BRILLIANCE AND FIRE: A BIOGRAPHY OF DIAMONDS
By Rachelle Bergstein
Harper, $29.99, 374 pages, illustrated
As the old saying goes, all that glitters may not be gold — as those who fell for iron pyrite aka fool’s gold learned to their cost — but no matter their color or how dark their provenance, diamonds always sparkle and glitter. Literary agent Rachelle Bergstein, who has previously written a book on “shoes and how they define us,” admits to finding diamonds captivating, but casts a cool, appraising eye on these hardest of valuable objects:
“When I set out to write this book, I wanted to trace the role of the diamond in our culture, paying special attention to the fundamental complexities of the stone as a symbol, simultaneously, of magnificent success and romance — but also of shameful avarice.”
Hardly surprising, this last quality, but as Ms. Bergstein goes on ever more heatedly, it is clear that there are worms — and worse — aplenty in these apples of so many eyes. Even the most flawless gems are “scarred by nastier associations that have surfaced in recent years: geologic devastation, slave labor, disrupted indigenous populations, unthinkable violence. It’s no wonder that even though diamonds are in fashion, it’s not terribly fashionable to like diamonds.” In other words, all diamonds are blood diamonds.
The good news is that mixed in with all this high moral rectitude is a rollicking romp through the glamorous world of diamonds and those who reveled in them. From Washington’s own Evelyn Walsh Maclean’s cursed Hope Diamond to Baltimore’s Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor’s hideous resetting of the magnificent gems bequeathed to her husband by his grandmother Queen Alexandra, with stops along the way from Paris to New York to Hollywood, this costliest of fashion parades gets its due and then some.
Ms. Bergstein does not confine her story of the women who reveled in diamonds to the rich and famous. She starts her book engagingly with the story of her grandmother, whom she dubs “the Elizabeth Taylor of northern New Jersey, the woman I’ve known to love diamonds more than anyone else in my life.” In so doing, she is establishing a personal link to one of the most important parts of her story. The bread and butter of the diamond business, through a range of marketing and advertising tour-de-force, came by convincing literally millions that diamonds are indeed a girl’s best friend. Whether reinforcing the tradition of diamond engagement rings where they were well-established, or persuading societies like Japan, where they were not only unaccustomed but culturally inimical, this is one of the great commercial success stories of the 20th century.
If Ms. Bergstein’s economics are generally sound, the same cannot be said for her politics. Her portrait of the ruthless South African mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes and his De Beers diamond company is vivid and very much in line with the bashing he has taken in recent months with calls to remove his statue from his Oxford college and Cape Town University. Of his business tactics, nothing too bad may be said, but her portrait of him as a racist is only partially true. Yes, as she writes, some of the laws he put in place “ultimately provided a blueprint for the injustices of apartheid,” but there was another side of him, the politician who campaigned in an actual multi-racial electorate under the slogan “Equal rights for every civilized man south of the Zambesi.”
Ms. Bergstein does not bolster her authority in these matters by averring that “Rhodes had recently been elected South Africa’s prime minister” when in fact South Africa as a nation with such an office did not come into existence until eight years after his death in 1902. In fact, he was prime minister of the Cape Colony, where any male, whatever his color, with an 8th grade education or owning property valued at 50 pounds (not a lot even in those days), could vote. And Rhodes’ use of the words “South of the Zambesi” implied that he intended the country that would be named for him to the north would have a similar franchise.
If Ms. Bergstein’s understanding of South African history and indeed of colonialism as a whole is shaky, she rises to new heights of the risible in her account of the 1947 visit to South Africa by King George VI and his wife and two daughters. No, De Beers did not invite “them down to South Africa for a tour of the mines, most likely knowing it would create an irresistible press moment, seeking to capitalize on the royal family’s overwhelming popularity.” They were invited by the South African government — George was king of South Africa — and their three month long trip the length and breadth the nation had everything to do with promoting the Commonwealth, supporting the current pro-British Prime Minister Jan Smuts, and damping down republican sentiment. That she should reduce the three days or so in which diamonds and their mines were prominent to the centerpiece of the visit and proclaim De Beers as their host is so ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Neither of these sentiments is exactly confidence-inspiring and made me think, that in some parts of her book at any rate, this author is way out of her depth.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.