Ashok Kumar Sancheti's Carved Emerald at the NMNH of the Smithsonian Institution

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Origin of name

The carved emerald representing the profile of a woman's head, carved out of a natural emerald crystal discovered in the Muzo mines of Colombia, was donated to the National Museum of  Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington D.C. in the year 2003, by Shri Ashok Kumar Sancheti, the proprietor of Pioneer Gems, the prestigious gem and jewelry trading house based in New York City, with offices at 47th Street, New York City, and having a global network of offices in the major gem and jewelry trading centers of the world, such as Jaipur, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. The donation was a worthy addition to the National Gem Collection, and has become a popular exhibit in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.

Features of the carved emerald

The profile of a woman's head has been carved out of a rough emerald crystal discovered in the historic Muzo mines of Colombia. The emerald has the characteristic dark herbal-green color of Muzo emeralds. It is opaque as it is heavily included, the main reason why the rough crystal was chosen for carving, instead of being processed as other gem-quality emeralds. The original weight of the rough emerald crystal is not known, but the carved emerald weighed 70.10 carats.

Ashok Kumar Sanchetis Carved Emerald at the Smithsonian

©Smithsonian Institution. Photography by Ken Larsen

The unknown master carver who executed the selected subject matter on a relatively smaller stone compared with other known emerald carvings, such as the 2,620-carat Sacred Emerald Buddha, had indeed exhibited extraordinary skills and dexterity in the execution of this delicate carving, a masterpiece of modern gemstone sculpture. The greatest challenge to any sculptor is the maintenance of correct proportions in the features of the subject matter in keeping with the projected overall size of the subject. That the unknown carver of this sculpture had achieved perfect and well proportioned features in his final product, given the small size of his starting material, speaks volumes about his abilities and great carving skills. Another feature in the carving that adds credit to his carving abilities, is the clever usage of the naturally formed golden pyrite crystals (Iron Sulphide) also known as "fool's gold," in the matrix of the original rough emerald, to his advantage, by incorporating the crystals into his subject matter, as hair and an earring. The outcome of this effort has indeed been stunning and natural, enhancing the aesthetic beauty of the sculpture.


History of the carved emerald

The source of the emerald

The website of the NMNH of the Smithsonian Institution gives the  source of the emerald as the  historic Muzo mines of Colombia. This information is undoubtedly correct, as it is confirmed by features of the matrix in which the emerald was discovered. The presence of crystallized pyrite is a distinguishing feature of the matrix of Muzo emeralds. A study of the matrix characteristics of Colombian emeralds, might give  a clue as to their possible mine of origin. A summary of the matrix characteristics of emeralds from the three main mines in Colombia are given below.


 Matrix characteristics of Coscuez emeralds

1) The presence of black shale.

2) The presence of grey calcite

3) Sometimes a rust-colored layer of iron oxide instead of grey calcite.

4) Thin veins of pyrite running through the black shale, instead of crystallized nodules of pyrite.

The presence of grey calcite is the predominant characteristic of the Coscuez matrix material.


Matrix characteristics of Muzo emeralds

1) The presence of black shale.

2) The presence of pure white calcite.

3) The presence of crystallized pyrite.

4) Sometimes presence of clear quartz.

The presence of white calcite and crystallized pyrite are the predominant characteristics of the Muzo  matrix material. In the Ashok Kumar Sancheti's carved emerald, the white calcite of the matrix has been removed, but the pyrite crystals have been left intact.


Matrix characteristics of Chivor emeralds

1) The presence of grey shale.

2) The presence of crystallized nodules of pyrite.

A combination of the above two components are found in one type of Chivor matrix.

3) The presence of grey calcite.

4) The presence of brown iron oxide.

A brecciated mixture of 3 and 4 above together with crystals of pyrite are found in another type of Chivor matrix. The characteristic feature of the Chivor matrix is that it is more fragile and crumbly in nature.

Thus all the matrixes above have essentially the same components, black and grey shale, white and grey calcite and pyrite. However it is the different combinations of these components and the predominance of one over the others  that help to distinguish  between them.


History of the Muzo mines

Difficulties faced by the Spanish Conquistadors in subjugating the Muzo Indians

The Muzo Indian tribe was one of the warlike tribes of Colombia, that the Spanish found most difficult to subjugate in spite of their superior weapons and fire power. The Chibchan Indians were subjugated in 1537, but 20 years later in 1557, the Muzo Indians were only partially subjugated. It is said that it was a combination of fire power and the use of vicious dogs that finally overcame the resistance of the native Indians. However subjugation of a people is one thing, but getting their co-operation in locating the source of the emeralds, which the Spaniards desperately needed was an entirely different thing.

