How I became involved in the emeralds of the Atocha
By Manuel Marcial de Gomar
Hidden for nearly five centuries, the wrecks of untold Spanish Galleons have languished beneath the blue and turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the Florida Straits, and the Islands adjacent to the Gulf Stream.
To the surprise of many, in 1985, the richest of all the ships of Spain’s Tierra Firme fleet, the elusive Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, were discovered in Florida’s Marquesas Keys by treasure hunter Mel Fisher after long years of unwavering tenacity in spite of great personal loss. Enormous piles of silver spread through with gold ingots, chains and coins of pure gold, and the personal jewelry of princes of the church and ship’s officers came to light to the wonderment of all.
The recovery of the wealth of the Atocha contained other secrets that could only be unveiled by familiarity with the history of the Iberian Nation and how
they had developed the sciences that would enable its fleets of discovery to circumnavigate the globe impelled by its resounding raison d’etre, ‘Plus Ultra’…..”Further Beyond”
Combining that history with that of its richest cargo, the emeralds, was my particular field of expertise and family background. My ancestry dates back to the poet Martial, today Marcial, who lived in that part of the Roman Empire named Hispania, and also to the Arabic Qumar or Gomar, who lived in the Iberian nation of Al-Andalus.
Sometime within the first year after finding the scattered remains of the two galleons, Mel came into my shop on Duval Street, and without the customary greetings said in a loud and concerned voice, “I have lots of green stones coming up off the Atocha and I don’t know what they are!” I reassured him that I would come over to his offices and make the determination of the nature of his ‘green stones’.
And so began the unfolding of one of the major secrets of the Spanish Galleon sanctified by the holy name of Our Lady of Atocha. Atocha was a suburb of Madrid and also a name for the esparto leaf used in basketry and rope-making, seemingly of sufficient importance to attach its name to the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
My first glance at the ‘green stones’ revealed the classic color and crystal formation of Muzo Mine, Colombia. I had known all along that what Mel was talking about had to be emeralds from Colombia, but I had one very real concern that actually had my heart pounding.
Having been in the emerald business, both mining and wholesale, in that country since I was nineteen, I well knew the difference between emeralds originating from the two mining regions, Muzo and Chivor, each of them bearing different and distinguishing mineral characteristics. To my intense relief, the uniqueness of Muzo emeralds immediately hit my eye. My fear was, that had the emeralds been from Chivor Mine, I would have had to declare their appearance, purporting to originate from a Spanish Galleon that sank in 1622, a fraudulent hoax.
Chivor mine had been closed since the late 1500’s and, other than occasional workings by stragglers, the mine was not reopened until the first years of the 20th century. The closure and sealing of the mine had been decreed by order of the Pope and upheld by the King of Spain. All this, under Penalty of excommunication for whosoever should violate the Papal order. It was issued in a moment of compassion in response to the deaths of too many indigenous people. The Spaniards took their religion seriously and did not set foot there again.
I breathed a deep sigh of contented relief when I saw that the emeralds were not from Chivor. Further to this, some days later, I consulted with Ed Little, the highly respected Florida State marine biologist, to determine if there were any identifiable natural indicators on objects that had been subjected to prolonged marine immersion. He then elaborated on the presence of foraminifers, the minute fossilized marine diatoms that would be very visible, sometimes with the naked eye, but more clearly with a 10 power loupe. These marine fossils particular to the Florida Straits have been key in establishing their provenance as bona fide emeralds from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
Additionally, there were sea salts embedded in the micro fissures protruding the crystal surfaces that also aided in certifying the origin of these wonderful emeralds.
It became my task to put a grade and value on the emeralds from the shipwrecks, which I achieved by using the grading system that we had used at the Bogotá office of Chivor Emerald Mines. As distinguished from modern emeralds, the shipwreck emeralds could command a premium of 4 to 6 times above the conventional market place for emeralds of like quality. I adopted this formula having seen it put forth by an esteemed appraiser, Sigmund Rothschild, when he first established a treasure value for these rarest of all emeralds. It is my opinion that these incredible emeralds have not realized their full potential value but will in time as their demand and popularity increases and their incredible provenance fully recognized.
The first key to arouse my curiosity was the especially well-crafted design of the jewelry being recovered from both galleons. Having personally investigated sunken Spanish galleons in the Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain as early as 1969, I had a cursory understanding of the brilliance of Islamic Spain as evidenced by the magnificent architecture of the Alhambra in Granada, the Mosque of Córdoba, and the Alcázar of Seville.
From the year 711 AD onwards, Arab armies conquered the Iberian Peninsula and, under the just and honorable reign of the Omayid ruler, Abd al-Rahman, order and prosperity prevailed. Neither Jews nor Christians had ever enjoyed such security as they did under the Caliphate of Córdoba. Feudalism was abolished and the people became free landholders, liberated from the shackles that kept Europe in the Dark Ages.
Great manufacturing enterprises developed in silk, cotton, wool and linen fabrics and metallurgy flourished. The swords and armor of Toledo were reputed to be the finest in the world. Science and literature, art and medicine, astronomy and navigation, chemistry and mathematics, were all hallmarks of the impressive progress of Islamic Spain. While the inhabitants of Christian Europe were living in gloomy city alleys or miserable village hovels clustered around castles of rude, uncultured nobility, the noble spirit of toleration breathed over the agriculturally rich plains of Andalusia. The entrenched Christian Europeans could have learned something from the diversity of faiths enjoying well-being under the hated Moslems to the south.
During these centuries of prosperity and religious freedom, jewelry design reflected the inspired fusion of Islamic ornamentation and Christian art known as Mudéjar. This was beautifully evident in cups, spoons, brooches, chains and primarily, the emerald rings recovered from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita of which contain some of the most beautiful emeralds appearing as new and magnificent as the day they were set. These rings were my key to Spanish history.
I realized the unfortunately overlooked significance to our advanced age of the Islamic contribution of Arabic numerals and the rescuing of the zero by Arab scholars from the Hindus. Such an idea revolutionized mathematics with the amazing idea that nothingness can have value. Without these advances, our digital age would have remained a distant hope. It was important that credit for such noteworthy advances in civilization should be given to those who made them possible. The alternative of regressing to mind-numbing multiplication with Roman numerals should forever rest in peace. That all this cultural advance should have originated from the solitary figure of Muhammad, who, alone and unaided, appeared among the most barbaric people on the face of the earth, the desert tribes of Arabia, and through the transmuting effect of the Qur’an changed them into the forward agents of virtuous civilization, is in itself quite astonishing. Such is the power of progressive Revelation, a process in effect since the appearance of hominids, assuring universal progress in levels of unity throughout the remotest parts of the planet.
But for all of the above, neither Christopher Columbus nor Vasco da Gama would have ever set sail.