Book Review: “Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World” by Aja Raden

It’s no surprise that Aja Raden’s 2015 book Stoned would explore desire as the driving force behind humanity’s longstanding obsession with jewelry. The historical examples she recalls in it are well researched and fascinating - an ideal combination for a nonfiction read. Additionally, I appreciate her sense of humor throughout the book.

Raden divides the Stoned into three parts: Want, Take and Have. Each section explores what is means to say “beauty literally moves us.” While I do note that reducing the motivation of all of human history to those three verbs is an oversimplification, it does work well for her purposes. Really, this is a collection of tales of specific pieces of jewelry and gemstones and how such objects gain and lose value and ultimately how objects can impact history.

“Want” explores desire, delusion and the scarcity effect in three historical examples: 1. the “purchase” of the island of Manhattan in 1626 from the Lenape by the Dutch for the exchange of glass beads, 2. the myth making marketing genius of De Beers and their iconic “A Diamond is Forever” ad campaign, and 3. empires’ emerald obsession from Ancient Egypt through 16th century Spain.

“Take” explores obsession, possessions, and the mechanics of war in three more historical examples: 1. the great dramatic saga of a diamond necklace that embodied the excesses of Versailles that sparked a revolution, 2. an equally enthralling sage of the La Peregrina pearl owned by two famous Elizabeth’s and 3. a just as fascinating story of Faberge and the Russian Revolution. 

“Have” explore industry and innovation in two examples: 1. the role of cultured pearls in Japan’s modernization and 2. the evolution of wrist watches during WWII to ensure the timeliness of bombings.

Raden concludes “Real jewels are formed less in the earth or a lab then they are in the human mind. They seem powerful. Certainly they’ve had the ability to change the world over and over again. And yet, really they’re just... objects. They’re not objects that can kill, or objects that can cure, or build or even think. The very purpose and nature of jewels is one and the same: to transfix and reflect. Just like their glittering surfaces, jewels have one, and only one real power: they reflect our desires back to us and show us who we are.”

As a jeweler and a student of history, I agree with her final assertion. All in all, Stoned by Aja Raden is a pleasurable and easy read - a 10/10 recommendation from me.