The writer, wearing her self-made emerald earrings, necklace, bracelet and ring, holds her certificate alongside her School of Jewelry of the Caribbean student instructor Oriana Jimenez. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
Feature image (above): The emerald making process that takes place at the Diaz brothers’ factory. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
- Getting there: Copa Airlines travels to Cartagena from Los Angeles (LAX) and Las Vegas (LAS).
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The Emerald City may only exist in the magical Land of Oz, but its closest real-life counterpart can be found in Colombia, a South American country that produces 65 percent of the world’s quality emeralds.
On a recent trip to Colombia’s northern coastal city of Cartagena, I visited the School of Jewelry of the Caribbean (Escuela de Joyeria del Caribe), a — yes — hidden gem of a facility. During a morning spent with its best students, I was transformed from a curious tourist into a bona fide emerald jewelry maker who “graduated” with a diploma, as well as pieces I had made myself.
Cartagena’s School of Jewelry was founded four years ago by three brothers, Alfredo, Ricardo and Eduardo Diaz, who already owned a successful emerald factory and showroom in the city, along with an adjoining Emerald Museum (Museo de la Esmeralda).
The jewelry-making experience costs $90 and includes a visit to the other Diaz facilities, as well as transportation to and from your hotel or the harbor if you have signed up as a passenger through Princess Cruises.
Arriving on a weekday morning, I took a quick tour of the school and learned about its variety of one-year programs, including jewelry designing, jewelry making and gem cutting. A fourth course, gemology, is launching soon.
I watched students use a 3-D printer to make sample bands that allowed for different gem settings. In other, more lab-like rooms, students in white coats worked with heavy machinery and blowtorches. When my turn came, I entered a large room with several tables. Each individual workplace offered an array of pliers, wires and the most important part: raw, uncut emerald stones.
After a brief video about the background and history of emerald mining in Cartagena, I was paired with Oriana, one of several students chosen to help out during the workshop, due to her advanced jewelry-making skills and English language proficiency. My first project: a pair of earrings and a necklace.
Deftly wielding round nose, flat nose and cutting pliers, Oriana showed me how to bend wires, coil them around other metal pieces and thread the emerald rocks.
“Now you,” she said.
I did pretty well, with Oriana only taking over when she thought I needed to re-bend or re-coil a spool of wire to make it more secure. Before long, I had finished a piece of jewelry I could have very well bought in a store. I could not believe I had done it with my own hands.
Next, we went to another classroom where I got a chance to use machinery. Donning a lab coat, I learned how to operate a propane torch to melt the silver that would subsequently be used as jewelry wire. I had to hold the torch directly to the thick chunk of metal until it transformed from solid to liquid. I then poured the liquid into a mold, letting it harden into a long rectangular shape.
This was only the first step. To make a long spaghetti-like wire, I used a machine that thinned the silver. The process was manual. I threaded the silver through slots that flattened it when I cranked a side handle. When it came out the other side, I had to rethread the result and go through the process repeatedly until the silver reached the correct thinness.
The activity took a while and made me realize that behind every piece of jewelry we admire in the store are real people working hard to create things of beauty. Many of us never think of that.
Back in the first classroom, I started another project. Oriana had me create a bracelet and a ring. Now, I had four pieces I’d done on my own. The class fee includes taking home only one piece, but you can take any of the others for only $30 each. This isn’t a bad deal when you consider that finding the appropriate souvenir to bring back home to family or loved ones can become a stressful task. The jewelry I made couldn’t have been more appropriate. It was shareable, wearable, and could even become an heirloom piece. The best part is that it is homemade from the heart — there is no better gift.
My appreciation for emeralds only grew when I visited the Diaz brothers’ Emerald Museum. I saw emeralds from around the world and even walked through a replica of an emerald mining tunnel.
The museum’s piece de resistance is a 260-pound rock, considered to be the largest emerald matrix ever found in Colombia. Known as the Petra, it contains more than 60 emerald crystals embedded on a white calcite bed that weighs more than 2,000 carats.
At the adjoining factory, standing behind a wall of glass, I watched workers cutting, polishing, filing and setting sparkling emeralds into countless attractive pieces that would eventually be displayed and sold in the first floor showroom. Thanks to the generous discount given to those who sign up for the jewelry making class, I was even able to afford a pair of sparkling emerald studs.
Aside from the personal pride of creating something of beauty from scratch, it was especially satisfying to learn the art of emerald jewelry making in the heart of the world’s largest producer of these captivating gems. There simply is no more appropriate or “brilliant” experience than that.