Of Treasures Bright and Dark, the Tears of God(s), and Everything in Between – A Review of Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay

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A couple of years ago, my aunt went into a jewelry phase. She began to take interest in not just precious gems, but in semiprecious stones, primarily because some of them were reputed to have special properties for healing and protection. She then got my mother into it, and for a while they shopped without my knowledge, mostly because I had work at the time, and moreover was more inclined to put money away than spend it. But during one summer, I started accompanying my mother on her trips with my aunt while they went jewelry shopping, and that was when I – and they – realized that I had a real knack for figuring out real stones from fake ones. I attribute this to a passing interest in mineralogy while growing up, but more to the rather sensible idea (one that neither my aunt nor my mother knew at the time) that real gemstones feel cold to the touch, and generally feel heavier in the hand than a similarly sized piece of glass. But what my aunt particularly liked was that I had an “eye” for identifying the good stones from bad. I can’t truly account for this in terms of previous life experience, except to say that sometimes some stones don’t “look” right, while others do. Either way, my mother and aunt started taking me out to more and more trips until they themselves got the knack for it, and no longer needed me around. They still do, on occasion, especially when they want to make a special purchase and need what my aunt has teasingly called “my expert eye.”

As for myself, I got bitten by the same bug as they, mostly because I was a late-blooming fashionista and needed to build up a stock of accessories that suited my style. I started buying my own pieces, with my biggest purchase to date being a double strand of pearls of such a specific shade of silver-gray that all attempts by my mother, aunt, and myself to find pearls of the same color so I could have a pair of studs to match it have failed.

This fascination with gemstones – whether for their purported mystical properties, for the sake of fashion and beauty, or even for their ability to convey one’s status in society – is a fascination that has followed the human race almost since the very beginning of civilization, and many stories have been built around not just the stones themselves, but also where they come from and how they are made. It is these stories that Victoria Finlay relates alongside her own adventures in Jewels: A Secret History.

Finlay is not a new writer to me: I read her first book Color: A Natural History of the Palette sometime last year, and while I enjoyed it, I thought it was rather uneven in its storytelling, and thought that while some chapters were interesting, others were not entirely compelling. I suppose part of this is because some colors do not interest me at all, but I also think part of the blame lies in that Color is Finlay’s first book, and therefore errors in narrative flow are to be expected (or at least, that’s what I’ve come to expect) in first efforts. Fortunately, it would appear Finlay has learned from her mistakes while writing Color, because Jewels does not seem to exhibit the same issues.

In Color, Finlay used the painter’s palette as an organizational tool, and takes a similar tack in Jewels, choosing to use the Mohs scale as a guide in selecting the gemstones she tackles. Going up the scale, she has: amber, jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and diamond. Even better, she does something I don’t recall her doing in Color: using a personal story to frame the many other stories she relates in her book. In the case of Jewels, she kicks it off by talking about her engagement ring, made of stones taken from a mosaic in Istanbul. I really appreciate this concept, because it gives the rest of the book something stable to hang off of, and creates a sense of proper narrative opening and closure. It also helps that the story Finlay uses is both charming and touchingly personal, which is appropriate, given how jewels are often valued for their charm and sentimental value as much as their monetary value.

Finlay also does a fine job interweaving legends, superstition, history and the present of each individual stone, often traveling to their traditional sources (and sometime to new ones) in order to get a behind-the-scenes look at the industry of each individual stone. While there are parts that are touching, funny, and occasionally gruesome, many of the stories run on a similar theme: the hardships experienced by those whose main job is to get the stones out of the ground (or the ocean, in the case of pearls), and the constant possibility of collapse of some industries altogether. The story about the United Kingdom’s freshwater pearl industry, in particular, is haunting in its sadness, and a potent warning about how greed and a lack of environmental concern can destroy a delicate resource and thousands of years of tradition.

And then there is the threat of artificially-made gems, and treated gems. Many labs can churn out lab-created sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds (and can create specific qualities and sizes to-order); and pearls have been cultured ever since Mikimoto Kokichi first figured out how to do just that. Amber and jet can’t be created artificially, but low-quality pieces of amber can be “pressed”to create larger, seemingly higher-quality chunks. Peridot is not a popular gem and so there’s been no need to artificially create it, though I’m certain that if someone put their mind to it, it could be lab-created like any other crystal. As for opals, no one’s quite found how to make them, either, but Finlay does meet one gentleman in Australia who thinks he’s finally found a way to make artificial opals. All of this has, of course, led to a great amount of tension in the world of gemstone dealers, for whom the outcome of the natural vs. artificial debate has great repercussions upon their industry.

It all boils down to prestige: the rarer a gem is, the more difficult to acquire, the more precious and, therefore, the more expensive it is. Jewelry is all about luxury and rarity and status-projection – and the moment someone figures out a way to democratize a gemstone, the entire industry is shaken to its foundations. That’s what happened when Mikimoto first began culturing pearls: what used to be some of the rarest and most expensive gemstones in the world had become far more common and, therefore, far more accessible to people who would originally not have had the wealth to purchase so much as a pair of stud earrings. It is the same story with diamonds: lab-created diamonds are far more common than people think, but prices are kept artificially high by the De Beers group of companies: careful management and clever marketing have ensured that diamonds are still considered prestigious to own and wear, even if, in truth, their value is not as high as they’re made out to be.

But then Finlay raises an interesting question: given the problems inherent in acquiring natural stones (environmental pressures, severely underpaid workers who are constantly in danger, financing foreign wars and terrorism in the case of blood diamonds), should it not stand to reason that conscientious buyers and jewelers would choose lab-created stones? They have none of the same issues that are generally attached to natural stones; they are essentially the same as natural stones chemically speaking; and can be made to any shape, any color, and any quantity. It would seem that, in the twenty-first century, using lab-created stones wherever possible is the most logical way to go. And yet, as Finlay explains, the jewelry industry itself does not want to use artificial stones; it wants to keep on using natural stones because they have the prestige of not being “mass-produced” – and they are very good at making sure that buyers continue to believe that natural is better than artificial, when there is really very little visible difference.

That Finlay raises this issue throughout the course of the book is vital, and something I appreciate. I myself fall firmly on the side of lab-creates stones, because I feel that, no matter how beautiful a natural stone is, it is only as good as the designer that uses it – and a bad designer can ruin a perfectly good stone. Also, most of the time it’s impossible to tell a natural stone from a lab-created one on the surface, and in the end that’s all that really matters to buyers: how pretty the stone looks. Please note, however, that Finlay doesn’t force this idea on the reader, but allows him or her to come to their own conclusions. All that matters is that she’s put the question out there in the first place.

Overall, Jewels: A Secret History is an enjoyable, insightful read, a rich interweaving of legends, history, and present-day realities, striking a balance between all those elements and granting the reader insight into how the jewelry industry works today. Additional information is included in the form of a “Miscellany of Jewels,” which includes lists of birthstones, anniversary stones, and sundry other bits and bobs of information that do not slot neatly into the rest of the book, but which might appeal to the reader regardless. Finlay’s narrative style has significantly improved from her style in Color, and this shows in the way she tells the stories of the jewels themselves, turning each into a character in its own right: neither one more important than its fellow, but always with a unique quality inherent to itself that she brings out in the text. Although this will immediately appeal to jewelry fanatics and amateur mineralogists, Finlay’s insight into the gemstone industry itself is something that any reader will appreciate and hopefully look into more deeply.

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