Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Points of Healing, Points of Mine is a series of posts discussing the interweavings of conversations of crystal therapy, alternative healing, science & conservation, and eco-consumerism.

The New York Times best-seller, Stoned, is an accessible account of history told through a lens of gemstone culture. In Chapter 1, “Keep the Change: The Beads That Bought Manhattan,” Aja Raden retells history through action-driven facts. “When Verhulst, who was alienating pretty much everyone, was summarily sent back to Amsterdam in disgrace on September 23, 1626, Peter Minuit immediately replaced him as governor. Minuit wasted no time buying what became New Amsterdam Island in May of 1626. Then Minuit and five men made essentially the same deal with the Canarsee tribe for what we now know as Staten Island. And that deal of sale still exists in Amsterdam. So much for the apocryphal” (4). Throughout her book, the author peppers her prose with statements such as, “Crazy, right? Somebody clearly got worked” (4).

Raden is the senior designer of the Los Angeles jewelry company Tacori. According to her author profile on Amazon “her expertise sits at the intersection of academic history, industry experience, and scientific perspective.” At the University of Chicago she studied ancient history and physics while also working at The House of Kahn as the Head of Auction Division. The research for this project draws upon the diversity of the author’s experience as it focuses around her life-long passion for jewels and jewelry. This is her attempt to reconcile the various disciplines of her profession and studies: jewelry & the fashion industry (which includes the arts to an extent), academic studies of history, and the sciences. Motivating issues for the research of this title include: connections of mind and beauty, symbolism of objects, the effects of desire on the history of civilization.

Stoned boldly asserts its position among popular dialogues, boasting a testimonials from Madonna and David Duchovny, who compares it to a combination of Howard Zinn, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Foucault.
The pop culture appeal of this writing lends itself to consideration of the politics of value systems and the ways in which desire and power are shaped through symbolic representation. This title has the potential to encourage readers to question their motivations and think seriously about, as the author states in the introduction to Part IV, “how mankind’s obsession with beauty and our endless pursuit of precious jewels and whatever we deem scarce or valuable has led, not only to violence and chaos but to surprising developments in science and in social infrastructure” (271). The target/primary (though unspecified) audience of this book are those compelled by qualities of beauty and the intricacies of possession. I imagine jewelry collectors (professional and amateur) and serious jewelry buyers (or sellers and designers) as its primary readers. Secondary audiences would likely include history enthusiasts. Written in a conversational tone and unassuming in the expertise of the audience.

Raden approaches her subject from three defining conceptual categories that occupy the three sections of her book: Want, Take, and Have:

Part I addresses the element of Want and the ways in which the “scarcity effect” propels our “desires” and “delusions” (1). As an example, she describes the purchase of Manhattan by the Dutch from the Native Indians for 24 glass beads. These beads did not have a great deal of value by Western European standards, but because of their scarcity in the New World they were a desirable item.

Part II, Take, is both about acquiring (buying) and examination of the psychological responses that drive our impulses when we encounter a situation in which someone else is in possession of something that we admire. She delineates two varieties of envy: benign—wanting what someone else has, and malicious—not necessarily wanting the desired object but bent on preventing anyone else from keeping it either (148). This discussion includes the psychological progression of “stone to symbol” (133).

Part III, Have, is a consideration of creation in the sense of design and ornamentation as well as a tracing of the process of desire and possession. Raden shrewdly and concisely asserts, “Desire doesn’t necessarily end with consummation. Sometimes getting a thing is the beginning of getting over that thing. Sometimes getting what you want just makes you want more of it. So how does actually having a thing shape and change its owner? In turn, how can having a thing change the world?” (271).The terminology outlined above (want, take, have) is a helpful method of conceptualization. This book provides a historical reference for a humanities approach to controlling and possessing what establishes itself as desirable.

Stoned was a worthwhile read without being demanding of its audience in its density. Many of the concepts of this book could be applied to other aspects of the fashion and decorative industry such as furs and ivory (her discussion of pearls is an often neglected angle of animal rights). The scope of this book does not directly reach issues of environmental impact–it is, in some ways, an illustration of how those conversations are swept under the rug in favor of the “sexier,” “flashier” conversations of social dynamics, which also impact the controversies of gemstone culture and its critics. At times the retelling of historical intrigues dominates the text and the discussion of the actual gemstones, but the author’s interweaving of significant historical interactions with the gemstone trade is impressive and thought-provoking.