Book Review: Brilliance and Fire (2016)

Book cover photograph taken by me; all rights reserved.

Diamonds weren't always forever. The sparkling gemstones occupy a very specific place in our culture today: they're symbols of commitment, of wealth, of belonging. But that didn't happen by chance. The myth of the diamond has been carefully crafted and constructed over the course of the past century, and the history of the gemstone itself is much more fraught. That's the overarching story told in Rachelle Bergstein's new book, Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.

Bergstein's book is precisely what it says it is: a lengthy look into the way that diamonds have captivated Western culture from the late nineteenth century until now. The book spends much of its time untangling the intricate ways that diamonds have been discovered, mined, and marketed to the public. If you're looking for a visual guide or a book primarily about jewels worn by royals, this is something a bit different. But if you're fascinated by the complicated ways that gemstones are sourced and sold, I think you'll enjoy it.

As with almost any book about diamonds, though, there is some content about royalty. There's a chapter on Wallis Simpson's jewelry, and other royal diamond owners are mentioned, too. There's also a tantalizing, fleeting mention of paste diamonds in royal jewelry in the chapter on Madame Wellington's faux diamonds. There's so much information out there about royal diamonds, and I think this part of the book definitely could have been expanded. One of my only critiques of the book is that Bergstein was maybe a little too ambitious in her scope -- she tries to cover so much complicated, interesting content that some of it ends up being glossed over a bit. Ultimately, I wanted more!

But as I spend more and more time immersed in the world of royalty, I grow increasingly fascinated with the crafty PR campaign that transformed rocks unearthed in Africa into sparkling status symbols worldwide. The last chapter of the book, which discusses the way that diamonds have been used as tools of oppression and subjugation, digs into the not-so-pleasant story behind some of these glittering gems. Diamonds are always going to be a paradox: they're beautiful objects to be admired, but the getting and the selling of them has led to some truly ruthless and despicable behavior. Brilliance and Fire lets the reader delve into the duality while still marveling at the sparkle and shine.

Note: I purchased this book myself -- more specifically, I bought it with the proceeds from Amazon affiliate advertising on this website. If you click through one of our Amazon ads (or on one of the links in this post) to buy a product , I receive a small amount in return, which I then use to purchase materials to review here. Keep on buying, and I'll keep on reviewing. ;-)