A brief look at the famous emerald and alexandrite from Russia's Ural Mountain mines.
Emerald is among the most precious of all gems, its rich hue being virtually synonymous with the color green. In the world of emeralds, Colombia’s mines reign supreme. No other region of the world has ever produced the quality and quantity of stones that have come out of those Andean jungles. And yet fine emeralds do occur in a number of other places around the world, including Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Russia. The latter deposit is the major subject of this article. It also touches on Russian alexandrite, which is the original source of this famous gem.
In July 2006, at the invitation of Tsar Emerald Corp., Richard Hughes visited the famous Malysheva emerald and alexandrite deposit outside Yekaterinburg, Russia. Following that visit, Tsar Emerald provided the authors with a number of both rough and cut emerald specimens for gemological examination. What follows is a brief history of the deposit, along with some brief findings on the emeralds.
Russia became an important source of emerald following the discovery in 1830 of the famous emerald-alexandrite-phenakite deposits in the Tokovaya River area around Malysheva. Emeralds were reportedly first found in the area in December 1830 by a peasant charcoal-burner, Maxim Kozhevnikov, on the banks of the Tokovaya River, near the present location of the village of Izmurud (Emerald), which lies just south of Malysheva. In the exposed roots of a toppled tree, Kozhevnikov found a number of green stones in weathered mica schist, which he took to the Royal Lapidary Factory in Yekaterinburg. Systematic government prospecting was immediately initiated and the first "official" emerald find was made on 23 January 1831.
What is known today as the Malysheva deposit was discovered in 1833, with mining commencing there in 1834. It was originally named Mariinskoje, in honor of Maria, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas I. Mining continued until the mid 1850s, when underground water was encountered. Work by artisanal miners continued sporadically from the 1860s. In 1899, the Malysheva deposit was leased to an Anglo-French company, New Emerald Mines of the Urals, which worked the deposits until the outbreak of the World War I in 1914. According to Schwarz et al. (2002), the Malysheva mine was at this time the largest producer of emeralds in the world. Many of the finest emerald and alexandrite specimens on display in London's Natural History Museum have acquisition labels dated in the mid-19th Century and originated from Malysheva. Specimens on display in other world-class mineral collections were also sourced from Malysheva between the mid 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the emerald deposits were nationalized in 1919 and taken over by the Soviet Government’s Precious Stones Trust in 1923. The Mariinskoje Mine re-opened in 1924. It was renamed Malysheva in 1926 to honor a Bolshevik revolutionary hero, Ivan Mikhailovich Malyshev, who was killed in 1918 defending an armored train from a White Russian Army cavalry attack.
Malysheva is located 56 either or 98 kilometers by road northeast of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third largest city. In summer, this is a 1.5–2 hour drive, while in winter it is less than an hour as a more direct route is available once the ground is frozen. The town of Malysheva is a few kilometers from Asbest, also a major mining town (particularly for asbestos, from which the town takes its name).
The Malysheva emerald mine has been mined since 1831. While the mine was operated for emerald and alexandrite during the Tsarist period, during Soviet times, Malysheva was worked primarily for beryllium, with emerald and alexandrite being a byproduct. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempts have been made to mine the deposit for gems, but have been largely unsuccessful.
The Malysheva mine is developed on one of the world’s most significant emerald deposits – a 1.4 kilometer-long schist-type ore-body, which was discovered in 1833 and operated as an open-cut and underground mine until 1996. The emerald deposits of the Malysheva mine lie within the northern portion of the Ural Emerald Field, which stretches generally north-south for a total distance of 25 kilometers. The Malysheva mine is believed to contain 80 percent of the known emerald reserves of the Ural Emerald Field.
Malysheva has produced emerald, varicolored beryl, chrysoberyl, phenakite, topaz and citrine. Alexandrite, the precious gem variety of chrysoberyl named after Russian Tsar Alexander 11 (1818–1881), was first found in the area. Other products included serpentine, fluorspar and metallurgical beryl. Independent technical investigations suggest Malysheva has the potential to also produce phlogopitic mica and talc as an industrial by-product of gemstone mining.
