Skip to content

Victoria Finlay – Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box

December 27, 2008

159. Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box (titled Jewels: A Secret History in the US publication) by Victoria Finlay (2006)

Length: 482 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Between the Covers
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When traditional Russian icon painters begin work on a new piece, they start by covering a simple wooden panel with a mixture of chalk and glue.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2008 7:37 pm

    I don’t wear jewelry either but this book sounds like it’s right up my husbands alley. I may get it for him, and read it too if it’s as good as you say. Thank you for reviewing it.

  2. December 27, 2008 7:59 pm

    This sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

  3. December 27, 2008 11:16 pm

    So, I’d never heard of this author but I have now added two of her books to my TBR list. Thanks for the great review:)

  4. December 27, 2008 11:39 pm

    This is sort of why I love Trevor Corson — he writes fascinating books about things I didn’t know I could be interested in. I’m going to look into Victoria Finlay now :)

  5. December 28, 2008 12:28 am

    Sandra – I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I wouldn’t have thought it’d be to my taste either, so there’s that. In any case, I hope your husband (and you!) enjoys it!

    Memory – It was! Victoria Finlay’s British, and lives in Hong Kong, so I don’t think she’s particularly well-known on this side of the pond.

    Corinne – Heh. I think I liked Color a little better than Buried Treasure, mostly because I’m less-not-interested in art history than I am in gemology, if that makes sense… but they’re both really good. Enjoy!

    Kim – Okay, Secret Lives of Lobsters is going onto my wishlist… and I don’t even really like seafood. :) Thanks for the tip!

  6. cathyskye permalink
    December 28, 2008 7:12 am

    Another book added to my wish list!

  7. December 28, 2008 4:38 pm

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. That’s my favourite kind of non-fiction too: the kind that makes me care about topics I didn’t even know I had an interest in. I added it to my wishlist too.

  8. December 29, 2008 1:54 am

    Of the three Findley books that I know of Jewels has to be the best – she draws you into the story of each gemstone.

    Robyn Hawk

  9. December 29, 2008 10:32 am

    I love books that can tear you away from your normal genre!

  10. December 30, 2008 8:50 am

    Boy does that sound good.

  11. December 30, 2008 9:38 am

    cathyskye – Glad to be of service! :)

    Nymeth – Hee hee, I’m such an enabler.

    Robyn Hawk – I was only aware that Finlay had two books, the colors book and the jewels book (which has been published under multiple titles). Is there a third?

    Serena – Me too! The trick for me, I think, is to recognizing them and not dismissing them as “eh, not my thing.”

    bermudaonion – It really was, as was her first book on colors.


  1. Color: A Natural History of the Palette | Care's Online Book Club

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: