The find was made by geologist Bill Wengzynowski while he was following up on copper traces for a small base metals company Expatriate Resources in the Finlayson District, about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of the capital, Whitehorse.
Wengzynowski, the descendant of a Klondike prospector, in 1998 stumbled across what he thought was green malachite. On closer inspection, he recognized it as beryl, a mineral that, with chromium, gives emeralds their renowned rich green colour.
That discovery has led to further exploration along the remote granite intrusions of the Finlayson district, a mountainous area accessible only by helicopter.
The discovery could mark the beginning of a new era for the Yukon's struggling mining industry and become a new world source of emeralds, traditionally found in Colombia, Brazil, Zambia, Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan.
Until now, North Carolina is one of the few areas in North America to produce fine emeralds, which can fetch prices from $10 000 a carat.
"We are aware of three or four other groups that are now looking for emeralds in the area," Harlan Meade, president and CE of Expatriate Resources, said in an interview.
True emerald occurrences are extremely rare, and the Yukon discovery is still at a very early stage, with more claims being explored, said Meade.
He said that since Wengzynowski's discovery, it has taken time to access the area with equipment to properly sample additional rock sites from which emerged more beryl and bigger emeralds.
Last year his Expatriate Resources formed a joint venture with True North Gems on 93 mineral claims covering the initial discovery areas on Regal Ridge. True North will be listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange on Monday.
Since then, Expatriate has joined with YK, a private diamond mining group that wants to remain anonymous, to explore more claims in the Finlayson district.
The property consists of 2 900 claims, many of them adjacent to the Regal Ridge property, and Meade said his company has ample exploration data that will be used to guide the YK Group in their search for more gemstones.
Meade said only time will tell how large the Regal Ridge discovery is, and whether it will attract the attention of big-name retailers like Tiffany & Co, which is opening a cutting office in the Northwest Territories for diamonds produced from Canada's second mine.
Mike Burke, a staff geologist for the Yukon government, said mining companies were recognizing that Regal Ridge was probably not the only place where emeralds exist in the Yukon.
"Now that they have outlined the geologic setting, and the government has also done a lot more detailed work in the Finlayson Lake area that has provided a framework for others to look, it has triggered a bit of the staking rush," he said.
Lori Walton, a gemologist and adviser for the Yukon government, said the find did not surprise her.
She noted that 12 years ago no one believed diamonds existed in the frozen barren lands of the Northwest Territories and now industry titans like De Beers are spending most of their exploration budgets in Canada's North.
"I guess the reason is that Canada is under-populated, so much of Canada has not been explored – and we have a harsh climate up here, so we can only look a couple of months a year – and emeralds are very, very rare," she said.
Walton said the emeralds from Regal Ridge are scattered along an 800-m (875-yard) ridge and just a small piece of that has been explored.
"This is showing us that the geology of the Yukon, Alaska, northern British Columbia could be quite conducive to emerald formation," she added, noting also the potential for rubies and sapphires.
Joe Montgomery, a Vancouver mining consultant who has worked with emeralds in Colombia, said he knew it was only a matter of time before emeralds were discovered in Canada.
"Emeralds are rare and don't occur all over the place. You have to have very special circumstances ... beryl deposits are fairly common, but to get the green in there you need a bit of chromium and they have to be found together, and are not normally found together." Montgomery said the emeralds would have to be mined very carefully, without the traditional blasting methods used in gold and other mining projects.
"Generally, when you get into a zone of gem material, you slow everything down and work by hand," he said. – Reuters.