Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box is an entrancing travelogue by Victoria Finlay. It is the perfect read for quiet evenings with (might I recommend :) a bowl of pomegranate seeds*.
I have a thing for non-fiction, especially for books which tell me wonderful things, but in a way which makes me see the truth as a miracle (which, of course, it is). This book is exceptional at doing that.
The first few pages contain "treasure maps"--locations throughout the world where precious stones can be found. Trade routes and key mining spots are all mapped out as reference.
The chapters tackle a jewel each, and go as follows:
Each chapter begins with a couple of interesting quotes relevant to that jewel, or its properties. The first chapter on amber quotes an inscription on an obelisk, as well as Immanuel Kant:
"If the insect could speak it would certainly have modified all the knowledge about the history of the distant past."
Chapter 6 begins with William Jones' description of a possession of the Shah of Persia,
"a little casket of gold studded with emeralds which is said to have been blessed by Mahomet and has the property of rendering the royal wearer invisible..."
Such openings set the mood for the exotic and profound.
For anybody looking for a scientific analysis of gemology, this is not the book. The content is more like the anecdotes of a chatty, trekking auntie than a treatise on the technicalities of mining.
This is not to say that this book is not crammed with research. It is the way Ms. Finlay puts things that makes the difference.
History intertwines with anecdotes, philosophy, sociology and, yes, a pinch of science...thus the reader gets a smattering taste of the world of jewels.
In her preface, Ms. Finlay talks about how every jewel has a story: "about the earth that was excavated to retrieve it, the families who depended on it, the people who bought or were given it, and the meanings and propertties attributed to it."
In this book you will find that the cultural backdrop is just as enchanting and fantastic as the gem itself, if not more so, .
You will read about Scottish pearl-divers, Spanish conquests, the Angel of Yowah, the mourning of Queen Victoria, Cleopatra's seduction of Mark Antony, weeping trees, magical ruby spirits, burned mountains, the Diamond Sutra...
Here are some quotes from the book that I find are applicable as metaphors to our own lives:
"In river-mussel society, the deformity pearl seems to be the equivalent of leprosy. 'The other mussels can't deal with them,' Eddie said, 'so they have to hide themselves under big rocks.'This makes it easier for pearl fishers to find them, but it also presents us with a poignant metaphor. Like dragons, goblins and other creatures of quests and fairytales, the dented mussels are ugly, despised and forced to hide away, yet they also have the pain and responsibility of being the guardians of the treasure."
"It is order that causes the irregular iridescent flashes of colour in opal; while it is chaos that makes low-quality opal a uniform grey."
"Each eye creates a separate 'half' image that the brain processes into one. 'But the final image is slightly empty in the centre, and what do you think fills that?' he asked, then answered himself: 'It is your fantasy that is filling in the centre. And that is why people love diamond: because it is real, and yet it lets your imagination be free.' "
*Sprinkled with salt and pepper, this is a delicious Arabian snack. The seeds themselves are very much like jewels, embedded within the fruit. Enjoy :)