GEM: The Definitive Visual Guide

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman and Elyse Zorn Karlin


   Foreword by Aja Raden, N.Y: DK (Dorling Kindersley) Publishing/Smithsonian, 2016. 440 pp, color illus. Hardbound, color illus, $50.00


   Let’s cut right to the bottom line: if you have even the slightest interest in gems and jewels you need to add this gorgeous book to your library. That said, this book is difficult to review for it is really several books interleaved into one. For this reason two people are reviewing it ... one reviewer who admires gems, another who loves historic jewelry.

    The organization of the book is unusual, with an Introduction followed by sections on Native Elements, Gemstones, Organic Gems, and Rock Gems and Rocks. There follows a Color Guide (loosely grouping minerals according to their color) and an 80 page Mineral and Rock Directory (grouping them in standard geologic order). There is also a glossary and—vitally important in a book like this—a comprehensive index.

    The Introduction covers the basic definitions of rocks, gems, and “jewels” and is well illustrated (as is the entire book). Their physical and optical properties are covered as well as where they are found, how they form, and what makes a stone a gem.

    The Native Elements section covers gold, silver, platinum, copper and bronze, and diamond (representing carbon). Mineralogical information is interspersed with lavishly illustrated historical examples such as the Crown of Charlemagne and Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings (now in the Smithsonian Gem Gallery).

    The Gemstones section is by far the largest, comprising about half the book. Here we find extensive treatments of more gems than you ever knew existed, all beautifully illustrated. All the “usual suspects” are there of course, but also such rare examples as sphalerite, taaffeite, and pezzottaite. Again historical sidebars appear throughout, featuring important jewelry set with gemstones such as the Danish Ruby Parure and the Topkapi Emerald Dagger, just to pick two examples. There are also brief treatments of Indian, Byzantine, and ancient Egyptian jewelry.

    Throughout the book are explanations of why one gemstone example is more valuable than another, although dollar values are not discussed. The dangerous area of enhancements is also treated.

    Gem was created in association with the Smithsonian Institution and from the publishing information it appears that a substantial team worked on it. The main contributors, however, appear to be Ronald Bonewitz and consultant Andrew Fellows of the British Gemmological Association. There is a foreword by Aja Raden who authored the book Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World.

    Gem combines expert knowledge with an almost uncountable number of lavish photographs from sources all over the world. At only $50 this huge book is not only a must-have for your reference library or your coffee table, it is also perfect for gift-giving. —ejh

    This book is a treasure trove of images and historical information about a number of important jewels. It takes a little browsing through to get the rhythm of how it is set up. For each material—metals or gemstones—the section begins with a description of the physical properties and other pertinent information. In the pages that follow many examples of jewels using these materials are splashed across the page showing an array of styles and time periods. Then finally, one very important jewel is featured on a two page spread which has a picture of the jewel, related images— for example for Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings, a portrait of the queen, and a timeline with key dates in her history. At first glance this format seems as if material is shown together without explanation, but after a thoughtful run through of the book it begins to make sense.

    Overall, I found the book beautiful and enlightening. But I do have a few small complaints. Some of the images are so oversized that there is no way to get a sense of the proportion of the jewel. They are shown seemingly without rhyme or reason for the sizing save the spreads on a particular jewel. While those images probably should be larger, they are still enormously oversized. This is probably a matter of personal taste as I have this discussion of how close to actual size to show jewels in books with other jewelry historians often.

    Also, there is no attribution with each of the hundreds of images of where the jewels reside or who owns them. This I feel is detrimental as we would all like to know what museum a piece is in or whether it is in a private collection.

    But the beauty of the book overrides these concerns and I would highly recommend this book—which is very affordable for its size and quality, for making a great connection between gemstones and jewelry that feature these stones throughout history. —ezk


Copyright © 2016 by Eric J. Hoffman and Elyse Zorn Karlin (Home Page)

Originally published in ASJRA Newsletter, Oct-Nov 2016. Reprinted in Bull. N.Y. Mineralogical Club, April 2017.