Gemstones & Minerals – Montezuma’s Aztec gold and gems

Aztec ceremonial mask located in the British Museum.

Aztec ceremonial mask located in the British Museum.

Ray-Lundin

Montezuma, known for the vast amount of gold and silver objects and the huge quantities of emeralds and otheR gems, did not prize the gold and emeralds as the most precious: it was jade he valued the most. When Cortes arrived and wanted gold, “…it made Montezuma smile when he heard that Cortez was interested only in gold, since Montezuma’s most precious possession was jade.” (Richard Gump, 1962)

In the native languages of Mexico and Central America, the name Chalchihuitl most always meant jade, but it appears sometimes to have been applied to other stones of green or greenish-blue color, such as emeralds, turquoise and amazonite. Although the Aztecs collected many precious gems and minerals, they used them for jewelry and ornamental purposes. Some were gathered for medicinal uses.

As for gold, they couldn’t use it for swords, knives or other equipment – it was too soft. So, it was used for decorative objects. Among the many precious and semi-precious stones in Montezuma’s treasure house were emeralds, opals, jade, turquoise, rainbow obsidian, fire agate, amethyst, topaz and pearls.

When Hernando Cortes planted the Spanish flag on Aztec Mexican soil in the early 16th century, he took from the berated Emperor Montezuma an enormous pyramid shaped emerald. Another emerald worthy of note and recovered from a sunken galleon is the Queen Isabella Emerald. This 964-carat deep green gemstone had captured the heart of, but eluded Queen Isabella of Portugal. Intended as a wedding gift from Cortes to his wife, the queen made public her desire to own the huge jewel. Snubbing the queen and dashing her desires for the gem, Cortes gave his wife the emerald along with other sensational new world gemstones regardless of the Portuguese queen’s desires.

An example of the Aztec skill and artistic workmanship is a remarkable Aztec ceremonial mask (now in the British Museum). The foundation of this mask is the front part of a human skull, and its outer surface has been covered with an incrustation of turquoise and jet (a black mineral) in five alternate bands, the upper, middle and lower ones being of jet, while the two intermediate ones are of shaped pieces of turquoise; part of the nose has been removed and the space covered over by tablets of pink shell; protruding eyeballs are figured by convex disks of polished iron pyrites with a bordering of white shell. Straps attached at the temples made it possible to bind this mask to the face of an idol, or for a priest to wear it on ceremonial occasions.

Cortes disposed of Montezuma and had his run of Montezuma’s empire. In doing so, he confiscated all the gold, silver and precious stones he could find in the palaces and homes of the inhabitants. But this wasn’t enough. He wanted to know where the gold, silver and emerald mines were. The Muzo Indians would not disclose the location of the mines, even under torture. During a bloody battle, one of Cortes’s soldiers’ horse kicked up a shower of large gleaming green crystals from the bed of a bubbling stream, and in doing so uncovered the source of the fabled Muzo emeralds, which still today are the source of the world’s finest emeralds.

Aztec jade mask

Aztec jade mask

Although tons of treasures were sent to Spain on ships, some of the galleons sank in storms on the way to Spain. The treasures of two of the sunken ships were
recovered from the ocean depths: the Atocha and another unnamed ship. The unnamed ship was found in 1993 and divers recovered the Isabella Emerald along with Cortes’ signet ring, a huge cache of raw emeralds (24,644 carats), and more than 25,000 carats of polished emeralds and masses of gold and silver jewelry. The Queen Isabella Emerald alone was valued at $20 million.

The Atocha sank in 1622 and was salvaged in 1985. It was loaded with an astonishing cargo of 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,000 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars, dozens of chests of gemstones and emeralds, including one exceptional 78 carat uncut hexagonal emerald. In all, experts have valued the cargo of the Atocha alone at nearly half a billion dollars. So valuable was the Atocha even to a large empire, that Spanish salvage teams would search for some 70 years before finally giving up.

Among the treasures that Cortes brought back from Mexico is the story of “a beautiful and incomparable pearl” that he acquired from Montezuma. While showing it to a friend on board the ship that was taking them toward Algiers, it slipped from his fingers into the sea. It was lost at sea, and in the words of Brantome “…vanished from the sight of mankind, unworthy to possess such a miracle of nature.”

When Cortes and his soldiers were driven from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec high priests knew it would only be a matter of time before the Spaniards returned. They realized that they could not defend against the conquistador’s superior weapons. The priests dug up the body of their fallen leader, Montezuma, then lead a procession of more than 2,000 men on a mass exodus in search of a new land to the north, a land that would be safe from the Spaniards. The priests took with them the collected treasures of the Aztec empire, tons of gold and silver sacred religious objects they would need to reestablish their once great civilization. According to the legend, the treasure-bearing slaves traveled in a northwesterly direction for many months, and when they came to a mountain on the edge of a desert, the treasure was hidden and the slaves put to death.

Muzo emerald

Muzo emerald

There is much disagreement about just how far north they traveled, but certainly the most interesting theory circulating among the treasure hunting community is that the treasure was carried more than 2,000 miles to southern Utah; yep, that’s right – Aztec treasure in Utah. According to legend, in 1920 Freddy Crystal found a treasure map tucked inside an old manuscript. The manuscript, written by Spanish Friar at the time of the conquest, stated that the map had been drawn using information gained during the torture of one of the original Aztec porters. Freddy Crystal had spent time in Utah and realized that the map was similar to the geography of southern Utah, in particular, near a little town named Kanab. Crystal found stairs cut into the side of White Mountain and enlisted the town people to help excavate the site in exchange for a share of the treasurer. The excavation went on for three years finding relics and ancient items, but never gold. Finally, with all the tunnels dug and no gold found, the townspeople drifted back to their day-to-day lives and forgot about the tunnels up in Johnson Canyon, Utah.

The treasure seems to elude everyone, if it indeed does exist at all. In Mexico, the Sacred Well was dredged, no treasure; other lakes in Mexico were dredged and some drained, no treasure; some said it was in the Grand Canyon, or in Guatemala, or even in Arizona’s Lost Dutchman Gold mine; still no treasure. But one thing is for sure, Montezuma was Mexico’s ultimate gem and mineral collector.

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