Victoria Finlay – Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box
Length: 482 pages
Started: 24 December 2008
Finished: 27 December 2008
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 04 November 2008
Verdict? Keeper, for sure.
Finlay works magic:
I don’t even wear jewels, but
I still loved this book.
Summary: The title of this book is a play on words: jewels themselves are frequently buried treasure, but every jewel also contains a buried treasure of stories of its origin, ownership, and significance. Part geology, part cultural history, part economics and business, and part travelogue, Buried Treasure uncovers some of these stories for some of the most valuable lumps of rocks in the world.
Each chapter focuses around a type of gem, starting with amber and moving up the Mohs’ scale of hardness through jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and finally diamonds. For each, Finlay travels around the world – from opal mines in Australia, to the historic source of Baltic amber, to an Native American reservation in Arizona, to the Burmese ruby mines under heavy military guard – and examines the historical production and importance of the jewel, some of its geological properties, the current state of the gem market, and how the gem affects the lives of the people who mine it, trade it, sell it, and eventually wear it.
Review: I want Victoria Finlay to write more books! This is the type of non-fiction I love, the type that lured me away from being an exclusive fiction reader. I can’t even pick out a topic I want Finlay to cover in her next book, because that’s the magic of her writing: I didn’t even know I was interested in gemology until I started reading, but within a few chapters I was not only interested but fascinated. A similar thing happened when I read her book Colors: A Natural History of the Palette; I had no logical reason to be interested in the history of pigment production, but Finlay’s writing drew me in and I couldn’t stop reading.
Her prose is lively and compelling, and although there are frequent tangents into some obscure bit of history, or chemical geology, or mythology, the result is more like a narrative travelogue than a dry treatise. In truth, each chapter reads somewhat like an extended National Geographic article, albeit with fewer pictures (there are maps of the relevant jewel locations in the beginning, a center section with some color photos, and black-and-white photos and illustrations scattered throughout.)
This format makes it immensely easy to read, although there were inevitably a few places where I wanted more technical information – more chemistry, diagrams of the various cuts of precious stones, etc. I also would have happily read a fatter book that included chapters on some of the other jewels she didn’t cover. Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book; it was easy to read, very thorough, and full of fascinating tidbits that I never would have learned elsewhere – probably because I never would have known to go looking for them. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Fans of Mary Roach‘s style of narrative non-fiction will enjoy this book, although Finlay’s style is not as snarky as Roach’s. For non-readers of non-fiction, either of Finlay’s works would be an accessible way to dip a toe in the waters of fascinating narrative non-fiction.
Other Reviews: Between the Covers
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