Diamonds are sublimely useless, Matthew Hart concedes. "You cannot eat them or drive them home." Yet as his book Diamond meticulously illustrates, these hard gems gather and focus human ingenuity and rapacity just as surely as their polished facets capture and direct light.
Hart's position as editor of the industry trade magazine Rapaport Diamond Report provides him both expertise in and access to the normally shrouded world of diamond discovery and trading. But it is his gift for storytelling that gives this book its movie-like pacing and appeal. He puts us on a barge with Brazilian miners as they scoop up a rough pink stone from a remote river bottom and thus set in motion worldwide market reverberations. He lets us peer over the shoulder of a legendary diamond cutter who spends three years chipping away at a single gem. He eases us painlessly into the trade's arcane customs and vocabulary and sits us down at the side of an exhausted copywriter who, in a last-minute burst of creative desperation, comes up with the slogan "Diamonds are forever." As Hart spins his irresistible stories of hustlers, adventurers and new finds, he also lays out basic lessons in diamond geology and history. Looming over virtually every aspect of the trade is the vast De Beers corporation, which has long been to diamonds what Microsoft has become to computers. He explains how De Beers has managed to control the flow of diamonds to the retail market and how the discovery of rich new fields in Canada and elsewhere has steadily loosened the company's grip.
Like other adept analysts of popular culture, Hart succeeds in showing how his subject has ramifications that reach into all aspects of society. He points out, for example, that there is a symbiotic relationship between diamonds and movies, with each lending glamour and intrigue to the other. He observes that daring, well-publicized thefts of diamonds are, in effect, advertising vehicles that increase the perceived value of the stones. In recent times, he explains, diamonds have both financed and promoted wars in Africa and, in so doing, presented the industry with a severe public relations problem.
Even those who care nothing for diamonds are likely to find Hart's book a sparkling reading experience.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based journalist and reviewer.