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Jewels: A Secret History Paperback – August 14, 2007
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Praise for Victoria Finlay’s Color
“The writing elegant and precise, and with at least one new and fascinating revelation on every single page . . . I could not be more enthusiastic.”
–Simon Winchester, author of A Crack in the Edge of the World
“Color is the essence of landscape, of mood, of our whole perception of the physical world. Victoria Finlay has traveled through Iran, Afghanistan, and other places to investigate the origin of all those tantalizingly sensual ochers and reds and blues. What a creative idea for a book!”
–Robert D. Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts
“In this engaging travelogue, a rainbow of hues determined the author’s choice of destinations. . . . By the time you read ‘Violet,’ you will have traversed much of the world, sharing Finlay’s contagious fascination with color.”
–Condé Nast Traveler
“A rainbow of stories . . . even casual natural history fans can enjoy Finlay’s conversational style and her enthusiasm.”
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Victoria Finlay studied social anthropology at the University of St. Andrews and the College of William & Mary, Virginia, before working for Reuters in London and Scandinavia. She spent twelve years as a journalist in Hong Kong, five of them as arts editor of The South China Morning Post, where she also presented a weekly radio program. She now lives in Somerset in southwest England, and divides her time between researching her next book and working for an international environmental charity, www.arcworld.org. Jewels is her third book.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Frankly, I try to provide some sort of constructive criticism or devil's advocate segment in all my reviews, to keep them balanced, but I don't really have that for this book. I mean, maybe the organization and order of the gems as they appear is a bit arbitrary, but that's about it. It goes into all sorts of fascinating details that even an avid fan of gemology probably wouldn't know about!
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.
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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I struggled to finish the book.Read more