A jewelry designer and historian’s account of how the desire for diamonds, gold, and other precious stones and metals has shaped history.
Raden begins with the premise that “all of human history can be boiled down to these three verbs: want, take, and have.” The history of jewelry in particular demonstrates this idea with exceptional clarity. As the author demonstrates, human history is really a history of desire and the way that desire has motivated individuals to want, take, or have precious gems and metals, as well as the wealth or power that jewelry has traditionally represented. Raden first examines how gems and metals acquire their value by showing the way people throughout history have looked at certain commodities such as glass beads. The beads were worth little to early Dutch settlers in North America, but to the natives, they were priceless because they were unknown there. The author then delves into how obsession with objects of beauty—e.g., the diamond necklace Louis XV of France had made for his mistress Madame Du Barry—has been at the heart of some of the bloodiest, most violent historical events, including the French Revolution. At the same time, Raden also points out that this obsession has also led to “surprising developments in science and in economic and social infrastructure.” She tells the story of the wristwatch, which started with a 19th-century Hungarian countess’s desire to replace a large stone in a diamond bracelet with a tiny clock. Considered frivolous excess at first, the wristwatch gained popularity in the early 20th century when soldiers found that it could help with the precise timing required on modern battlefields. In this well-researched book, the author not only narrates the story of the human addiction to beauty and its consequences. She also reveals the way jewelry “reflect[s] our desires back to us and shows us who we are.”
A lively, incisive cultural and social history.