A Private Collection of Post Medieval Gold Jewellery Discovered in Jamaica, West Indies

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Date of Auction: 4th September 2018

Sold for £3,600

Estimate: £4,000 - £6,000

A 16th century single stone Colombian emerald ring, the lozenge-cut emerald within closed back collet/pie-dish bezel, to triangular section shank, (emerald chipped), ring size approximately M. £4000-6000


This collection of 16th-18th century rings and other jewels was discovered in the dried-up riverbeds around Old Spanish Town in Jamaica by a relative of the vendor, who was a keen detectorist in the mid 20th century.

Now one of the principal islands in the Caribbean, the explorer Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica as part of the Spanish Empire in 1494, the Spaniards building their capital, known as St Jago de la Vega, on the West bank of the Rio Cobre. When in 1655, the English conquered Jamaica, the capital was renamed as Old Spanish Town. A devastating earthquake in 1692 destroyed the English administrative centre at Port Royal, and Spanish Town became the English capital on the island, remaining so until 1872 when the seat of the colony was moved to its current home in Kingston.

Jamaica was a vital and volatile place during the mid 17th to mid 18th centuries, and formed part of the Triangular Transatlantic Slave Trade. Trade ships sailed from Europe to the African coast, exchanging manufactured goods and weapons for slaves, then on to the Caribbean to sell the slaves, and returned to Europe with goods such as sugar, tobacco and cocoa. The period from 1716 to 1726 is known as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, when Anglo-American sailors and privateers in the Caribbean, left unemployed by the end of the War of Spanish Succession, turned en masse to piracy, targeting the bounty laden ships that sailed the routes around the Caribbean seas. These jewels were presumably lost to the river during this turbulent period of Jamaican history.


In 1531 Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, first landed on the coast of South America, in Peru and discovered that the natives of this ‘New World’ possessed plentiful supplies of both gold and particularly fine emeralds. The conquistadors moved inland, seizing the gold of the Aztec, Maya and Inca peoples and so began an immense transfer of precious metal across the Atlantic. In the 1550s alone, Spain shipped more than 100,000 lb of gold eastwards out of the New World. Some of these treasure laden Spanish ships would have undoubtedly found port in Jamaica, then still a part of the Spanish Empire.

Pizarro and his conquistadors also tried to uncover the source of the fine ‘New World’ emeralds, but it took until 1537 to discover the mines at Chilvor, in Colombia, with a second source being found in Muzo, Colombia in 1539. Hazel Forsyth in her catalogue for the Cheapside Hoard Exhibition, held at the Museum of London in 2013, discusses the Spanish appreciation of Colombian emeralds in the 16th century:
Stones with a cloudy aspect and multiple inclusions were called ‘relampagos’ (lightening); the lighter, brighter coloured material was known as ‘verde alegre’ (happy green); while the greatly prized intense blueish green stones were branded ‘verde negro’ (green-black)… Some of the best stones went to a specially convened court in Bogotá and thence to the King of Spain, but the majority were either smuggled or traded secretly by an international network of gem merchants”.

Over 400 years later, Colombian emeralds are still considered to be the finest in the world, and this 16th century ring displays a particularly early and rare example from this source.