- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Matthew Hart
Walker Books, $25, 276 pages, illus.

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, we've been told. The same holds true for the men of the diamond trade, who would much rather have a rock in their hand than have at their feet what is traditionally the symbol of man's best friend, namely, a faithful hound. Diamond mining has always had a certain mystique and allure. In "Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession," Matthew Hart goes beyond "Indiana Jones"-style derring-do and Tiffany's windows to show the obsessive, secretive, and technology-driven world of diamonds.
His book is as fascinating as the depths of a flawless 40-carat stone. It begins on a hot morning in May of1999, when three Brazilian garimpeiros (small-scale miners) find a large pink diamond in the muddy waters of the Abaete River. Pink diamonds are very rare, since there are many "false pinks" that fade to brown during the process of polishing. The garimpeiros reported the stone at 81 carats, worth millions. Dubbed "the pink star of the millennium" (naming diamonds is very important, Mr. Hart points out), the diamond could spark the fading diamond trade of Brazil.
Mr. Hart was seduced by the diamond and followed it from its "birth," as he calls it, right up to the intense cutting process by the diamantaire, before losing track of the deep pink stone. It haunted the writer and was the impetus for this book, which veers between highly romantic stories about stones and their exotic owners and detailed glimpses into the science of diamond mining which has gotten so sophisticated that gems are unearthed near the Arctic Circle, Canadian lakes, and in the ice fields of the Dogrib Indians.
Mr. Hart delves into the history of diamonds, starting with what has become the De Beers cartel of South Africa, which began in 1869 when a native boy found a large crystal on a farm. This discovery caused a rush that brought Cecil Rhodes and Ernest Oppenheimer their glory, eventually turning into the infinitely powerful firm, De Beers, which incidentally, is responsible for the slogan "a diamond is forever" and the maxim that a man should spend three month's salary on his fiancee's engagement ring.
Mr. Hart takes us within hushed breathing distance of the cutting of a priceless stone by one of the finest cutters, who examined and made drawings for three years of the Centenary diamond and spoke of dreaming about it: "I looked at the diamond all night long and the diamond looked at me."
He also shows us the sooty side of diamonds, the relentless and ingenious thievery that takes place on every level of the business. Here's a tip some workers at South African mines have shoes with special treads that pick up and embed the diamonds in the soles until they can get their booty safely home.
There are diamonds embedded in body cavities, beards, and blithely carried away in pants pockets. Most chilling are the stories of "war diamonds" that finance brutal conflicts in Africa. This is particularly,disturbing in light of recent revelations about segments of the diamond trade in Sierrra Leone that fund the Taliban.
While the people Mr. Hart profiles are remarkable in their focus and megalomania, in the end it is the diamond that bewitches you. "Diamonds are the dark and the light. They are windows polished into the heart of man," the author writes. Amazing, when you think that diamonds are accidents of nature, carbon crystals compressed deep underground millions of years ago. They may even predate Earth itself.
These elusive stones have a power beyond that of mere jewelry. Wars have been fought over them, empires launched and crumbled because of them, lives were lost and hearts were captured.
"A diamond is forever" is more than just an advertising gimmick, Mr. Hart contends. It is the world itself, bent and reflected and returned to us in a blaze of color.

Jayne M. Blanchard is a Washington writer and critic.

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