Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Heartless Stone by Tom Zoellner

As promised, I read a second book by Tom Zoellner.  After his thoughtful comments on my review of his Uranium I purchased and read The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire.

I enjoyed The Heartless Stone more than Uranium for one simple reason: he interwove his diamond research with the personal tale of his rejected engagement and the ring it left behind.  His personal insight into the emotional content stored in that blue velvet box carried the otherwise harsh probing into how diamonds get from the ground and onto someone's finger.

Diamonds are also easier to relate to personally as we all have some experience with either buying or wearing jewelry.  Of course, you might argue that the threat of nuclear annihilation as discussed in Uranium is also a personal matter but it's just a bit more abstract.

Zoellner's research makes it clear that the diamond as a gem has a price far in excess of its mineral value.  Diamonds are fairly common geologically worldwide and it's only through business practices that they cost what they do.  The perceived value of diamonds comes from the story behind them, whether that story is romantic baggage as embodied in slogans like A Diamond is Forever or the tales of misery behind blood diamonds.  We also have to question whether a diamond's role in romance is manufactured and whether it really matters if the answer to that question is yes. 

The tales told of uranium and diamond mining are very similar.  The folks with the shovels get the shaft while some corporation gets rich.  Things are vastly better in the developed nations (e.g. Canada) than in developing countries (e.g.  Angola) where in the former it's more about care for the environment while in the latter it's more about not getting killed.  I began to wonder whether other industries could be looked at in this light.  For example, you could look at corn farming in the U.S. and question the policies of big farming corporations, genetic manipulation of plants, chemical issues associated with fertilizers and pesticides, and the profitability for the family farmer who gets their hands dirty.  (For more on this I suggest Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.)  The whole issue of exploitation of third world countries and native peoples is repeated.  What does it mean that a ton of ore has to be crushed to yield a carat of diamonds?  I'm not sure where all this rhetorical questioning is going but I suspect Zoellner may have achieved one of his goals - to inspire critical thinking about common everyday [correction] objects.

One surprising fact revealed in The Heartless Stone is that (at the time of writing, 2006) 92% of the world's diamonds are processed in India.

I will not repeat the sexual innuendos that pepper this book as well as Uranium.  But trust me, they're there.  OK, I'll repeat one, the first one I encountered that made me smile based on my previous exchanges with Zoellner.  Diamonds, as most of us know, are formed by vast compression and heating of carbon beneath the earth's crust.  They, along with magma, are ejected onto the earth's surface through volcanoes but that ejection has to be just right or the diamonds vaporize at the lower pressure.  As Zoellner writes "What we wear on our fingers and around our necks are the lucky survivors, the sperm who won the race." [page 26]

You can learn more about Tom Zoellner and his work at his web site,  My review of Zoellner's Uranium can be read here.

[I received no compensation for this review.]

No comments: