Ever wonder how a stone’s worth is determined? Why we desire certain jewels? Or how a pearl is cultivated, or how diamonds are cut?
Yeah, me neither. I’ve never been that interested in jewelry. Well, let me clarify--jewelry’s great, but my bank account isn’t interested. But when I saw the giant, gleaming emerald on the cover of Aja Rader’s Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World, I was intrigued.
Each chapter of Stoned focuses on a different jewel or piece of jewelry during specific moments in history, spanning from the French Revolution to World War II. Rader explains how jewelry is influenced by culture and, alternatively, how culture is influenced by jewelry.
The book begins by introducing of the concept of desire. Basically, humans desire to possess things that we see other people owning (and enjoying), and that desire is intensified when there’s a chance we might not be able to get it—which is called the “scarcity effect.” However, Rader says what human desire varies by culture and time period, and can even be created by variables like sentimentality.
For instance, did you know that diamonds haven’t always been forever? The necessity of having a diamond ring to propose is a more recent idea. In the second chapter of Stoned, Rader reveals how the legacy jewelry company De Beers actually created a demand for the jewel.
In the early 1900s, the diamond business was floundering. Americans were too preoccupied with the Great Depression and the war efforts of WWII to bother with luxury items such as diamonds. So De Beers did something ingenious: the company made the luxury items a necessity.
After WWII, the company put together an advertising team to create the illusion that diamonds have always been the way of showing affection. They played on the true story of how the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian proposed to his wife Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring in 1477 CE. Although the marriage was more business transaction than rom-com climax, De Beer used the story to establish the cultural norm that diamonds are the only way to solidify a relationship.
De Beers targeted young Americans with this story, and told them a ring was the best (if not the only) way of proclaiming your love. If the girl didn’t get the diamond, the proposal wasn’t real. Then, the company put diamonds everywhere. Within a few years, diamonds shone on the silver screen, sparkled on the skin of every socialite, and leaped from the pages of magazines. Their plan worked—the jewel soon became a symbol of wealth and display of affection. According to Rader, the reason we see diamonds on left hands everywhere is all because of marketing!
Stoned also covers other fascinating moments in history: how the French Revolution was caused over a necklace, how Faberge eggs funded the start of the communist Soviet Union, and the creation of the modern-day wristwatch during wartime. Rader provides a great mixture of history, science, and economics in each chapter.
I found the science behind jewelry particularly interesting. Did you know that natural pearls are a result of an infection in the tissue of the oyster’s mouth? Sometimes it is a grain of salt, but usually it’s a parasite. The oyster, as a defense, covers the infection with layers of a liquid called nacre, which makes up the strong outer coating pearls. So basically, if you have a natural pearl (which are extremely rare, by the way), you’ve got a pricy little parasite on your hands!
Rader’s vast knowledge on the jewelry industry and her engaging, eloquent, and humorous writing makes it easy to lose a few hours reading this book. Stoned is enlightening, entertaining, and a great history refresher.
I recommend Stoned for people who have an interest in jewelry, those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, or people who enjoyed A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage.
Recommended by Allie Charles