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Jewels by Victoria Finlay

In Jewels, A Secret History, we are taken across the world in a search for the history of the most popular gemstones. The stories Victoria Finlay uncovers are often surprising and I found it very interesting to learn how popular gemstones were mined, valued and traded in the past and right up to modern times.

In the book the nine chosen gems are arranged not by alphabet, but by Moh’s scale. Friedrich Moh developed his scale of mineral hardness in the nineteenth century and it is still the scale we use today. It isn’t especially scientific, not giving an absolute hardness, but it is very practical and means you can easily test for hardness out in the field when rock collecting. I liked her decision to organise the book this way. You start with chapters on soft organic gems, amber and jet, then move up through more resilient jewels such as sapphires and ruby, ending with the most prized and hardest of all known substances, diamond.

I liked the fact that Victoria really made the journeys herself to research the book, spoke to the people involved and collected unique anecdotal evidence on the way. Some of the meetings were happy, some poignant. She seems to have the knack of gently encouraging people to talk. Some of the characters stand out as much as the gemstones. I was moved by the story of the Whitby Jet worker, a frail old man who had lost his sweetheart before their marriage and spent his lifetime working this traditional mourning stone. Also surprising was the meeting with an apparently sweet elderly Russian lady who had worked as a supervisor in the gulag that operated the largest amber mine at the time of Stalin.

Gemstones often have murky chapters in their history. Their value has attracted thieves, smugglers, tyrants and tricksters through the ages. They can really bring out the best and the worst in mankind. I thought the most audacious lie was rather entertaining. The legend of the famous Hope diamond, a huge blue gem now in the Smithsonian Museum Washington DC, is full of death and bad luck, giving rise to the popular belief that the gemstone carries a curse. In reality the jeweller Pierre Cartier invented the story mixing in a sprinkling of facts to weave a mystique around this stunning but unfashionably blue diamond, a legend which helped him to sell it.

The book is sparkling with little known facts, like its jewels, across the chapters. Did you know for example that you should pronounced peridot with a hard ‘t’ and not as we English tend to with a rather posh sounding ’doh’ at the end? That our word 'electricity' comes from the Greek name for amber? That jet is fossilised Monkey Puzzle wood?

Some of the information Victoria unearths is less palatable. For example I learned that cultured pearls are created through an incision into the sexual organs of the two year old oyster into which a polished piece of shell is placed, an operation that always shocks the oyster and kills large numbers. I always assumed the item was simply ‘popped’ inside the oyster’s shell, the truth is rather more uncomfortable!

It is clear too that fair trade has a long way to go in the gem world. Many miners today are living in very poor conditions as Victoria finds on her travels. The inside of the jointly owned Chinese- Burmese ruby mine she visits is a good example; workers only allowed to leave the compound twice a month and thoroughly searched when they do. The pay to our Western ears is an absolute pittance. One miner she speaks to tells her he has managed to save $100 over the eight years he has been working there and shows her his living quarters, an open dormitory that 'stank of boys and feet' sleeping two hundred men. There is a clash between our Western sensibilities and the accepted culture. The workers didn’t seem to feel exploited, or hard done by, but when we pay for an expensive gem it would be good to know a reasonable proportion of the price had gone back to the people that mined it.

There are two rather lovely pieces of synchronicity tied in with the writing of this book. At the point the proposal for the book is accepted the author's prospective father-in-law dies and she doubts whether she should go ahead, whether writing the book is important enough. Her fiancé encourages her saying his father would want her to write it. At that moment a canal boat passes them with the name 'Little Gem'. As her partner’s father had loved canals and canal boats the sign was pretty clear.

In the preface Victoria explains the curious way her engagement ring had come to her, made from glass tessarae taken many years ago from a Byzantine mosaic in a church that had been turned into a Muslim mosque. The Christian locals hadn’t been happy about the loss of their church and this explains why early last century a small boy and his friends slipped into the women’s section disguised as Muslims and prised away some of the tiles. He grew up to become a bishop and handed the last three pieces of his hoard to Victoria’s fiancé. In the retelling she is making the point that preciousness is sometimes more about the story than the real worth of the material. That her purpose was to find the stories behind the gemstones in the writing of this book.

However in the postscript she travels to the same church in Istanbul and finds it is now a museum, but the mosaic is still there and that the area the tiles were taken from represented

…glittering gems on the throne of heaven…although the mosaic was made of stone and glass it was intended to represent peridots, sapphire, emeralds and amethysts. The ring had set me off on all these journeys because it was made of stories not of gems- but in fact it was set with ‘jewels’ after all.


UK readers can find the book published as Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box

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