Here's the story about how an impoverished New Jersey youngster became a prima donna at the New York Metropolitan Opera, married a telecommunications executive and was gifted what was to become one of the most famous emeralds of all time.
Today, the 167-carat "Mackay Emerald" is the largest cut emerald in the Smithsonian National Gem Collection, but 91 years ago the magnificent stone was a wedding gift from ITT Corporation executive Clarence H. Mackay to Anna Case, a world renowned soprano.
The oval-shaped gem was the centerpiece of a Cartier-designed Art Deco pendant that dangled from an elaborate necklace adorned with 2,191 colorless diamonds and 35 smaller emeralds.
Case cherished the piece until her death in 1984 at the age of 96, at which time it was bequeathed to the Smithsonian, where it still resides in the Gem Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
Case could only dream of such luxury as she grew up in near-poverty in Clinton, NJ. She spoke about having just one dress and one pair of shoes per year. In her later years, she was known to half-joke that her family was so poor that her parents couldn't even afford to give her any affection.
As a youth, she sang with her church choir and borrowed money from a local grocer to take music lessons. By 1909, at the age of 25 and against all odds, she would make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera.
Case was such an accomplished singer that inventor Thomas Alva Edison employed her voice extensively in "tone tests" of whether a live audience could tell the difference between the actual singer and a recording.
The Mackay Emerald was mined in Muzo, Colombia, a region well known for producing some of the world's finest emeralds. These green gems were used by indigenous peoples for at least 1,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.
Although spurred primarily by their passion for gold and silver, the Spanish quickly recognized the potential of the exquisite green crystals and took control of the mines. Emeralds became popular among European royalty and were shipped from the New World by the boatload. The great richness of the Colombian mines led to a glut of emeralds in Europe, triggering a brisk trade of the gemstones to the Middle East and India.
As May's official birthstone, emerald is the most valuable variety of the beryl family and is known to display a wide variety of visible inclusions, which are referred to as “jardin” (French for “garden”). These imperfections do not detract from the stone’s beauty but, instead, give each stone a unique fingerprint and distinct character.
Colombia continues to be the world’s most prolific producer of fine emeralds, constituting more than half of the global production.
Credit: Mackay Emerald photos by Chip Clark / Smithsonian, digitally enhanced by SquareMoose. Photo of Anna Case by The Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.