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Jewels: A Secret History Paperback – August 14, 2007

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Jewels: A Secret History + Color: A Natural History of the Palette + The Brilliant History of Color in Art
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gems seem to be moving to the literary forefront, with The Hope Diamond out in May and The Heartless Stone: A Journey through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire due in August. In her follow-up to Color, Finlay looks at diamonds and eight more of the world's most coveted gemstones. In each chapter, she discusses the jewel's history and travels to the stone's place of origin: abandoned emerald mines in Egypt, working opal mines in Australia, a pearl-fisher's home in Scotland and an Apache reservation that holds most of the world's supply of peridot. Finlay is also fascinated by the lengths to which people will go to fabricate jewels: one company manufactures diamonds from cremated human remains. While each journey holds its own charms—Finlay's trek to Sri Lanka to uncover the pedigree of a family heirloom sapphire is particularly enjoyable—they don't fully gel into a cohesive whole, and detailed stories about, say, the way one Japanese entrepreneur transformed the world's pearl market are juxtaposed with historical trivia. Still, Finlay's winning personality may well be enough to keep readers turning the pages. 8 pages of color and b&w illus. throughout. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Inspired by the engagement ring she'd received from her fiance, Finlay set off on a journey that literally took her around the world intent on uncovering the history behind some of the planet's most valuable gems. Her investigation of amber takes her to a much--diminished mining town in Russia, where Stalin once had a gulag full of people to work the mines. Finlay visits with former pearl fishers in Scotland who used to search the rivers for mussels before they became endangered. In Egypt she discovers the truth about Cleopatra's legendary emerald mines, while in Burma she goes on a more personal journey to trace the roots of a sapphire her father bought for her mother. She lays out the myth of the supposedly cursed Hope diamond before debunking it as a tall tale made up by Pierre Cartier to make a sale. Part personal journey, part historical anecdote, this rich, comprehensive book will no doubt appeal to jewelry lovers curious about the story behind the sparkle. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345466950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345466952
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #429,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I've recently finished a book for teenagers (and older people as well) published in November 2014 by the Getty Museum: it's called A Brilliant History of Color in Art. At the beginning we thought, oh that won't take much work as I've already written a huge book about Colour. But actually it's involved a whole load of new, (fascinating) research and ideas, and it took AGES to write (mostly between 1am and 6am). It's brilliantly designed, which I can say because I had very little to do with that except to coo with excitement whenever I saw one of the spreads arrive by email. And of course it's packed full of great Getty Museum (and other) images.

I first became fascinated with the story of colours when I was eight, and my father showed me a stained glass window in Chartres cathedral and explained how the blue glass was made 800 years ago and we couldn't make it like that any more. Many years later I gave up my day job as Arts editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong - where I lived for 12 years - to write Color: A Natural History of the Palette. My second book followed in 2005, called Jewels: A Secret History.

In the course of my research, I travelled to the underground opal churches of outback Australia, interviewed retired pearl fishermen in Scotland, crawled through Cleopatra's long-deserted emerald mines, climbed the "blue mountains" of Afghanistan where Michelangelo's ultramarine paint came from, learned about medieval stained glass and tried my hand at gem cutting in the dusty Sri Lankan city where Marco Polo once bartered for sapphires. I moved back to the UK in 2003 and now live near Bath, in southwest England. I divide my time between researching for my next book, working for an international environmental charity and writing for various UK and international publications.