Between 1956 and 1971, the Soviet Government developed a large-scale open-cut operation to mine beryl in order to extract beryllium, which was a critical component of the USSR’s nuclear and defense industries. Development of a large-scale underground mine commenced in 1965, initially focused on extraction of beryl and later emerald. As a result of its role as a key supplier of a crucial strategic commodity during the Cold War, the Soviets invested heavily in Malysheva – the legacy of which is substantial underground and surface infrastructure of a scale that is unusual among world gemstone mines.
Malysheva was a significant producer of emerald and alexandrite in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During 1987–93, Malysheva processed an average of 225,000 tons of material at an average grade of 46.7 ct/ton and produced 3.35 million ct/year of emerald rough over that period. Production of alexandrite was a fraction of this figure, but gem-quality Malysheva emerald and alexandrite was well-known and accepted in the marketplace, and in demand.
Underground mining operations at the Malysheva mine ceased in January 1995 following the collapse of the Soviet economic system. In 1999, the mining rights passed to Zelen Kamen (ZK), CJSC, a Russian-Irish joint venture. The underground and surface mine infrastructure was maintained on a “care and maintenance” basis until the arrival of Tsar Emeralds, an international management company, who invested in the mine starting in 2004. But while a great deal of money was spent rehabilitating the mine and professional management was brought in from abroad, the marriage was not a happy one, with local officials revoking ZK's (and thus Tsar Emerald's) license in early 2008, only to offer it to a nearly bankrupt state-owned amber company from Kaliningrad.
In an excellent article that summarized the various machinations surrounding the mine's lease, Vladimir Terletsky stated:
"Experts are sure that the frequent replacement of owners of the Malyshevo emerald deposit serves interests of such [local Russian] officials. They are not interested in a zealous owner of the mine; therefore, no wonder if the government decides to give the mine to the penniless Kaliningrad Amber Factory. No one expects any emerald production - the main task is to ensure that water is regularly pumped out of the idle mines." (Terletsky, 2011).
We found the gemological features of the current production to be consistent with those previously reported in the gemological literature (see Schmetzer, 1991). These are summarized in the table below.
nε = 1.575
Below are a few photomicrographs that illustrate the major inclusion features.
References & further reading
- Bancroft, P. (1984) Gem and Crystal Treasures. Fallbrook, CA, Western Enterprises/Mineralogical Record, 488 pp.
- Gübelin, E.J. (1940) Differentiation between Russian and Colombian Emerald. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, p. 89.
- Kozlov, Y.S. (2005) Alexandrite. Transl. by M. Pitskhelauri, Moscow, Nauka, 144 pp.
- Laskovenkov, A.F. and Zhernakov, V.I. (1995) An update on the Ural emerald mines. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 106–113.
- Schmetzer, K., Bernhardt, H.-J., Biehler, R. (1991) Emeralds from the Ural Mountains, USSR. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 86–99.
- Schmetzer, K. (2010) Russian Alexandrites. Stuttgart, Schweizerbart Science Publishers, 141 pp.
- Schwarz, D., Giuliani, G., Grundmann, G., and Glas, M., 2002, The origin of emerald… a controversial topic. In Emeralds of the World, extraLapis English No. 2, Lapis International, LLC, East Hampton, CT, USA, pp. 18–21.
- Sinkankas, J. (1981) Emerald and Other Beryls. Radnor, PA, Chilton Book Co., 665 pp.
- Terletsky, V. (2011) Amber shadow on Ural emeralds. Rus Business News, accessed 18 May 2014.
First published in 2006. This version contains significant additions to the text and many new illustrations.
About the authors
Richard W. Hughes is the author of the classic Ruby & Sapphire and over 170 articles on various aspects of gemology. Many of his writings can be found at www.lotusgemology.com and www.ruby-sapphire.com. His latest book is Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector's Guide (2014).
John Koivula is the author of the magnificent Photoatlas of Inclusions in Gemstones, Vols. 1–3, along with several other books and over 800 articles. He is currently Chief Research Gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America and is the world's foremost gem photomicrographer. John was also the scientific advisor to the famous MacGyver television series. Many of his books and enlargements of his images are available through microWorldofGems.com.
Warren Boyd is a gemologist and geologist and formerly Director of Marketing for Tsar Emerald Corporation. He is currently the International Colored Gemstone Association Ambassador to Canada, Past President & Fellow of the Canadian Gemmological Association, and Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A). He specializes in the development and exploitation of diamond and colored gemstones deposits around the globe.