In the year 1555 the Spanish under Luiz Lanchero founded the town of Villa de Santissima Trinidad de los Muzos, at the foot of the Itoco Mountains, where the Spanish had learnt, that large quantities of emeralds were produced in the past. But, in spite of all the cruelty and torture to which the local population was subjected to, none would come forward and pinpoint the exact location of the ancient mines. In the year 1558, the Spanish began mining operations in the Itoco Mountains, despite repeated attacks by the Indians, but later abandoned all operations perhaps due to low production, and the area was overgrown with jungle. During the next 40 years without any co-operation from the  local tribes, the Spaniards were not able to make any headway in locating the source of emeralds. Finally in the year 1594, the Spaniards did succeed in locating the original Indian workings, about 2½ miles from the town of Muzo, close to the site of the present day Muzo mines.


Exploitation of Muzo mines begin in 1594

The Spanish began immediate mining operations, making use of the local Indian labor available for the exploitation. For the first 15 years of the operation of the mines there was a tremendous increase in the output of emeralds from the mines, but subsequently production declined rapidly due to a combination of factors such as compulsory labor imposed on the local tribes, long working hours, cruelty and maltreatment, and the rapid depopulation of the neighborhood. However, after the intervention of the Spanish Crown and the re-organization of the industry, production continued until the mid-18th century, when a disastrous fire in the mines stopped all mining activity, and the mines were abandoned totally until Colombia gained independence from the Spanish in 1819.


Exploitation of Muzo mines after Colombian independence in 1819

Initially, the newly independent Colombian nation lacked the resources, the organization and managerial skills needed to exploit the Muzo emerald mines. But, the government of Colombia realizing the importance of the mines as a potential revenue generator, opted for private exploitation of the mines taking a share of a moderate 10% of the profits. The mines were leased out to private companies from the year 1824 to 1848, and there was significant improvement in the production of the mines, as compared to the production in the mid-18th century. In the year 1848 the government apparently changed its policy on the working of the mines and directed that all future operations of the mine would be conducted under the direct supervision of the state. The mines were worked continuously from the year 1848 to 1909, but the development of the mines suffered due to lack of technical skills, sound geological knowledge and advice, and the failure to implement a sustained policy of management.


Exploitation from 1909 to 1925

In 1909, the Government of Colombia again changed its mind, and decided to go into partnership with a British-based company, The Colombian Emerald Mining Company Ltd., which was controlled by South African diamond interests. The Company successfully used the experience, knowledge and technical skills gained by the exploitation of diamonds in South Africa, in the exploitation of the Muzo emerald mines and there was a tremendous increase of production in the mines. But unfortunately, the Government again went back on its commitment, and took over the sole control of the mines. The company sued the government for breach of contract, and the government was forced to pay damages to the company. After, the company pulled out of Colombia, mining operations again came to a standstill, as the government did not have sufficient funds for investment to resume operations in the mine, and also due to the outbreak of World War I. Production again resumed after World War I, but only for a short period until 1925, when the mines had to be abandoned again due to poor funding by the government.


Exploitation from 1933 to 1977

In 1933, the Muzo mines opened again under the direction of Peter W. Rainer, and the production of the mine was marketed by an American group, on a commission basis for the government. In 1946, the government sold the mining rights to Banco de Republica, Bogota, who ran the mines profitably until the end of 1947, but subsequently incurred losses until 1949. Exploitation at Muzo continued sporadically both legally and illegally in the 1950s and 1960s, until in the year 1968, when the government sponsored company ECOMINAS was granted the rights to exploit the mines. In the years 1976-77 there was a period of anarchy in the Muzo mines and other emeralds mines in Colombia, in which the powerful drug cartels were also involved.


After 1977, the government grants 10-year leases for exploitation of Muzo mines. Since then leases had been held by Sociedad de Mineros Boyancences.

The government of Colombia decided to step in again, and leased the mine to Sociedad de Mineros Boyancences for a ten year period. From then onwards the government had been leasing the mine for 10 year periods, and Sociedad de Mineros Boyancences still holds the lease to the mines. The Muzo mines which were once the most prolific emerald mines in the world, is still in production, though the output may not be as high as its prime period, and the emeralds produced here had set the benchmark for quality emeralds worldwide, with their characteristic herbal-green colors, relatively less inclusions, good clarity and transparency.


When was the rough emerald discovered ?

Information concerning the year of discovery of the rough emerald from which the Ashok Kumar Sancheti's carved emerald was fashioned is not available. But, given the fact that Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti migrated to the United States in 1980 and set up his gem and jewelry business in New York City, Pioneer Gems, in the early 1980s, he must have purchased the rough emerald after this. Thus, the emerald must have originated in the Muzo mines either in the 1980s or 1990s, when the mine was under the management of Sociedad de Mineros Boyancences (Society of Miners, Boyancences).


