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Emerald Hand Specimen

Natural History Museum Vienna
Natural History Museum Vienna

Emeralds. 17 x 16 cm. Colombia/Tyrol. 1596.

Exquisite emeralds from Colombia were artistically cemented together using cobbler’s wax to make a hand specimen – a rare treasure from the early days of collecting.


A TRIUMPH OVER NATURE
Colombian emeralds reached Europe’s treasure chambers thanks to the voyages of discovery made in the mid 16th century. Microscopically small inclusions proved that such crystals were also used for this hand specimen. They came from the Muzo and Chivor emerald mines in Colombia, which were already operational in the 16th century. The base of gold-plated copper sheet was probably made much later. The hand specimen was first mentioned in 1596 in the inventory of the estate of Archduke Ferdinand II at Ambras Castle in Tyrol. The cabinet of art and curiosities at Ambras was well known for the exquisite objects it contained. Creations like this emerald hand specimen were designed to surpass the best which Nature had to offer in both size and beauty. Even in the 19th century, such pieces were highly prized as “mementos of the 16th century and characteristic of the spirit and the state of science of those times”. In the 1855 inventory of the imperial and royal Ambras Collection, this piece was described as “an exquisitely beautiful emerald druse from Peru with many large and small emerald crystals”. Together with other valuable objects from the cabinet of art and curiosities, it was moved to Vienna for safekeeping from Napoleon’s troops, and presented to the imperial and royal Mineralogical Cabinet in 1880. Although hand specimens were nothing out of the ordinary in the 16th century, the NHM’s example – which for decades was wrongly referred to as the “Moctezuma Emerald” – is exceptional due to its size and remarkable craftsmanship. The only known comparable piece is the “Moor with Emerald Plate” in Dresden’s Grünes Gewölbe museum.

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Details

  • Title: Emerald Hand Specimen
  • Rights: (c) NHM (Lois Lammerhuber)

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