite, and emerald

From late night TV to big box  gift guides, it’s as though ‘emerald’ is masked on to otherwise obscure gems just levitate their value (as was the case with toothfish before we knew it as Chilean Sea Bass, or when one young Carlos Estevez became Charlie Sheen). The thing is, emerald is defined almost exclusively by one very inescapable characteristic and it’s not simply being beryl: Emeralds are green. While it’s true that emerald has a big family of beryl cousins, they’re not emerald. And they don’t need to be, either. Each have their own story, their own character, and there’s even one beryl variety  far rarer than emerald – So here’s the line-up, emerald’s extended family:

Pictured above are a pair of 2ct, oval-cut heliore. The largest cut heliodore, on display at the American Museum of Natural History, is internally flawless and weighs 2054ct.


Heliodor (which means“gift from the sun)” or golden beryl may sometimes be marketed as ‘yellow emerald,’ but as you can see it’s not green – and therefore not actually emerald. It’s heliodor, a popular export of Brazil which has also been mined here and there thought the United States. This gem bears subtle hues of pale yellow, but after it’s exposed to a little radiation (which it often is), the color becomes rich and golden. In addition to irradiation treatments, heliodor is generally free of internal inclusions, offering relatively more clarity and sparkle than emerald. Though these jewels may not be widely known to the public, heliodor is by no means a ‘new’ gem to the industry: In 1913, the New York Times reported that while heliodor was increasing in popularity, it was unlikely to oust other gems – and as you can tell, it didn’t.

Green beryl


Are you prepared to have your rockhound, gemstone enthusiast’s mind blown? Then check this out: Emerald is beryl that is green, but green beryl is not emerald…because green beryl, despite its namesake, just isn’t green enough. Though rich in iron, this gem lacks a deep saturation and is more yellow because it’s missing emerald’s secret ingredient: Chromium.

Remember, it’s traces of chromium, vanadium, and iron – all three– that are supposed to make beryl an emerald. Yet, in 1963 GIA widened its own classification (after a mine in Brazil began pulling up heaps of green beryl) and asserted that just the inclusion of vanadium and iron may be enough to warrant the emerald name. Disagreed with by many, some experts conversely maintain that even small amounts of chromium shouldn’t’ necessarily earn the emerald distinction.

Confused? Don’t be – if it’s beryl that’s deeply saturated with the cool, greenish-blue hue of an emerald, it’s likely an emerald. If a gem is being sold as emerald but is barely green, just creeping slightly into green under the right lighting, or is merely a fleeting whisper of a hint of green, it’s likely just a green beryl. 

Sometimes referred to as ‘pink emerald,’ morganite’s rosy hues are the result of trace manganese impurities. Like heliodore it’s generally free of significant inclusions, making it appear as a cleaner gem to the eye.


Morganite get’s it name from the American corporate finance tycoon/ gemstone buff of the early 20th century, John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan – of whom we now know for his legacy, J.P. Morgan Chase. Morgan funded the New York Academy of Sciences, which named the gem in 1909 as homage to its primary benefactor. For a brief stint there was chatter of nicknaming the gem ‘pink emerald’ just to perk its appeal, but today morganite is largely known by its own name and has become a popular gem for fine fashion jewelry.

Designer Tip: It’s almost as though morganite and rose gold jewelry were made for each other! The warm hues are complementary and both materials are especially nontraditional for engagement rings and wedding bands, making for a truly unique piece. 

When beryl crosses from less green to more blue, it becomes aquamarine - and typically the more blue, the more valuable.


A cousin to emerald, these gems are found in many similar regions of the world. While the difference in color is obvious, it’s actually hardness that really sets aquamarine and emerald apart. Whereas emerald is regarded as a relatively soft and easily chipped stone (on account hairline fractures or ‘inclusions’ that occur naturally in the growing crystal), aquamarine is more like it’s morganite and heliodor cousins and is generally free of significant inclusions. This makes aquamarine a beryl gem that appears cleaner to the eye and more durable for daily wear.

Maxixie Beryl

In a scant few areas of the world there exists a very unique variety of beryl that’s a far deeper shade blue than any aquamarine, making it appear at fist glance like sapphire. It’s called maxixie (mah-she-she) and it has a highly unstable color table that naturally irradiates when exposed to sunlight. Like a wildly colored tropical fish reeled in from the deep, a maxixie beryl can lose its color in only 8 hours of UV exposure, requiring synthetic gamma ray treatments and annealing to reclaim its original luster.

Aquamarine crystals are generally larger among it's beryl cousins, providing for large carat weights and big clarity.

Designer Tip: Though pricier and rarer than topaz, aquamarine can be found in a variety of larger cuts, making it a gem ideal for cocktail rings and statement pieces.  

Named for the forested lakeside town of Goshen, Massachusetts where its discovery is credited, Goshenite is a colorless alkaline rich variety of beryl that’s uniquely concentrated throughout North America and Russia.


Colored beryl achieves its vibrant hues from elemental impurities, so the absolutely clear and colorless goshenite is essentially the purest form of beryl. There’s something so mysterious about pure beryl, mined deep beneath chilly alpine foothills. It’s almost fitting the gem is clear as ice. Alas, there’s relatively little demand for goshenite jewelry; it seems a soft, easily craked ‘albino emerald’ is a tough sell. Diamonds rule the colorless gemstone world, with white sapphire in a distant second place. Perhaps in an effort to jazz up its appearance, some companies have begun blasting the crystal with enough heat and radiation to impart a tawdry array of tinted hues, appearing in the end more like a color-change paint job than a natural wonder – but as they say, that’s business.

Bixbite is very, very rare. How rare? It’s purported that just one red beryl crystal is found for every 150,000 diamonds


In 1904, 51-year-old rockhound and mineralogist Maynard Bixby unearthed the first recorded specimen of red beryl in the dusty Thomas Range of Juab County, Utah. He named this new gem ‘bixbite,’ though the nomenclature of late has been revised to just ‘red beryl,’ so as not to be confused with Bixby’s earlier discovery of a metallic black mineral he designated as ‘bixybite.’ Gifted from primordial rhyolite lava flows and rich with manganese, red beryl – or what’s now a buzz as ‘red emerald’ – is found  along this remote area of the American southwest, and it’s extremely rare. Though generally priced at six-figures per carat, most finished bixbite are quite small. Finding a cut red beryl for sale at 1ct or larger is possibly rarer an occurrence than the gem itself!

Sean Ryan

Designer Tip: Red beryl is so soft it seems almost foolish to set into a ring; setting a gem like this into a more protected pendent may be more fitting. Finding cut bixbite for a custom piece, however, may prove to be a real challenge. If you have a burning desire to make something with red beryl, contact the Green Lake gemstone laboratory at gemstones@greenlakejewelry.com


A Note on Emerald Jewelry

Senior Green Lake designer and graduate gemologist Sophia Shen asserts that while an emerald center stone is far less hard and durable than diamond, she understands the appeal for the gem as a center piece in engagement rings and wedding jewelry. There are a lot of creative options available to setting emeralds, as well as sourcing the right size and cut – done right, an emerald ring can be a stand-alone heirloom. If you’re interested in making an emerald engagement ring or wedding band contact us at info@greenlakejewelry.com


Written and illustrated by Eric Robertson / Photography by Daniel Zetterstrom 

About the author:

Eric Robertson is a writer, illustrator and creative lead for Green Lake Jewelry Works.