Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay

Jewels: A Secret History

“In the course of my research I found that although, of course, some rare stones have amazing and frightening dynastic tales, every jewel, however small or flawed, has its story: about the earth that was excavated to retrieve it, the families who depended on it, the people who designed the cutting method, those who bought or were given it, and the meanings and properties attributed to it. Whole human, geological, and cultural histories are wrapped up in every stone we wear or desire, even if it is only an imitation. So in one way it is the stones and jewels themselves, hidden in mines and oceans – and occasionally in tombs and wrecks and pirates’ hoards – that are the ‘secrets’ of the subtitle; the other secrets are the cultural layers of meaning and fascination that can always be found wrapped around them.”

Jewels always feel intensely personal. And they should be – there’s really no rational reason why they’re considered valuable. The value of jewels comes solely from people assigning value to them. Jewels are fundamentally useless, but we treasure them. Victoria Finlay understands this, and she approaches her history of gemstones from this direction – instead of being just a clinical, straightforward history of where and how certain gems are mined and cut, she’s using this book to examine peoples’ relationship with jewels, and trying to understand why they mean so much to us.

Finlay’s book uses Moh’s Scale of Relative Hardness as an outline – the book has nine chapters, featuring jewels from softest to hardest: amber, jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and diamond. For each, Finlay explains how the jewel was first discovered, how it’s formed, where it’s mined, and its relative popularity over time. There’s also a lot of practical information, like how to spot a fake gem (to test if a ruby or sapphire is real, put it in your mouth – rubies and sapphires have a high thermal conductivity, so if it’s real the jewel will draw heat from your tongue and feel cold). She also, while exploring the romantic attractions of jewels, doesn’t lose perspective. No matter what jewel is being discussed, there’s always a heavy human toll. The sad truth of the jewelry industry is that it was built on the backs of slave labor (and in many cases, continues to be supported by it) and Finlay makes sure we understand how many people suffer in the service of pretty things.

The best aspect of the book is the way Finlay (a journalist) goes all-out in her research. She doesn’t just tell us where the jewels are mined; she travels there and talks to the miners and the merchants. And she doesn’t stop there – Finlay took spelunking lessons so she could explore Cleopatra’s emerald mines, and she learned jewel-cutting in Sri Lanka. I can’t even imagine how long the research for this book must have taken.

It’s comprehensive and engaging, and the writing is clear. The only flaw (and it’s not even really a flaw) is that Finlay is very clearly a journalist, not a novelist. The chapters felt more like individual magazine articles rather than parts of a larger work, and while Finlay’s narrative voice is clear and informative, it’s not the most dynamic. Also there are a lot of photos from her travels scattered throughout the book, and Finlay is not much of a photographer – most of the pictures look like the photos of your aunt’s last vacation to Orlando.

The diamond chapter was probably my favorite, for three reasons: first, Finlay myth-busts the hell out of the legend of the Hope diamond (short version: the concept of the curse was made up to get people interested). Second,she dredges up all of the diamond industry’s dirty little secrets (diamonds are common as dirt and have absolutely no resell value, plus the De Beers company owns literally all the diamond mines, so they can charge however much they feel like). And finally, I loved this chapter because it taught me that there’s a company that can create lab diamonds from human ashes. That’s equally morbid and amazing, and now I’m going around asking everyone I know – would you wear a diamond made from the ashes of a loved one?

Verdict: four out of five stars

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