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The Emery Mines of Naxos

Last Updated: 6th Jan 2008

By Daniel Russell

The Emery Mines of Naxos, Greece

By Daniel E Russell

[For the Mindat locality pages on Naxos, see here and here. See here for the entry on Emery]

“Emery” is a mechanical mixture of corundum and magnetite (sometimes with other minerals) which has, for several thousand years, been used as a grinding and polishing compound. It takes its name from the Emeri Peninula, on the Greek island of Naxos, where the bulk of the emery used in the western world was produced since the classical Greek era. In fact, it was not until the mid-19th Century, with the discovery of emery deposits in Turkey and in the US (Chester, MA and Peekskill, NY), that the dominance of Naxos emery in the world emery market was seriously challenged.

The ancient Greeks called emery “smyris,” after the port city of Smyrna (today Izmir in Turkey, but then part of Greece) which served as the main distribution hub for Naxos emery. The Romans called it “naxium,” naming it more succinctly for its place of origin. Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and Pliny all mention emery and its use as an abrasive (and especially its use by lapidaries to engrave gems). (See King, 1865, pp.246-248)

In the earliest times, emery was recovered from loose boulders and blocks exposed by weathering. As the supply of easily accessed emery dwindled, other techniques – for the most part unsophisticated – were required.

German mining engineer and mineralogist Alexander Gobantz wrote an account of mining at Naxos in the late 19th century. His article (originally appearing in volume 42 of the Oesterreichische Zeitschrift fur Berg- und Huttenwesen, and abstracted in the Minutes and Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Vol. 117, pp. 468-468), was quoted extensively in a translation appearing in Merrill (1899):
Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades Islands, is remarkable as being one of the few localities in the world producing emery on a large scale; the deposits, which are of an irregularly bedded or lenticular form, being mostly concentrated on the mountains at the northern end of the island, the most important ones being in the immediate vicinity of the village of Bothris… The lenticular masses of emery, which are very variable in size, ranging in length from a few feet to upward of 100 yards and in maximum thickness from 5 to 50 yards, are closely associated with the limestones, and, as they follow their undulations, they vary very much in position, lying at all kinds of slope, from horizontal to nearly vertical. Seventeen different deposits have been discovered and worked at different times. These range over considerable heights from 180 to 700 meters above sea-level, the largest working, that of Malia, being one of the lowest. This important deposit covers an area of more than 30,000 square metres, extending for about 500 metres in length with a height of more than 50 metres. This was worked during the Turkish occupation, and it has supplied fully one-half of all the emery exported since the formation of the Greek Kingdom. The highest quality of mineral is obtained from two comparatively thin but extensive deposits at Aspalanthropo and Kakoryakos, which are 435 metres above the sea level. The mineral is stratified in thin bands from 1 to 2 feet in thickness, crossed by two other systems of divisional planes so that it breaks into nearly cubical blocks in the working. The floor of the deposit is invariably crystalline limestone, and the roof a loosely crystalline dolomite covered by mica schist. The underlying limestones are often penetrated by dykes of tourmaline granite, which probably have some intimate connection with the origin of the emery beds above them.

Mineralogically emery is a compact mixture of blue corundum and magnetic iron ore, its value as an abrasive material increasing with the proportion of the former constituent. This proportion has, however, been usually much overestimated. Seven samples collected by the author have been examined at the Technical High School in Vienna, and found to contain from 60 to 66 per cent of alumina. The average composition may be considered to be 2/3 corundum, the remainder being magnetite and silica in the proportion of about 2 to 1, with some carbonate of lime. The working of the deposits is conducted in an extremely primitive fashion.

During the period of Turkish rule the exclusive right of emery mining was given to two villages, and this rule has prevailed up to the present time; no Greek Government having ventured to break down the monopoly. These privileged workmen are about 600 in number, and have the right of working the mineral wherever and in what manner they may think best. The produce is taken over by the Government official at the rate of about £3 12s. for 50 cwts. The rock is exclusively broken by fire-setting. A piece of ground, about 5 feet broad and the same height, is cleared from loose material, and a pile of brushwood heaped against it and lighted. This burns out in about twenty-four or thirty hours, when water is thrown upon the heated rock to chill it and develop fractures along the secondary divisional planes in the mass of emery, and so facilitate the breaking up and removal of the material. Sometimes a crack is opened out by inserting a dynamite cartridge, but the regular use of explosives is impossible, owing to the hardness of the mineral which can not be bored with steel tools. Only the larger lumps are carried down to the shipping place, the smaller sizes, up to pieces as large as the fist, being left on the ground.

