For thousands of years humans have had a fascination with the pretty and/or sparkling things produced by nature. They have hunted them, collected them, built up stories around them, and turned them into beautiful and priceless pieces of art and jewellery. This book takes a tour along the Mohs scale, from the soft glow of amber to the glittering hardness of diamond. It wanders across the facets of each jewel in turn: ancient myths, famous examples, tales of history and adventure, and the use which the modern world has for it. However much you might know about jewellery, gemmology or treasure-hunting, you will have learned a whole lot more by the time you finish this book.
I borrowed it on impulse from the library, and was very glad I did. I have bits of rock collection dotted all over the house, and a particular fondness for ones that have been polished, drilled, and threaded onto wire, so it was right up my alley. It was just as interesting and entertaining as I expected, and even more informative. I never knew, for instance, that part of Caesar’s desire to conquer Britain was his passion for pearls, which Britain’s rivers once had in abundance. The history of jewels has it all: banishment, betrayal, crime, corruption, reversals of fortune, clever ideas, cleverer marketing, and a generous dose of mystery. The Amber Room - created in Prussia, gifted to Russia, taken by Germany - has been lost for more than sixty years, destroyed in a fire ... or perhaps not, depending on who you listen to.
The stories here are almost enough to make you want to set out treasure-hunting yourself - at least until common sense returns with the realisation that it involves bad weather, hard work, a lot of dirt, rough towns in the middle of nowhere and the need for sensible shoes. All for no guarantee of success. No wonder people have searched for alternatives, like the inventor of fine artificial emeralds, who tried to make diamond at age fifteen and blew out the windows of the house next door. Or the bloke from Lightning Ridge who grows low-grade opals in his garden shed. Of course the precise ingredients weren’t provided, which has me awfully curious and wishing I knew more (well, anything) about outback geology. What I most liked about this story was his refusal to try to improve them, or let anyone else in on the secret, lest it ruin the town. (Believe it or not, I, the confirmed city slicker, have once upon a time been to Lightning Ridge and noodled through the mullock heaps - and sadly found nothing but dirt.) Also fun-sounding was the town of Whitby (famous for jet) and it’s twice-annual inundation with Dracula fans. The chance to parade around in a Victorian dress without looking like a (total) freak? Sounds great! And this is only a small sample of what the book contains.
About the only thing that could have improved this book would have been the inclusion of more than just nine jewels (amber, jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and diamond). Perhaps turquoise or amethyst, both of which have at one time occupied the ring on my right hand? (I bought it in a charity shop for $4, set with a turquoise which eventually fractured and was lost. Later, I visited Phnom Penh, where jewellers have stalls at the markets. After arranging to have the empty ring mailed to me I had it reset with amethyst for around another $4. Not bad at all.) Or moonstone, or even fluorite like in my favourite earrings. But more chapters would have meant an even heftier book than it already is. Another thing was the chapter on Ruby. The author actually went to the effort of visiting the ruby mines of Burma; and while I admired her nerve in visiting such a potentially risky location, my conscience did not like the idea of the generous bribes to the military regime that were necessary to get in.