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"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.
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on September 7, 2006
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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"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. To write JEWELS, the story of the various gems' sources and evolution in societal value systems, she traveled the world: Kaliningrad Oblast (Russian Federation), northern England, Japan, Australia, Arizona, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and, perhaps the hardest to access, Antwerp's Diamond Club. The book begins with European, Asian, Japanese, and Australian "treasure" maps. Indeed, on asking what to look out for prior to visiting the remote site of Cleopatra's emerald mines in Egypt's desolate interior mountains, she was told, "Scorpions."

JEWELS contains an 8-page section of color photos as well as a liberal sprinkling of black and white snaps and illustrations. Oddly, it's the color section that comes up short, a fact which compels me to award 4 stars to what would otherwise be a five-star effort. Only examples of amber, pearl, opal, and diamond are pictured. There is no display of jet, peridot, emerald, sapphire, or ruby; I, an ignoramus when it comes to the topic, had to resort to the Internet. And there are no photos of two of the largest and most famous diamonds of history specifically mentioned in the text: the Cullinan(s) and the Golden Jubilee. Moreover, the Hope Diamond is given visual short-shrift considering its fame.

JEWELS concludes with a 19-page, perhaps useful "Miscellany of Jewels", which includes a glossary of terms, color scale and clarity terms for diamonds, a listing of American state gemstones, popular vs. mineral names for gemstones, Mohs' Scale, and a listing of birthstones. "Miscellany" is certainly the operative term.

Victoria's narrative is instructive and entertaining from start to finish. Except for the deficiency mentioned, one could hardly ask for more.
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on March 5, 2007
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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on February 1, 2013
I read Colors with interest but by the time I read Jewels it was the same breathy stuff. I thought I would actually learn something but mostly it is about her adventures and travels seeking out her interpretation of what interested her. If you really want to learn something the researched information is good but the present day details are underwhelming. How she could write about diamonds and not mention the rating firms like EGA & GIA and spend so much time on DeBeers pr was disappointing to say the least. It is meant to impress and yet it stays on the surface. factoids galor but unsatisfying and limited in its scope and bereft of useful information. Not for the serious student of these gems. If you are looking for a romantic presentation of these colors and gems you'll get it but don't expect any insights into the present day industries surrounding them.
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on March 19, 2016
A well researched and written book on jewels--interesting to read how the gems are mined or found; lots of stories behind the jewels we treasure and the people who hunt for them. Good fun for the armchair adventurer to read about the authors exploits in the world's various mining operations--did she really want to go down into all those deep dark mines? Was it safe to go off with strangers to find those remote mines off in the jungle? Glad she did, because her tales, interviews, and observations were well worth the journey. Even though I still love jewelry, after reading about the often exploitive and dangerous means of extracting the various jewels from the earth or ocean, I'll never look at gems, (especially diamonds), the same again.
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on March 19, 2016
A great sequel to Colors by Victoria Finlay! The anecdotes interspersed with the history of jewels and Ms. Finlay's personal experiences make this book fascinating and entertaining reading. It is at once a very personal story and an engaging history of jewels. Like Colors, it takes awhile to read -- but every minute is enjoyable.
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on June 16, 2013
I enjoyed Finlay's "Color" and was looking forward to this book. It did not disappoint. In fact, I think it was better than "Color."

The author works her way up the Moh's scale, from amber to diamonds, with the history, lore, legend, and science of gems. She also raises some interesting questions about manufactured gems and ethics without getting preachy or posturing.

I can't imagine what this woman's passport must look like. She travels the globe talking to the powerful and not-so-powerful, managing to get them to tell her their stories and share their knowledge. She manages to talk people into letting her do the most insane things in the name of storytelling. I learned things I did not before know, and I was thoroughly entertained...and always glad that she was the one getting muddy, sweaty, vertigo, whatever. I can't wait to see what topic she'll take on next.
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on December 20, 2012
I have learned so very much about gemstones, the jewel trade (both old and new) and the people involved all along the way. If you own a "pretty", you can be certain the person who pulled it out of the ground was very poor and gained very little compensation. It's enough to make you want to limit yourself to man-made stones. The downside would be that the miner might then have NO income. Than you for your fine work, Ms Finlay. I intend to read The Perfect Red next.
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on May 9, 2014
I am doing research on the story of Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of the Japanese cultured pearls. I intially bought the ebook because I was drunk and probably read the title "Pearls: A Secret History". Don't remember. The next morning I wanted to return the ebook and get my money back. But before that I spotted that there was indeed a chapter on pearls. I started reading it and got completely absorbed by Finlay's excellent while unlabored style combined with her stunning erudition. Although I had read a lot on the subject of pearls and the story of Mikimoto during the past year, my knowledge in this matter virtually doubled within few hours. I am grateful for Finlay's detective-like investigation, because she wasn't only critical of many documents and testimonials that she collected, but she even travelled to Japan and did her own research on todays operations of Mikimotos company - and the result is not flattering for Mikimoto's heirs. If the other chapters are only nearly as intense as this one, the book is just FAR TOO CHEAP!
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