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Geoscientist Online

Rocks, Ice and Dirty Stones – Diamond Histories


The author, Professor Emerita in History of Art at the University of Manchester, admits that this book is not a technical treatise but an exploration of the social, artistic and commercial aspects of diamonds through the ages.

She begins with short histories of diamond mining in India, Brazil and South Africa. She concentrates heavily on the working conditions and suffering of the labourers, often slaves, but omits mention of how organised, safe and environmentally responsible the vast majority of diamond mining in modern times is. It is unfortunate that she thus conveys the impression that this sorry history is reflected in modern-day practice.

In a short history of the De Beers organisation, she repeats the shibboleth of De Beers using its “vast stocks” to manipulate rough diamond prices using Edward Jay Epstein, a controversial commentator, as a source.   She also carries out an overview of conflict diamonds and the perceived shortcomings of the Kimberley Process, giving credence to Global Witness and dismissing De Beers’ comments.

On safer ground, she describes how diamonds have figured throughout history, going back to Pliny the Elder and before. She is at her best when relating stories, such as her short histories of the Koh-I-Noor and the Cullinan. The section on how the global trade grew during the 16th and 17th Centuries is particularly interesting.

Professor Pointon devotes a chapter to how the shape of diamonds in particular and the rhombus in general has figured in art, design and as religious symbols. This is clearly her forte and this section is both instructive and entertaining.

She then covers the culture of the diamond engagement ring. While diamonds have been given as symbols of love since time immemorial, it was the discovery of large supplies in Brazil that led to a nascent commercial market, its subsequent expansion after the First World War, culminating in the famous slogan “A diamond is forever” being coined in the 1940s.

The final chapter in the book contains some interesting stories of diamond thefts, both in fact and fiction.

I feel that this is ‘two books in one’ and therefore a mixed bag. The author brings nothing new to our knowledge of the diamond market as it operates today but she is a good storyteller and historian.  I would recommend this book to someone who has no knowledge of diamonds but advise them not to treat her observations on how the modern market works as gospel.

Reviewed by Nigel Combley

ROCKS, ICE AND DIRTY STONES – DIAMOND HISTORIES by MARCIA POINTON, 2017. Published by: Reaktion Books 256pp (hbk) ISBN: 978 1 78023 752 7 List price £25 W: