Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Review: The Heartless Stone


Ladies, if you don’t want to know that there’s a possibility that the diamond you’re wearing on your left finger was retrieved from the entrails of a murdered African diamond smuggler, read no further.

And definitely don’t read The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire.

For me, in some ways, reading The Heartless Stone was like reading Fast Food Nation: I don’t really eat fast food anyway, so that book didn’t scare me or even have a significant impact on my eating habits. Similarly, I’m not really a diamond kind of girl and my wedding ring does not feature a solitaire, so I didn’t feel too bad reading the book. Well, not on a personal guilt level, at least. I certainly did feel bad that so many people’s lives have been ruined, taken, or completely controlled so that the rest of us can wear sparkly rocks on our fingers, necks, and ears.

Even before acquiring my own diamond engagement ring, I'd heard rumors that the diamond industry was scandalously unethical in both its diamond-acquiring and diamond-selling methods. The Heartless Stone goes beyond rumor and conjecture, with the author (Tom Zoellner) visiting at least ten countries and interviewing individuals at every level of the diamond production process to show us what is really going on. Mr. Zoellner delves deep to expose the whole operation for what it is: an industry that created itself with a brilliant marketing slogan (after all, who doesn’t know that A Diamond is Forever?) and then spent the rest of its energy keeping tight control on the supply and price of its goods, resorting to smuggling, murder, sabotage, and child exploitation all along the way.

Price-fixing is strictly illegal in America, of course, and main player De Beers was actually banned from doing (direct) business here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to tough antitrust laws. But they found ways to get around that obstacle, even if those ways are serpentine and sleazy.

Reading this book caused me to do a double-take on issues I’d never really questioned before. What is the history of the diamond engagement ring? I always assumed it had been around forever, more or less. What is the deal with that “two months’ salary” price guideline? Why do we attach such emotional significance to a piece of jewelry? The answers that Zoellner digs up are always interesting and often troubling.

The book suffers in only two ways. First, I didn't really connect on an emotional level with the intercut story of his ex-fiancée. It reeked too much of "The Raven" - sorrow for the Lost Lenore and all that. Second, and this is a problem with many non-fiction books these days, Zoellner tries to "sex it up," if you will. It was already a fascinating story and then he had to go and inject some carnality into it. I don't doubt that diamonds have their sex appeal, in a way, but I felt that the author took it a little too far just to get with the "in" crowd, as it were.

Obviously, there’s another side to this story, and it’s the diamond industry’s. I kind of get the feeling, though, that we’ve all been being fed their story for years and years, through the media spouting out industry-sanctioned myth. Marilyn Monroe singing “A Diamond is a Girl’s Best Friend”? Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel A Diamond is Forever? Both were encouraged and sanctioned by De Beers, among many other films and books.

The most troubling aspect of the diamond industry’s shameful business practices is that it is all for nothing. A hard, shiny, brilliant rock, yes, but what is that, exactly? De Beers would have us believe that it is wealth, status, love, sex, beauty, and everything we’ve always wanted. When this magical stone comes to us at the expense of so many human beings’ pain and suffering, however, I think it may be time to re-think just what it is we’ve always wanted.

Edited 10 minutes after original posting to add: In case you feel like chucking your ring down the sink, or firing off a nastygram to me personally, let me add one more thing. He never says it explicitly, but I get the feeling that the vast majority of what Zoellner writes about the evils of the diamond industry applies to very large, clear diamonds, 2 carats-ish or above. I don't know if that applies to any of you, but I thought I'd add that disclaimer so that I don't misrepresent the book's subject matter. He's talking specifically about high-end gems here, though I suppose the ills of the trade taint all diamonds to one extent or another.

2 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

Out of curiosity, what does your ring look like? I don't think I've ever looked at it closely.

So does this mean I can feel better about my tiny 1/3 carat ring (that is made up of 10 stones, so none of them are above .03 carats by themselves)? Because I'd really like to wash that guilt away if possible.

Bridget said...

Liz, I knew you'd be brave enough to comment. Jeremy said I shouldn't post about this book because it would make us all feel guilty. And it did. But I didn't write the book. Just the review.

As far as I understand things, my ring is technically just the wedding band with 1/4 carat total of small diamonds around it. Does that even make sense? Maybe I'll find a picture somewhere.

I didn't mean to make people feel bad when I wrote this. I just thought the book was interesting and also quite shocking. Sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings.

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