I first met Victor Carranza (1935-2013) on a bright and crisp morning. I had been invited to photograph him for TIME and the first interview he was giving to a leading international publication after having emerged victorious as Colombia’s emerald king with the signing of a tenuous peace with rival emerald barons. As I stepped out of the chartered helicopter, with leather seats and a 360 degree view of the Colombian mountains, I was greeted on a grey gravel platform by a polite and jovial man, probably in his mid 40s, and dressed like many in his mine: a pair of jeans, a cotton shirt and a small white towel draped over his right shoulder so he could wipe the sweat off his brow or from the palms of his big brown hands.
“Welcome to Muzo,” remarked Carranza as the chopper’s blades wound down. I was quickly escorted by men with hard hats and walkie-talkies to a simple dining room, decked with red plastic chairs and an impressive view of the world’s most important emerald mine. I had arrived in the land of the “green fire,” the safe zone of one of this country’s most elusive men and a mine that for centuries has given up the most beautiful dark green stones. When the kitchen staff emerged and handed over bowls of rice, fried plantain, flank steak, don Victor thanked the women with hairnets for lunch and began to recount his early life in the mine.
Born into a poor family, near one of the ravines of the Río Minero – Miners River – and which flows with its black silt and sand through the Muzo mine, Carranza recalled his older brother, who having found a large emerald in an abandoned mine, promised to sell it on the streets of the capital and bring back to the money to his mother.
The brother never returned. Not having seen a single peso from the sale of the rough stone, Carranza, instead of becoming embittered and vengeful, decided to go it alone, work the rock face for glints of green and save enough money to buy a small mine concession in Muzo.
For more than 20 years after my first encounter with Carranza in 1992, Muzo remained his, as well as many hundreds of thousands of acres scattered across Colombia. Carranza built an empire with stones. He worked his way from rags to incalculable riches by examing every mineshaft and sitting down at tables to hammer out a peace in the central highlands of Boyacá. Despite owning a private collection, which has been seen only by a handful of confidants, and selling personally emeralds worth millions to buyers in Shanghai, Hollywood and Dubai, Carranza never talked money to those who weren’t the knights at his round table.
I remember vividly every moment spent with Carranza. How we walked under a scorching sun and across a lunar landscape, so he could show me the well where he pumped water every afternoon to create a tambre – an artificial mudslide – so that thousands in the valley below can dig through the sludge for emeralds. Any stone that wasn’t picked up by Carranza, bagged by his engineers and of a certain grade and quality was swept down stream and into the shovels of black faced guaqueros. Carranza knew all too well that peace in the mine depended on sharing the wealth, keeping the masses at bay, so enough stones would make their way to the streets of Bogotá. Carranza’s clients were as confidential as a Swiss bank account. From Elizabeth Taylor to the tycoons on a shopping spree in Harry Winston, Carranza personally oversaw every sale of a Muzo stone.
After fighting a long battle with prostrate cancer Carranza reached his end. It was natural causes which ended his life, despite having survived many assassination attempts. And then there was the time he spent in prison for his involvement and financing of paramilitary groups, not only in the emerald zone, but in the eastern plains where he amassed large haciendas. Carranza kept the peace in one of this country’s most violent and lucrative industries, but it was a “peace” forged by fire.
The end of Carranza’s life also marks the end of a fascinating chapter in the history of Colombian emeralds. The peace that was forged two decades ago after Victor fought off the Medellín cartel’s relentless demands for his mine and which forced the esmeraldero barons of Boyacá to rally around him, may yet survive. A game of thrones for control of the green kingdom may have begun. The emerald, which once made diamonds “green with envy” now faces an uncertain future.