Where was the rough emerald carved into the profile of a woman's head ?

We also do not have any information about the unknown emerald carver, who transformed the rough emerald into the masterpiece of modern gem carving. Given the fact that Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti's headquarters are based in the U.S. it might be possible that the emerald carver was also a U.S. based gemstone carver. It could also be possible that the carving was executed in his native city of Jaipur in India, an ancient city famous for its gem and diamond cutting and polishing industry, as well as gemstone carving since ancient times. It is well known that Jaipur was the main gemstone cutting, carving and polishing center in India, during the Mogul period, and most of the artisans who worked for the Mogul courts hailed from this area.

Readers who may have more information about the year of discovery of the emerald and the unknown emerald carver are kindly requested to provide same as comments to this webpage.


Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti, a short biography

Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti who was born and brought up in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan State, in northwestern India, migrated to the United States in the year 1980. His family had been in the gem and jewelry trade in India, for over three generations. He belongs to a small but influential religious minority in India, known as the "Jains" an ancient religion of India, having over 10 million followers in modern India, and across the world. Jainism predates Buddhism in India by several centuries, and most of the Buddhist teachings seem to have been derived from Jainism, except for the fact that the Lord Buddha preached an alternative to the "extreme ascetism" preached by the Jains, which he termed the "middle path.' The Jains are a highly literate and enterprising community, and even though they constitute only 0.42 % of the Indian population, they contribute by way of income tax an astounding 24% of the total tax collected by the exchequer.

The Jains have also been involved in the gem and jewelry trade since ancient times and today control a large part of the diamond industry in India, and the very successful Indian diamond community in Belgium almost exclusively belong to the Jain community.

Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti set up his gem and jewelry business in the U.S. known as "Pioneer Gems" in the early 1980s, and opened his office at No. 62 W. 47th Street, New York. Soon Pioneer Gems became one of the prestigious and renowned gem and jewelry trading houses in the world, with offices in Jaipur, Bangkok and Hong Kong, and associates in all five continents. Besides gem and jewelry Mr. Ashok Kumar and his brothers have also branched into other successful ventures in the field of tourism, restaurants, fabric and real estate.

Pioneer Gems have their own gem cutting and polishing factories, processing rough gemstones such as emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds. They also have their handcrafted jewelry factory, which produces exquisitely designed fine jewelry of international standards, set in platinum and 18K gold, that are supplied to their global network of offices in major markets around the world. Today "Pioneer Gems" have become a trusted name in the international gem and jewelry trade and industry.

He has established his credentials as a reputed colored stone dealer, and had received awards in several competitions. In the year 2005, at the American Gem Trade Association's lapidary competition known as the "Cutting Edge Competition," under the Open Category/Classic Gemstone, Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti obtained the third place for his entry, the 1.24-carat natural fancy cut emerald. The cut represented a unique hexagonal step cut, a rather unusual cut for an emerald. Again in the year 2006, at the American Gem Traders Association's  Annual Jewelry Design Competition and the Cutting Edge Awards, in the Open Category, Classic Gemstone Division, Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti of Pioneer Gems, received an Honorable Mention, for a pair of mandarin garnets weighing 14.55 carats.

A man of varied interests, Mr. Ashok Kumar had held executive positions in several associations involved in the gem trade, such as the Vice President of the American Gem Traders Association, the Vice President of the Indian Diamond and Colored Stone Association, and Office Bearer of the International Colored Stone Association. He had also taken a keen interest in the activities of his own community, and the Indian community in general in the United States. He is a trustee of Shree Sidddhachalam  Jain Teerth, New Jersey, and was the  Director of the Rajasthan Association of North America. A great philanthropist, Mr. Ashok Kumar Sancheti, had always donated generously whenever their were natural calamities affecting any part of India. He also supports many Jain temples around the world, and started a school in ancient Gurukul style at Jaipur.


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  Back to Famous Gemstones

Related :-

Sacred Emerald Buddha

Emerald Man

External Links

Pioneer Gems

Ashok Kumar Sancheti's Carved Emerald at the Smithsonian


References :-

1.Carved Emerald - New Acquisitions 2003 - website of the NMNH, Smithsonian Institution.   
2.Shri Ashok Kumar Sancheti - website of the Rajasthan Association of North America, New York.  
3.Traditional Value - G.G. Robert Weldon, Professional Jewelers Magazine, March 2005.
4.AGTA Spectrum Award Winners Announced - September/October 2006 -  
5.The Emerald Deposits of Muzo, Colombia - Joseph E. Pogue, Ph. D. Evanston, Illinois. Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol LV, 1917.
6.Jainism - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.



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