As most of the suitable places for fire-setting at the surface have been worked out, attempts have been made to follow the deposits underground, but none of these have been carried to any depth, partly on account of the suffocating smoke of the fires, rendering continuous work difficult; but more particularly from the dangerous character of the loose dolomite roof, which is responsible for many fatal accidents from falls annually. These might, of course, be prevented by the judicious use of timber or masonry to support the roof, but this appears to be beyond the skill of the native miners.

The rapid exhaustion of the forests in the neighbourhood of the mines, owing to the heavy consumption of fuel in fire-setting, has been a cause of anxiety to the Government for some years past, and competent experts have been employed to suggest new methods of working. These have been tolerably unanimous in recommending the institution of systematic quarry workings, using diamond boring machines and powerful explosives for winning the mineral, and the construction of wire-rope ways and jetties for improving the methods of conveyance and shipping; but as funds for these improvements, owing to the disastrous condition of the national finances, are not obtainable, the primitive method of working still continues. Meanwhile the competition of the mines in Asia Minor has become so intense that the export of emery from Naxos has almost entirely ceased for a year past.

Rothwell (1897) adds:
According to Consul-General Stevens of Smyrna (1885) the emery mines of Greece are leased by the Greek Government to the highest bidder for periods of 12 years, the lessee being obliged to take out at least 1650 tons of emery per annum. The Naxos product is taken to the neighboring island of Smyrna in sailing-vessels, whence it is reshipped. A good deal of it goes to Smyrna, the chief depot for the Turkish mines, where it is marketed.

Charles Or (1913) provides some figures on emery production at Naxos during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries:

Emery Exports From Naxos

Year Metric Tons Value Price/Ton
1897 3,125 $ 65,683 $21.02
1898 4,500 93,166 $20.70
1899 5,139 106,181 $20.66
1900 6,023 124,503 $20.67
1901 6,080 125,582 $20.65
1902 4,315 88,841 $20.59
1903 5,813 120,348 $20.70
1904 6,353 131,531 $20.70
1905 6,395 132,090 $20.66
1906 8,030 166,251 $20.70
1907 10,982 221,154 $20.14
1908 7,471 164,520 $22.02
1909 8,193 164,762 $20.11
1910 12,939 255,053 $19.71
1911 9,845 202,119 $20.53
1912 8,268 157,422 $19.04

Rothewell (1897) noted “The best Naxos emery left after the culling... can be purchased directly from the Greek Government and costs $31 - $36 per ton delivered in New York or Boston, while inferior lots have been offered at $13.” He added:

I am informed, by those who are in a position to know, that no Naxos stone of first quality ever reaches this country, since the English, French, and German manufacturers have agents at Naxos, who buy all the best stone as fast as mined. This statement seems highly probable. No American manufacturer has an agent at Naxos, and the low prices obtained for all abrasive products in this country would hardly warrant the purchase of selected stone at a greatly advanced price, such as European manufacturers are compelled to pay for first choice at Naxos. In the opinion of the writer the value of Naxos emery has been overrated, the Turkish being equally good, while that of Chester is much superior to either as an all-round abrasive. The Naxos emery contains a comparatively large percentage of water, and there is ground for distrusting any product containing a large percentage of water, whatever else it may contain.

Clearly, we can guess what Rothewell thought about water in his whiskey!

King, C. W. (1865) The Natural History, Ancient and Modern, of Precious Stones and Gems London 1865

Merrill, George P. (1899) Guide To The Study Of The Collections In The Section Of Applied Geology. The Nonmetallic Minerals. Washington Government Printing Office

Or, Charles (1913) The Mineral Industry - Its Statistics, Technology And Trade During 1912 Volume XXI McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York And London 1913

Rothwell, Richard P. (1897) Statistical Supplement Of The Engineering And Mining Journal - The Mineral Industry, Its Statistics, Technology And Trade, In The United States And Other Countries To The End Of 1896. Vol. V. New York And London: The Scientific Publishing Company. 1897

Article has been viewed at least 17109 times.


Daniel, thanks a lot, yours is a very remarkable contribution to the mining history of a such important (geologically) place...and as half greek guy I do really appreciate that!
I'd suggest your page to be linked to Naxos loc card.
Any suggestions so far?


Chris Mavris
11th Jan 2008 11:23am
Thanks! It already is linked to *both* Naxos pages - maybe they should eventually be combined into one.

Daniel Russell
13th Jan 2008 4:57am
Good idea.
Perhaps Jolyon will do it...


Chris Mavris
13th Jan 2008 8:54pm

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