Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Buried Treasure

Victoria Finlay

Sceptre 2006

Why are rubies worth infinitely more than garnets? Why have peridots gone out of fashion since their heyday 2000 years ago? Why do humans get so worked up about tiny coloured stones that are millions of years old? These are the kind of questions that concern the insatiably curious Victoria Finlay. Her book is a fascinating compendium of geology, history, sociology and gossip. Beginning with amber, she moves through jet, pearls, opals, peridots, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds, investigating their origins and pondering their cultural significance. The Balkans, Lightning Ridge, Arizona, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Burma are some of the places she visits in her quest to learn how gemstones are formed, how they are extracted, and what happens to them once humans get their treasure-hungry paws on them. The amount of information she unearths is impressive. The word carat, for example, comes from the Greek keration, meaning carob seed, used as a standard measure in the ancient bazaars of the Mediterranean. She recounts the legend of a marble statue of a lion in Crete, which had eyes made of emeralds and which stood on a cliff overlooking the sea, near a fishing village. However the brilliance of its gaze was said to scare the tuna....

One thing all the gems have in common is that they are invariably found by poor people working in difficult conditions, and worn by very wealthy ones. For example, if a sapphire sold for 300 pounds in Hatton Garden, each miner would have earned about a pound. The more valuable a stone is, the more exploitation and destruction it inspires. The chapter on diamonds could easily have been titled Rich People Behaving Badly.

Like the most interesting jewellery, Buried Treasure carries a string of amazing stories, from Cleopatra fainting under the weight of her gems, to the fictitious curses invented to make diamonds seem more exotic. However, the pursuit of beauty and excellence is always shadowed by human greed. Sometimes the mind is cruel; it tells us we are worth no more than our possessions, and that without them we would be nothing. And when we believe it, perhaps it is true.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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