Reviews Gems & Gemology, Fall 2016, Vol. 52, No. 3

Book Review: Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World
By Aja Raden, hardback, 368 pp., illus., publ. by Ecco/HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2015, US$27.99.

Stoned is an approachable and entertaining web of stories that sheds light on epic jewellery lore while unravelling some of the most notorious and familiar legends. Author Aja Raden takes a classic yet playful American point of view, concentrating on value and worth over the artfulness of the jewellery itself.

Raden’s language and the organisation of the book are designed to attract a wide variety of readers, starting with the suggestive title, bejewelled cover, and high-profile praise from the likes of Madonna and David Duchovny. This general appeal extends to the clever chapter titles, unexpected terms and plays-on-words. Almost every chapter begins with a pair of quotes, one from high and another from low culture, and closes with a revelation that is unnecessary to the story, but helps to develop the author’s distinct voice.

Raden beckons the reader, as if she’s whispering in someone’s ear at a cocktail party. She asks, “Did Marie Antoinette lose her head over a diamond necklace?” And “How did two sisters’ argument over a valuable pearl in England over almost 500 years ago help draw the map of the Middle East?” She even promises to reveal how a strand of pearls transformed Japan into a “global economic superpower”. Her aim is to strip away myths, and replace them with more complete impressions of the times and the people behind the stories.

Part I begins with topics the reader may have heard about before: the sale of Manhattan for glass beads, the ubiquity of diamonds and how emeralds financed the Spanish Empire. Raden reveals some obscure facts and stories about these well-known fables and ties them together with an intriguing theme: the perception of value. She weaves an abundance of puns and comedic buzz with historical and scientific material, employing a quick rhythm and uncommon agility while moving around an expansive timeline. As an example, she combines the toxicology studies of Paracelsus, a quote from Groucho Marx, an account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the story of the Dutch tulip bubble crash of 1637—all in just three paragraphs (on page 105). This method is likely to capture the short attention span of the millennial generation and intrigue readers who are looking for something clever to add to cocktail party conversations and long car journeys.

In Part II, Raden delves into the meaning and symbolism of jewellery, all at a somewhat slower, more focused pace. She draws out the details of the historical moments, paints pictures of the times and the people, and in many cases, rocks the foundations of these classic myths and tales. The shortest, final section, Part III, loses steam and is not as tightly bound by a concept. The section titled “The Boss’s String” could easily have been included in Part 2, and the final story, “Timing Is Everything”, could stand alone as a journal article. A more cohesive and even playful conclusion would have made for a stronger finish, as a reader who has made it to the end is sure to be ravenous for a more revealing final thought.

Overall, Raden is a champion of approaching fine jewellery history with an entertaining and occasionally ludicrous edge. This compilation is not meant to be an all-encompassing account of jewellery history. Rather, it is the work of an experienced and passionate author pushing open some creaky old doors to shed warm rays of light onto a selection of topics customarily considered mysterious and off-limits. All in all it makes for a fun and quick read for a wide audience.

Sarah Froelich is a writer at MyHabit and a jewellery specialist at Boris Litwin Jewelers in Cincinnati, Ohio.