Emeralds mined in Colombia have been used for trade and personal adornment throughout much of Middle and South America since pre-Columbian times. When the first Spaniards arrived in the New World in the early 16th century, emeralds were being worshiped, were used in jewelry, and played an important role as sacrificial offerings in ceremonies such as the famous El Dorado ceremony on Lake Guatavita, located just northeast of Bogota.
Emeralds were being traded as far south as Peru and Chile and as far north as Mexico. According to Morello, when Spanish conqueror Cortes met the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, in Mexico in 1519, the latter was bedecked with fine emeralds. Reportedly, Spanish conqueror Pizarro sent four chests of emeralds from Peru to the King of Spain in 1533. These were all undoubtedly of Colombian origin.
Chivor was the first operating emerald mine discovered by the Spaniards in their conquest of the New World. Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada saw the first sign of emeralds in Colombia at Turqmeque, Boyaca, in 1537. Quesada sent Captain Pedro F. de Valenzuela to find the source. That same year, he located the well-developed Chibcha Indian mine of Somondoco, later to be named Chivor after a nearby valley. By the end of the 16th century, both Chivor and Muzo were being vigorously worked using Indian slave labor.
In 1592, the first recorded grant of Chivor was given to Francisco Maldonado de Mendoza by Antonio Gonzalez, president of the New Kingdom of Granada. By this time, however, the treatment of the Indian slaves was so inhumane that on September 22, 1593, President Gonzalez issued a 39-article decree protecting the Indians. This decree was soon followed in 1602 by several royal orders from Phillip III King of Spain to enforce the law. By this time, however, the Indian population had already been decimated.
As a consequence of this loss of cheap labor and the litigation that followed the royal orders, production of Colombian emeralds declined drastically. In 1650, the Muzo mines were declared royal property, and production further declined. By 1675, the Chivor mine had been abandoned; its location eventually became a mystery that endured for over 200 years. Muzo continued to be worked sporadically throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries until the government declared it the National Emerald Domain in 1871.
When the mines at Muzo came under government control, production all but ceased and lawless disorder came to characterize the area. This situation has changed only very recently. Soon after Muzo was placed under government control, the Chivor mine was rediscovered on the basis of a description written almost 300 years earlier. In 1888, Colombian mining engineer Don Francisco Restrepo found a manuscript dating back to the early 17th century in a Dominican convent in Quito, Equador. This manuscript, written by Fray Martin de Aguado, described the location of the Chivor mine as the only place in the Andes where one could see through a pass in the mountains to the plains of the Orinoco.
Restrepo’s search for the legendary mine ended successfully in 1896. Although legal problems with the government hampered Restrepo’s early mining activities, his early 20th century partnership with German mining engineer Fritz Klein coincided with the lifting of some of these restrictions and promising production at the mine. When World War I broke out, however, Klein returned to Germany for military service. Restrepo died at Chivor, and, with Germany’s loss of the war, Klein lost all rights to the mine as a result of alien property legislation.
In 1919, Chivor was purchased by the Colombian Emerald Syndicate, Ltd., an American company. Since then it has changed hands many times with varying degrees of success and has been managed by such notable mining engineers as Peter W. Rainier and Willis Bronkie. The Chivor mines are currently in the hands of the Quintero family. In 1953, a new mine was discovered 8 km southwest of Chivor at Gachala, reportedly when a woodcutter’s mule uncovered an emerald-bearing rock.
Although the mine has produced only sporadically since 1953, in 1967 an 858-ct. crystal, generally considered one of the finest in existence, was found there. The 5 cm hexagonal prism is known simply as the Gachali emerald and is housed in the Smithsonian Institution.