For what it’s worth

Cut into the his­tory, busi­ness of jew­elry with ‘Stoned’


Spe­cial to the Whig

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 Raden’s “Stoned: Jew­elry, Ob­ses­sion and How De­sire Shapes the World,” I was in­trigued.

Each chap­ter fo­cuses on a dif­fer­ent jewel or piece of jew­elry dur­ing spe­cific mo­ments in his­tory, span­ning from the French Rev­o­lu­tion to World War II. Raden 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 — the “scarcity ef­fect.” How­ever, Raden 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,” Raden reveals how the legacy jew- elry 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 then the war to bother with lux­ury items such as di­a­monds. So De Beers did some­thing in­ge­nious: the com­pany made the lux­ury items a ne­ces­sity.

Af­ter World War II, 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 rom­com cli­max, De Beers used the story to es­tab­lish the cul­tural norm that di­a­monds are the only way to so­lid­ify a re­la­tion­ship.

“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. Raden pro­vides a great mix­ture of his­tory, sci­ence and eco­nom­ics in each chap­ter.

Raden’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” – avail­able at the Ce­cil County Pub­lic Li­brary in print, au­dio and as an e-book – is en­light­en­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, and a great his­tory re­fresher.

For more in­for­ma­tion and read­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, visit www.ce­ or stop by any branch.

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