“ Emerald museum located at Calle 16 No. 6 - 66 Edificio Avianca Piso 23, Bogota „
I always thought of 'Esmeralda' as a sort of old witch kinda name, until I got one in my class. Of course, the English translation, 'Emerald', seems a lot less chavy than calling your kid, say, Diamante. It's more like Amber or Jade, no?
The International Emerald Museum is perhaps unusually located on the 23rd floor of an office block in downtown Bogota. It's in the Avianca Building, and opens in line with the building's hours, 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday. It's worth noting that your visit will require a guided tour, and these run hourly on the hour, so plan your visit accordingly - it's not much good arriving at 11.10am for example.
When you initially arrive, your first instinct may be to head upstairs to the entrance, but fight it! Instead, turn to the left where there is a small shop related to the museum. At first I thought it was part of the exhibition because nothing was priced, but the sales assistant soon made it clear everything was for sale. In return, I made it clear to her, I likely couldn't afford anything. We had a nice chat and she handed me a coupon for 50% off the museum entrance - though I'm guessing anyone who first went into the shop would receive the same. After a quick back and forth with the equally pleasant (and English speaking!) security guard, I headed to the front desk. Security in Colombia is tight, and to enter most office buildings, you need to show photo ID. I have a local identity card, but I can't imagine a UK photo driving license would be a problem if you prefer not to tote your passport around the city. From here, it's up to the 23rd floor in swish lifts that make you choose your destination in advance (so you're screwed if you key in the wrong floor and only realise once you're shooting upwards).
The museum costs $10,000, and at the moment £1 is equal to 3000 pesos, so full price is just over £3. With my 50% off coupon I paid....yep, 5000 pesos or about £1.80. It's quite a lot for a museum here, but not by international standards and, after all, this is the INTERNATIONAL emerald museum. Why, you might ask, is such a museum located in Bogota? Well, as I soon found out, it's because 55% of all emeralds come not only from Colombia, but from mines located within about 3 hours drive of the capital. Who knew?
My tour was at 4pm on a Friday, and I was in a group with 5 others. The guide started off by asking where we were from, and if anyone would like the tour in English as well, but since I spend all my life here speaking English, I sensibly opted for the Spanish version. We moved into a small room, sat on benches and watched a 5 minute, slightly cheesy film, about emeralds. It showed some real mines, and some Very Brave real miners who were hoping for the find of a lifetime, reminding me somewhat of the scene in Blood Diamond, albeit with less sunshine. It also made me wonder whether they'd have amended it at all had the Chilean miners been scavenging for pretty green stones.
From here we started the tour properly. They have recreated an emerald mine for visitors, though at no moment do you forget that you're actually in a tower block, about 100m above ground rather than deep below it. There are some hard hats by reception so, big kid that I am, I was quite disappointed when we didn't get to wear these. I had to make do with my suitable, but unintentional, emerald green top. The reason they don't give out hats is because you really don't need them. The 'mine' is really just a corridor with some walls that they've fashioned to look like exposed rock formations. It's smooth underfoot so there are no accessibility issues - we had one man walking with a cane in our group, and he managed fine. The ceilings are not especially low, and the lighting is far from authentic, so you have no problems seeing where you are going and nor are you going to decapitate yourself accidentally (or, suffer a mild concussion).
The 'mine' includes 4 or 5 different alcoves, and we stopped at each display for our excellent guide to tell us what we were seeing. Some showed how miners know where to find emeralds (they occur in 'streams' throughout the rock, so they just keep digging in one direction until the trail runs dry), others showed us the different minerals that tend to me found nearby, for example quartz. There are certain types of emerald that are only found in Colombia, so naturally a big fuss was made of these. In addition to the rock faces there were a few kitsch displays - a miner hard at work and so on.
The tour then progresses into a more traditional museum room, with lots of displays of emeralds of different cuts, colours and clarities. Of course we had to learn how emeralds are valued (it's less than 20% how it's fashioned by man, and much more the appearance in terms of said colour and clarity). There is also a mini workshop where the guide showed us how they are shaped using diamond cut planes, and allowed us to look through a microscope to see the amazing detail on the surface of even a tiny gem. Until this point we hadn't been allowed to touch any of the displays (or take photos which I thought a real shame) but in this room there was a sort of toy box of chunks we could handle.
Given that I am a teacher, you might expect me to be interested in education, but I'm not always. Much as I believe there's no such thing as useless knowledge, there are some fields I couldn't be less interested in. I don't know much about Geology (except for a friend at uni whose degree seemed to entail 3 years of colouring in) but I found my visit fascinating. The guide was extremely well informed (despite, she told us, having only been there 2 months) and explained things clearly. She was happy to take questions throughout the tour, and didn't mind my somewhat faltering Spanish. She was cheerful and friendly and really seemed to enjoy her job. Most amazingly of all, there was no indication that a tip was expected (and this, in a country where they want you to tip at the supermarket!)
The museum is interesting but also slightly disappointing. Even with the clear ties to Colombia, many emeralds get exported for display at other museums around the world. The Gachala Emerald, for example, is one of the largest in the world, and on display at the Smithsonian up in DC. Although there are numerous smaller and less impressive ones on display here, I think any of any real value would go elsewhere which is a shame, but at the same time understandable. If you want something to get seen and appreciated, perhaps the 20-somethingth floor of an airline building is not the place to stash it. For this reason I would say a visit to this museum is much more about the tour and the background to emerald mining than it is about seeing super special finds. At the same time, I reckon it has given me a much greater appreciation of the gems, and when I'm back at said Smithsonian I'll remember everything I learnt in those 40 minutes.
There is a further shop upstairs, again with un-priced items (but also, again with super friendly staff, and no pressure to buy). The shops sell the predictable jewellery (earrings, pendants, rings) but also some ornaments including cute mini dolls in local costume holding baskets containing the gems, and some adorable animals from a sweet donkey to a mallard that has been perfectly fashioned to take advantage of the cream, brown and green hues in the stone it's carved from. There's even one display of dozens of mini miners 'mining' shards of the stone, instantly reminding me of a planet full of Lintillas (that's a HHGTTG reference for those who don't get it).
The only way to visit the museum is on a guided tour, which was not something I was aware of in advance. But, having done it, it makes sense now, as in the mine nothing is labelled so you really need someone explaining it all. The tour lasted 40 minutes which flew by much to my surprise. I would highly recommend this somewhat niche museum if you're ever in town, and I'm now quite tempted to buy some emeralds just so I can wax lyrical about where they came from. Somehow having Colombian emeralds from Colombia seems like it will be much more satisfying (and impressive) than picking up a couple of stones from H Samuel, and a much better souvenir than bringing home some Cocaine and/or a Guerrilla.
Fundación Museo Internacional de la Esmeralda,
Calle 16 No. 6 - 66 (entrance is on the corner of Calle 16 and La Septima aka Carrera 7)
Edificio Avianca, Piso 23