Finlay: Jewels

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Victoria Finlay, Jewels : A Secret History. New York : Ballentine Books, 2006. 472 pages, with color plates, notes, bibliography, and index.

Rambling through the history, romance, and folklore of gems, this book is a collection of what we might think of as biographical sketches of several gems. These are the precious objects that Ms. Finlay discusses:

  1. Amber
  2. Jet
  3. Pearl
  4. Opal
  5. Peridot
  6. Emerald
  7. Sapphire
  8. Ruby
  9. Diamond

They are in order of their rating according to Mohs' Scale of Hardness, a unique but not inappropriate way to organize the chapters, not least because it allows the author to save diamond for her last topic.

Most of the subjects she associates with a particular place – Opals with Australia, Peridot with an Indian reservation in the American Southwest, Jet with a mine in England, Amber with the Balkans, Rubies with Thailand, Sapphire with Sri Lanka. She traveled to mines in each of these places and collected stories first hand that enhance her narrative, giving each one immediacy and atmosphere of place.

I liked the blend of cultural history, science, and travelogue reporting, which added depth to the stories about each gem.

The colors of grieving vary almost as much as the cultures of those who grieve. In Armenia, people mourned in sky blue to express the hope that their loved ones were now in heaven. In Persia, it was the pale brown of withered leaves, while white is still worn in many parts of Asia to celebrate the belief that the deceased has moved into the lights. In Brittany, some widows even wore yellow for mourning. However, from at least Ancient Greek and Roman times, black—signifying the absence of light and the long night of sorrow—has been de rigueur for funerals in Western culture, and jet the perfect accessory. Also, when jet is warmed, it attracts lint, like amber, and this inner electricity supports an innate heat, which means it may spontaneously combust. At times over the centuries, Whitby jet-shop owners have arrived at work to find their premises destroyed by their own jewels. But even this was consoling to some bereaved buyers: what better gem to bring comfort in death than one with the capability of warming those who are cold? [pp. 57—58]

Some legends get corrected, too, as in this discussion of the invention of a viable commercial technique for growing cultured pearls. Like the author, I'd always believed that pearls were created by irritating pieces of sand, not icky little parasitic worms (which is hardly romantic marketing).

The curious thing is that, however, many people wore them, dived for them, and drilled hole sin them throughout all those centuries, nobody actually knew what pearls were. Or perhaps there were people who knew but did not want to say, as the truth—about parasitic worms and vile stinks on the beaches—was not something that the delicate ladies featured in the National Portrait Gallery would have wanted to know.

The facts were not widely known until the early twentieth century, but before that there were many myths to choose from on the origin of pearls. The fishers of the Persian Gulf used to say pearls were the result of February rain falling into the oysters, citing as proof the "fact" that if no rain falls at this time the divers find nothing for the rest of the year. Among some tribes in Borneo there was a belief up to the beginning of the last century that pearls were the eyes of spirits and consequently every ninth pearl they found was sealed into a bottle with a dead man's finger and offered to the spirits as appeasement. meanwhile, the Chinese told their children that pearls were the tears of sharks, and in Roman times scholars wrote that they were the dew that fell from heaven. In the 1600s the lapidary writer Anselm de Boodt speculated that pearls were produced by the secretion of a "viscous humour" within oysters, while in England in the 1970s my generation grew up believing they were grains of sand, made beautiful inside an exotic shell. [pp. 105—106]

Other historic details get clarified, details about the often less-than-romantic history of gemstone mining and marketing. Details about the origins of the De Beers near monopoly on diamonds is not particularly savory. (By the way, De Beers was founded by British adventurer Cecil Rhodes (namesake of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). There were no actual De Beers – he made up the name.)

By the time he was twenty-eight [Cecil] Rhodes had a degree, a fortune, and a hatred of Barney Barnato, who had sold his cigars, run a boxing ring, dealt in illegal diamonds, bought some claims, and started a rival company called the Barnato Mining Company, which later merged with the powerful Kimberley Central. Both men were ruthless in business, but Rhodes, perhaps, had the edge. in 1884 he negotiated with the Cape government for permission to use convict labor. The first experiments with two hundred men worked so well that the De Beers company offered to build a convict station for four hundred men or more, which would take the convicts "completely off the hands of the government." According to Cambridge anthropologist Robert Vicat Turrell, the company had almost absolute control of these men's lives. Convicts went naked to their cells every night "and when their term was over they were put in solitary confinement, naked and with large leather gloves on their hands to make sure they had not swallowed any to sell later." If attention to human rights was low, attention to safety was lower. The Kimberley mines had the worst record of any in South Africa: each year, out of every hundred workers, between six and eleven would die in landslips, sickness, fights over diamonds, and, on one occasion, from an underground fire that killed 202 men. According to a witness, the last thing the rescue party heard was the sound of hymns being sung underground as the laborers realized they were trapped and prepared for death.

Over the years, Rhodes and Barnato circled each other as they amassed astonishing riches and power. In 1887 they locked horns, and two years later, having secretly brought up the stock of smaller partners, Rhodes gained control of most of the mines in Kimberley. Barnato was content to walk away with a lot of money and a huge block of stock in Rhodes' company. For the first time since the reign of the kings of Golconda almost the entire world supply of diamonds was in the hands of one man. It was the beginning of the diamond cartel. [pp.340—341]

Ms. Finlay is more than willing to weave science in with folklore and cultural history, which I think makes for good storytelling. For instance, consider this discussion of diamond folklore:

Until the sixteenth century at least, diamonds were so rare outside India that they became the subjects of exotic legends. One of the most popular medieval stories about Alexander the Great, for example, told how the young hero once visited an Indian valley where diamonds were found. it was so steep and full of serpents that no one dared descend. But Alexander got his men to throw pieces of raw meat down, which stuck to the stones. Eagles swooped to pick up the flesh, and by following them the soldiers were able to retrieve the precious stones from their nests. The curious thing about this story, which was also told by Marco polo and appeared in a slightly different version in the Sinbad sagas, is that it contains a grain of truth. If you throw a piece of mutton onto diamonds it picks them up, while leaving pieces of glass or topaz behind. Diamonds are what are called "lipophilic," which means they are attracted to fat while most gemstones are not. so this exciting fable could actually have been a mnemonic to remind its listeners of how to test if a "diamond" they were being sold was real for fake. [pp. 322—323]

On the other hand, she is sometimes willing to accept superstition and pseudoscience uncritically, and this statement about the physics of lasers is simply bizarre (and incorrect):

It is the capacity of gemstones to concentrate light and magnify it that led to their use in lasers. Some of them shed such a concentrated beam that it is said they can cast their rays onto the moon. [p. 265]

However, to be fair, her intent with this book is not to present a scientific study of gems but to tell stories about the history and romance and lore of gems, and the fact that she lets science in as equal partner in that narrative is welcome. All things considered, I found her essays diverting and informative and her narrative voice easy to read.

-- Notes by JNS

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