Publ: 2006 Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 0 340 83012 3
Genre: Gemnology 553.8
Found by Serendipity
Rating: ***** *****
What led you to pick up this book?
I have always been interested in geology, crystals and gems. At school I wanted to do Geology O Level but it wasn’t available at my school.
Describe the book.
Subtitled ‘Travels through the Jewel Box’ this is an in-depth look at amber, jet, pearls, opals, peridots, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. The detail is brilliant (if you’ll pardon the pun) and the book mixes legend and mythology, history, geology, geography, travel, philosophy, ethics, adventure, and humour. This is a treasure hunt across the world and through the ages with all the attendant excitement. Every page has a lovely story or piece of information – and sometimes an unlovely story as well.
I love the idea of amber being the tears of Phaeton’s sisters. I was delighted to learn that you could test amber by putting nail polish on it – real amber will be unaffected whilst plastic or copal will disintegrate and feel tacky. a more radical test is to burn it – amber smells subtly of a pine forest in the morning; copal of pine scented lavatory freshener and plastic simply fills the air with noxious fumes. I say ‘could’ because the fakers are getting better and better as they are in creating the whole range of gems. And did you know that amber was considered a cure for many ills and since workers in amber factories suffered less from respiratory there may have been some value in putting amber mouthpieces on pipes.
If you scratch jet against a piece of rough porcelain like a tile or the bottom of a cup it leaves a chocolate coloured streak. The early imitations were made of vulcanite which left a grey streak. The best test is to put a hot needle on the back of a piece of jet. If it is real there will be no effect but if it is vulcanite or other plastic it will bubble and give off an acrid smell. If you don’t mind losing the jet you can burn it! Jet burns with a green flame and smells of tar.
Even in Pliny’s day Opals were faked in large quantities. He wrote that you could tell the difference because the glass versions were the same colour throughout when you looked through them against the light whereas real Opals reflected lots of different hues.
And did you know sapphires can be any colour under the sun – except red because a red sapphire is effectively a ruby. Rubies have dichroism as result of which looking along two sides yields a crimson pink colour while looking along the other two shows an orange shade. Some sapphires have the same dichroism and show blue along three angles and violet along the fourth. Red Spinels which are found in a similar matrix to Rubies do not display dichroism and they are also more regularly cubed in their natural state whereas rubies look more like dollops of deep red sealing wax. Rubies and sapphires have high thermal conductivity and as a result feel cold to the tongue because they draw heat from your body – glass imitations do not do this.
What did you think about the style?
Victoria Finlay has a wonderful style and her descriptions of some of the aspects of the gems are positively poetic. Humour has its place throughout the book while the ethical issues of pearl culturing, faking and cruel mining labour are all tackled head on.
What did you like most about the book?
They way in which her personal travels and experiences are intermingled with the history of the gems.
Was there anything you didn't like about the book?
I don’t like notes that require one to turn to the end of the book – in one case four times on one page. My view is either build the information into the text or simply drop it.
Thoughts on the book jacket / cover.
Average. It merits something better.
Totally irrelevant side notes:
Ennerdale – one of my favourite places – was once noted for its black pearls from the river mussels.
In 1967 a British pearl fisher, William Abernethy, found a pearl as big as Blackbird’s egg in the river Tay just north of Perth. He used to test pearls by putting them in his mouth – those made of plastic or paste were smooth whilst natural ones were bumpy.
Pearls need the warmth of human contact to remain in top condition – put in a bank vault they turn yellow and dry. At one time some English ladies used to get their maids to wear their pearls during the day so that they would be warm and luminescent when the time came for their mistress to wear them at night.
Sapphire is the only precious stone to have been found in Britain – a small but historic discovery having been made on the Isle of Lewis in the 1980s. The best specimen has been cut as the 9.7 carat Saltire Sapphire and can be seen in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
Would I recommend it?
Absolutely – a fascinating read.
(Describing an amber washing and gathering festival in Poland)- “I arrived on the beach in Jantar just as four children, in school uniforms, were singing the Polish version of ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’... The audience whistled and clapped – I was less enthusiastic, but then again I didn’t know that this would be the highlight of my day.... The amber pieces were no bigger than shirt buttons and the whole thing was as exhilarating as a grape-peeling competition.”
“People also were sentimental and liked to spell out their feelings in stones: a necklace of fire-opal, opal, ruby, emerald, vermeil beads, essonite and rubellite meant that they would remember their loved F-O-R-E-V-E-R. When I first found this out I checked my own necklace which was made of silver beads, amber and pearls. I realised I had been wearing the word S-A-P around my neck for years.”
“Today they (Kashmiri Sapphires) are the standard against which all others are measured. ‘Velvety’ is the word most often used of them although it is not adequate to describe the experience of looking at one. It is like swimming through a pool of tropical water, like the iridescence on a peacock’s neck, like the moment in the mountains, before a storm begins.”
“I tell the children that they must remember the difference between a ruby and an educated person. Because a ruby has an exact price, but as an educated person they can be priceless.” (Soe Win – a teacher in Burma)
“Pigeon’s Blood Rubies .... are said to be the precise colour of the drops of blood that burst from a pigeon’s beak iin the moments after it is strangled. Such an image is not the high point in a sales pitch to most Westerners planning to buy a good ruby.”
“...diamond was nothing more than graphite on a good day.”
“There was once a mandarin in China who was very proud of appearing with jewels on every part of his robe. One day an old man stopped him in the street, and thanked him for his jewels. ‘What do you mean, my friend?’ asked the bewildered civil servant. ‘I never gave you any jewels’. ‘No,’ said the old man. ‘But you have let me look at them and that is all the use you can make of them yourself. There is no difference between us, except that you have the trouble of guarding them.’
VICTORIA FINLAY was born in 1964 and partially brought up in India. She studied social anthropology at St Andrews and in Virginia before working for Reuters in London and Scandinavia. She spent twelve years as a journalist in Hong Kong. She now lives in England and divides her time between an environmental charity and writing. She has written a book on colour, another one on jewels (Jewels a secret history) and, with Martin Palmer, ‘Faith in Conservation – new approaches to religions and the environment’.
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