Paolo Costagli was so taken with emeralds that in the late 1980s he left his native Italy to search for the finest examples of the gems in the mines of Colombia. For two months he labored underground near the town of Muzo, enduring 120-degree temperatures while digging with a shovel and pick in tunnels that were too cramped for him to stand upright. Costagli braved these conditions in the hope of finding a cache of emeralds with which he could start his own gem business. The work was brutal, but that was not the only reason he left Muzo. “There was lawlessness similar to the Wild West,” he recalls. “People were shot for their emeralds, and their bodies were just left on the road.”
From Muzo, Costagli, who is now 40 years old, moved to Bogotá. There he worked for a Japanese emerald dealer whose small office was outfitted with bulletproof windows. After three years of buying emeralds to sell abroad, Costagli joined his employer in a New York office, out of which they traded the gems internationally. “To be a good emerald dealer, you must be a cook, a formidable negotiator, and a crazy salesman,” says Costagli. By “cook,” he means someone with the ability to repair the stones’ fractures, which are commonly found in the gems, or to enhance their color through oiling, heat treatments, and other procedures. “Crazy” refers to his daunting escapades while importing the stones. “Every time I came through U.S. Customs and declared emeralds,” he recalls, “I was brought into a private room and strip-searched, because drugs and emeralds are often associated.”
Costagli eventually developed an appreciation for a broader spectrum of gems, and in 1993 he established his own gem and antique jewelry business specializing in colored stones. Within a few years, he started designing his own pieces. “I strive to bring out the individual beauty of each stone with clean, simple stone cuts, simplistic settings, and an absence of visible metal,” says Costagli.
His by-appointment salon on Fifth Avenue, in New York’s prestigious Crown Building, is furnished like a cozy living room. It is lined with vitrines that showcase his vibrant pieces and those of the Venetian jeweler Nardi, which is renowned for its jeweled blackamoor figurines.
Costagli’s jewelry often references the gardens of his native Florence. The Something Happy collection of green peridot and pink sapphire jewelry displays the colors of Florence’s famous Iris Garden, which is open just two weeks a year, in May, when the flower is in peak bloom. He is constantly scouting for new stones, which he often recuts to his specifications. One such treasure is a 205-carat, antique, cushion-cut aquamarine pendant that he set on a simple necklace.
Glaringly absent from the colored gems on display in his showroom are his once-beloved emeralds. When asked why, he is quick to reply: “I never touch emeralds today; I know too much.”
Paolo Costagli, 212.974.9360, www.paolocostagli.com