Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden

25817092Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways.  That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World.  I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry.  I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.

Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel.  Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right.  Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less  mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history.  For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth.  We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another?  And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?

Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power.  Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read.  It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.