Donna Distefano is a master goldsmith who uses her love of medieval literature and Renaissance art history to inform her handcrafted jewelry. Gemologist Ron Ringsrud is one of the world’s leading experts on emeralds, and an expert in sourcing fair-trade stones from Colombian mines. We sat down with the pair to discuss why these stones are so alluring—and how The Met’s “Crown of the Andes” inspires them both.
Brian Healy: So what is it about emeralds? They’re very intriguing. They’re slightly opaque.
Donna Distefano: They can be. Ron can speak to the properties and the structure. For me, as a goldsmith, the allure is in the color and the depth of color and the way it plays with the light and brings out the green against yellow gold. I love any color against yellow gold. But the way Colombian emeralds and the depth of green when the light bounces in the green bounces out—that is what’s spectacular.
Ron Ringsrud: Donna, what you just said about yellow gold is my thought also. The marriage of green emeralds with yellow gold is an amazing thing. If you have a high clarity, then you have all of that light.
BH: What makes Colombian emeralds different from Brazilian emeralds or African emeralds?
RR: All emeralds are pretty amazing. Because when you look at an emerald from any source, your brain is registering your green color, but your eyes are not thinking of green. It’s actually two wavelengths. One is red, and the other one is in the blue area. So it’s actually the constructive interference of these two wavelengths that in your brain comes out as green.
BH: Donna, you look to Renaissance art history. Are there examples of emeralds that you have looked to?
DD: The “Crown of the Andes,” because of the over 400 very-fine-quality Colombian emeralds that exist in that crown. Besides that, Cleopatra was known to gift emeralds to Julius Caesar carved in the image of her likeness. I think back to ancient Egypt—these gems had so much power and throughout history, they have had a mystique and symbolized hope and inspired. For example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he uses emeralds as a symbol as a metaphor for hope in purgatory.
BH: Ron, are there any myths or legends in Colombia associated with emeralds?
RR: The area that is now called Colombia was conquered by the Spanish in the year 1530, and settled in the in the late 1500s. The Spaniards didn’t have any mystical or divine properties associated with emeralds. They just revered them as what they were: beautiful stones. Before the South American source of emeralds appeared, they only had emeralds from India, Austria, and Egypt, which were emeralds that were kind of cloudy. Colombian emeralds showed up on the world scene as these beautiful, transparent, and very large pieces.
BH: Did that stoke demand for emeralds?
RR: Yes, the very first emeralds that arrived in Europe were actually emeralds stolen from Moctezuma by Cortés in 1517. All of Cortés’s first emeralds went straight to the Queen but they eventually filtered into society. And quickly the Spanish and Portuguese traders quickly noticed that they could get a lot of diamonds for their emeralds, if they just take them to India. The color green was associated with fertility in India and to the Persians also, so they revered the emerald greatly and they gave the Portuguese traders boxes of diamonds just to get a few emeralds.
DD: As a goldsmith and a person who sells jewelry, I don’t like to define the jewelry by the sum of its parts—and to the point, there’s so much meaning within the emeralds that make it a much more significant jewel. When a consumer comes to a handmade jeweler, a place where things are done right on the premises, I think they get the experience of knowing that this truly was crafted from scratch, and they’ll get information about where the gem was sourced. Ron and I like to talk about the people that are mining and people behind emeralds. When you look at the mines it doesn’t look like they’re in purgatory—it looks like they’re in the depths of hell.
BH: Have you visited the mine?
RR: Yes, I have. And the miners who mine pretty much any gemstone that ends up in jewelry have a difficult life. I love that Donna talks about the people, because I’m concerned about them also. And when I started doing business with Donna, the first thing she asked me was, “Are these gems ethically sourced? What about the miners’ families?” This has always been a concern of mine. Four years ago, I started my own nonprofit called Clayhands, which teaches and promotes alternative construction using earth-based materials, things like adobe and pressed earth. Clayhands operates in Colombia and gives employment, sustainability, and it preserves a lot of cultural architecture.
BH: What is a “fair trade” stone?
DD: A top-level fair-trade stone gemstone will be something that I can identify, through the vendor or the mine, as something that they saw come out of the ground, and which they brought to final polish. So I’m confident that the mine is owned by families and that those people are benefiting directly by the sales of these gemstones. Then I have a level two, where we are not certain of the cutting facility. And then finally a level three, where I have gemstones that are either in my collection or in my safe, and even I if I can’t verify where they came from, I can at least guarantee that I am ethically sourcing today and monitoring to my best ability where these jobs are coming from. And so I work with people like Ron for that reason.
RR: Amazingly—because Colombia has a bad reputation from the 1980s and early ’90s when Pablo Escobar was alive and blowing up car bombs and creating an entire empire based on criminality—the emerald gemstone industry has avoided the stigma of conflict emeralds. I witnessed firsthand how the emerald miners resisted the entire efforts of the Medellín cartel [to seize the emerald mines]. Since then, the emerald industry in Colombia has remained free of that type of stigma. And I’m really happy to say that some of the new multinational companies that are coming in to do mining in Colombia have a serious corporate social responsibility program of respecting the environment and respecting the laborers and workers and miners.
A Fruitful Collaboration
BH: This collaboration sounds like it’s been a good one.
DD: It has been. We got in touch because of the “Crown of the Andes.” Having seen the crown already and enjoying it and studying it I went to the opening of Golden Kingdoms. It was placed at the end of the exhibition under really bright light, and I was overwhelmed with its immense beauty. And I went home that night, I pulled out Ron’s book [Emeralds: A Passionate Guide] and read his chapter on the “Crown in the Andes.” And when I got to the end, I thought, Oh, wow, this is exactly what I experienced. And there’s so much cool synergy involved in our connection.
RR: It’s right here. [Reading from book:] “As a religious icon as a magnificent creation of jewelry, and as a display of emerald color and rarity, the Crown of the Andes is many times treasure. It can only be hoped that this fine rarity will surface again and bless the crowds with its regal and religious power.”
DD: We really started having some cool conversations, and a lot of really wonderfully amazing things in common. Designing a collection based on that crown and working with Ron to fulfill bringing this collection to its fruition and then some is extremely rewarding. It seems like it’s meant to be.
RR: I feel great to have discovered Donna, and when we get together we kind of nerd out on history and stuff like that.
BH: The emeralds that are in our pieces—were those in your collection of gems, are they from the mine this year or last year’s actual stones?
RR: Some of the stones were in my inventory, some of the stones were brought up from Colombia, and there are some stones from other sources—but they’re all well-selected, handpicked, beautiful emeralds.
DD: He handed over an abundance of emeralds.
RR: I was just working with some millennial customers who wanted an emerald engagement ring rather than a diamond set.
BH: This is a nerdy question: How old are the emeralds in the “Crown of the Andes” collection?
RR: They are from 90 to 300 million years old. They’re Cretaceous!
DD: There’s an allure to the romance, the romancing of the emerald. Putting it into a bezel setting, that protects it, and brings out the color. That’s there’s nothing like it, and your heart and soul will respond to that color combination.
Visiting the “Crown of the Andes”
DD: When I called Ron last year and said “I’m doing the collection on the Crown of the Andes.” And he said “Does The Met have that crown?” And that was before I went to Golden Kingdoms and had that experience of the bright light shining on it. And then I went home and read his book, that one chapter—like he manifested it.
RR: Yeah, it was cosmically organized by the divine.
DD: In that particular part of Colombia, Popayán, is where the there was a plague and the population survived the plague and then decided to create this crown as gratitude to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the Queen of Heaven.
RR: Let me tell you where my imagination is going. I’m just tripping on the fact that these Precolumbian emeralds, the citizens of Popayán all donated and gifted these to the Church in gratitude. So these were privately owned emeralds that the people, they just literally poured out their gratitude and their treasure chests with over 400 emeralds. You know, every stone probably has a story. We can only imagine.
DD: Before the Spanish conquest, there were so many beautiful pieces of gold, an abundance of gold, and some of it was hammered goblets and plates and things that might not have been as intricately crafted as this piece. So this is magnificent for many reasons, and even if you’re not a religious person, you have to look at the history of the people who made this piece because it’s quite exceptional when it comes to craftsmanship and goldsmithing.