Emery is a natural mixture of iron oxides and corundum. Corundum is a form of aluminum oxide (rubies and sapphires are also aluminum oxide; in fact precious sapphires are found in the deposits of emery in North Carolina and Georgia).
Emery is primarily used to polish metal. Coated on cloth, it is used in automotive body work. Coated on paper, it is used by jewelers and watchmakers. Grades range from 0000 (equivalent to about 800 mesh), 000, 00, 0, 1, 2 and 3 (the coarsest).
The name comes from Cape Emeri on the Greek island of Naxos in the Cyclades, where emery has been mined for centuries, and is still mined (see www.corundum.gr/index.html). The place name “Cape Emeri” is not found on modern maps. It appears to be an English translation of the Italian “Cape Smerglio,” which may be from the Greek σμύρις, the word the Romans used. Emery was mainly exported through the coastal town of Moutsouna.
In the 16th and 17th centuries pins and needles were stored in small cases called “emeries,” because they were charged with loose emery powder. In those days pins and needles were not plated and the abrasive action of the emery kept them free of rust.
Emery cloth was invented in England by Lothrop in 1831.
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Last revised: 7 September 2009.