The author photo was taken at the Getty when I was there researching in February 2013. I was SO happy to find that case full of pigment samples. The face-painting photo was taken on the Tiwi Islands in Northern Australia where Doreen Tipoulera created the Big Sheep, Little Sheep Dreaming in ochre on my face. I didn't wash it off for hours. And the Afghanistan picture was taken at a house in Sar-e-sang, where miners dynamited for blue. I had just noticed something metallic under the sofa. It was an AK47.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"It is an ordinary gemstone," writes Victoria Finlay of the sapphire in a ring given to her by her parents, "yet like most other ordinary gemstones it has a good story to tell, if you go looking for it." Go looking she does, not only for the story of that sapphire but for those of other gems, and yes, she found good stories and writes them up in _Jewels: A Secret History_ (Ballantine Books). Indeed, she values the stories more than the stones' rarity, perfection, or size. She set out to tell stories of nine different stones, from semi-precious to precious, and from two to ten on the Mohs hardness scale. The scale, invented in 1825 by mineralogist Freidrich Mohs, simply rates stones and other substances by what they can scratch and what scratches them; talc rates a one and diamond, the hardest substance known, rates a ten. Finlay ranges her chapters from softest stone to hardest: amber (Mohs somewhere between gypsum 2 and calcite 3), through jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and finally diamond. (It is interesting that value tends to increase with hardness, indicating that we place a premium on durability.) Even the biggest stones, Finley notes, are objects that are really rather small, but the stories encompass great swaths of human history and technical expertise.

I will mention here only her quest for amber, for which she visits the Polish Baltic coast, a source for the stone. You may know the sticky sap that is oozed out when a pine tree is injured, and amber is the fossilized version of the same thing. Its origin is mysterious, because for amber to have become the geologic deposit as it is now found, huge numbers of evergreens (the species of tree is no longer with us) must have been hit with some sort of disease or other stress.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Mathew B. Smith Jr. on September 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
For anyone who is interested in the fascinating story of some of the worlds most popular types of jewels, this book is for you. For anyone who is interested in visiting little know and remote parts of our planet, this book is for you. For anyone who is interested in better understanding why people are mesmerized by beautiful objects and why other people undertake dangerous jobs to find them, this book is for you.

The author not only shares the fascinating history of how these jewels have been used throughout history but she tells the even more fascinating story of those who make their livings finding and selling them. Ms Finlay has not let distance or danger inhibit her desire to see first hand where the gems come from and to speak with those who spend, and often risk, their lives in their pursuit. Their stories are as interesting and varied as the stones themselves. Like Patrick Leigh Femor and other top travel writers, this author seems to be able to put almost anyone at ease and entice them to tell her their stories with amazing candor. She has then been able to blend historical facts and current circumstances into a really fascinating read.

For me, her quest was really to better understand why jewels which, while beautiful, are basically useless command so much time, effort and even in some cases human lives in their production. After reading this book I believe that each person will be able to form their own answer to this question.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By K. Maxwell on March 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
With this book - which is effectively a sequel to her book on colour - Victoria Finlay investigates the history, myth and reality of the jewels we often place so much status on. She starts with Amber the softest of the semi-precious jewels and works her way through to Diamonds, which are much more common and not as indestructible as the jewellers and marketers would have us believe.

This is an interesting read, and while not exhaustive, will still manage to tell some new stories about gemstones even if you have read many other books on the subject. A combination of travel diary, history and general knowledge this book is educational and may make some readers view the stones in their jewel box in a new light. And as for "birth stones" - read the appendix at the end, it may open your eyes on one of the great marketing hoaxes.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Joe TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 24, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Throughout Asia and Europe, pearls were traditionally believed to ease a range of conditions, including eye diseases, fever, insomnia, 'female complaints', dysentery, whooping cough, measles, loss of virility, and bed-wetting ... Though nobody seems to advertise the potential for pearls to cure bed-wetting anymore." - Victoria Finlay in JEWELS

JEWELS is one of those delicious volumes you read for the pure pleasure of acquiring esoteric knowledge that has no practical, everyday use. Similar books I've read that come to mind include Salt: A World History, PURE KETCHUP PB, Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World, and Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. If someone has penned a narrative entitled WIRE COAT HANGERS, I'd read that too if the subject was made interesting. (There isn't; I checked.)

Author Finlay's approach is to discuss nine gemstones, three "organic" and six mineral, in the order of their position on Mohs' Scale of Relative Hardness. They are, listed by increasing hardness: amber, jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and diamond. (On Mohs' scale, talc occupies position #1, i.e. the softest. My wife treasures her pressed talc engagement ring.)

Finlay, a social anthropologist turned journalist, is no desk-bound researcher.
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