The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote the following lines in The Tale of Tsar Saltan:
Nuts–most wondrous to behold!
Every shell is solid gold;
Kernels–each an emerald pure!
That's a wonder, to be sure.
It is not by chance that the gemstone appeared in the fairy tale. In August 1931, when Pushkin finalised his poem, Saint Petersburg had been already taken over by the 'emerald fever'.
Everything started in December of 1830. Maxim Kozhevnikov, a local peasant, was distilling tar from conifers as he discovered several green crystals trapped in the root of a tree on the banks of the Tokovaya River. The man mistook the find for 'poor aquamarines'. This is hardly surprising since he had no knowledge of mineralogy. And after all, it is pretty easy to confuse aquamarine with emerald. Upon the discovery, the stones were taken to the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg for identification and further examination.
Shortly after that, the fashion for the Ural emeralds virtually engulfed the court circles of the Russian Empire's capital. The highest-ranking nobles were eager to get their hands on the new gem. It was mentioned in scientific publications, as well as it was talked about in aristocratic salons. The Gornyi Zhurnal («Горный журнал») reported, "the Ural emerald is superior to the eastern emerald in hardness yet not inferior in its lustre". Because of their colour, emeralds of the Urals were praised by connoisseurs and admirers of the stone. The precious mineral can be, for instance, deep dark, nearly black, or sparkling, dazzling green, unlike any other green gemstone. Due to its spectacular appearance, this rich, green-coloured mineral won the hearts of the Russian aristocracy and became more popular than even diamonds.
Following Kozhevinkov's find, systematic prospecting was initiated in the area, ending with a positive outcome — the Sretenskoye and Mariinskoye deposits of emeralds were located in 1831. This marked the starting point for commencing mining at the Izumrudnye Kopi, the largest site in the Urals that is still yielding new emeralds. Nicholas I, the Emperor of Russia, immediately ordered all emeralds mined in this region to be sent to the palace. The whole area, rich in precious stones, was declared his personal property.
In the mid-19th century, it was decided to lease out the mines. This is when
an opportunistic merchant Nechaev takes advantage of the opportunity and leases one of the largest deposits from the state for 20,000 roubles, a sum which would suffice to buy 10 tonnes of rye flour. A few years afterwards, he resells the right to exploit the deposit to an Anglo-French company focusing on mining emeralds. The entrepreneur made 300,000 roubles off that deal. Whilst under the foreign owner, it was a common practice to strip the workers naked on entering and leaving the site. It was done to check if a person took along a piece of emerald. The boys, who were sorting the emeralds, had one hand tied to a table and wore fingerless mittens on the other hand. Yet somehow, they would throw the stones up into the air with a spatula and manage to swallow them. Those who were found stealing were forced to drink castor oil and thus give back what they had ingested. Nonetheless, so many thefts were happening that Yekaterinburg actually had its own emerald market, utterly unrelated to the one in Paris. The new owner worked the deposit until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and before the termination of the lease agreement, extracted and sold about 10,000 tonnes of emerald. The war hampered cross-border movement, and the production of emeralds was halted.
In the late 1930s, the USSR's defence industry was in dire need of beryllium ore. As the Izumrudnye Kopi is rich in valuable metal, the mining activities were resumed. Beryllium was extracted from the mined rock and added to alloys to increase their strength without affecting the weight. Such alloys were used to make armour plating for tanks, ships, and aircraft. Emerald, in turn, served as a byproduct then. Often, large stones would end up concurrently blasted and dumped with the waste rock or as backfill material in the construction of railway tracks.
Underground mining operations at the Izumrudnye Kopi ceased in the 90s following the collapse of the Soviet economic system. The local mines were threatened by flooding and total destruction. It was only in 2008 that the Mariinskoye deposit re-opened, and legal mining recommenced. The mine is believed to contain over 60 tonnes of Ural gems, with approximately 5% of them being of the highest quality, putting them on a par with Colombian emeralds, the world's supreme. Izumrudnye Kopi has been acknowledged as an area of global importance. It is listed in the top five most spectacular natural geologic and mineralogical sites on our planet.
The Mining Museum's collection features stones mined throughout the world. It took some 200 years to collect the samples, which include, for example, 160 emeralds mined at Russian deposits. Some of them were submitted to the world's largest natural-scientific repository over the second half of the 1830s. The others were provided in the 1840s and 1890s by Count Lev Perovskii, Duke Nicholas of Leuchterberg, or taken from the mineral cabinet of Her Imperial Majesty. The first-ever emeralds found in the Urals are also exhibited at the museum.
Colombian and Brazilian gemstones, small-sized crystals from Egypt, collectable items, including those which belonged to Jacob Forster, a dealer in mineral specimens — they all are on display. Additionally to natural stones, the museum showcases artificial minerals too. It houses, amongst others, the first experimental samples synthesised during the mid-70s.