Top positive review
45 people found this helpful
on August 21, 2006
"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. Amber is the stuff that entrapped the mosquito that had dined on the blood of the dinosaur which yielded the DNA to build the monsters of the movie Jurassic Park. Its prices rose sharply when that movie came out in 1993, demonstrating our whimsical notions of value. Finlay goes to the University of Gdansk where is located the Museum of Amber Inclusions, and a guide indeed shows her insects trapped within. There is a particularly strange sample that looks like a long fly, only it has twelve legs; it turns out to be two flies caught by the sap during copulation. She attends the Amber-Washing Championships at Jantar, Poland, in the expectation that she would even herself be able to wade into the sea to fish out amber with the rest of the competitors, but finds that the sea no longer easily yields this treasure. Competitors on the beach were looking for amber pieces as big as shirt buttons planted by the organizers. "The whole thing was as exhilarating as a grape-peeling competition" she grumbles. The local supply of amber comes from a mine in an ex-Soviet Gulag "even bleaker than I had expected." It is a constant theme: gems may sparkle, full of richness, but the areas from which they are extracted are grimly impoverished.
Finlay has mined the historic literature for good stories; her debunking of the story of the curse of the Hope Diamond, for instance, is hilarious. She has also gone to the countries involved with each gem, and literally descended into the mines. She has funny stories, like being in a taxi stalled for an elephant parade in Sri Lanka (elephant parades are good for the sapphire business, as such a gem that has been worn on an elephant tusk is believed to have been blessed by Buddha himself). She has undergone no small amount of risk on these excursions. She has skillfully interviewed sometimes reticent subjects within the mines or within the business of bringing jewels to market, and employs judiciously the colorful anecdote. The historic and social results of our fascination for these useless rocks ("You can't eat them, you can't read them, you can't shelter under them ..." she quotes a Burmese taxi driver as saying) are on display here, as colorful and surprising as any of the gems themselves.