As a motivator of human behavior, social status is nearly as fundamental as sex and death. But unlike your ability to procreate or to stay alive, your social status can be given to you only by others. You’re only truly at the top of the social hierarchy if everyone else wants to be where you are. High status is what’s called a “positional good,” meaning its value is determined, at least in part, by how badly other people want it.
Jewels of all kinds are also positional goods — valuable only because we all agree that they are — which is why they’re so useful as signifiers of social status. This messy mix of human desire, perception, and value is key to understanding the outsized role jewels have played in history, argues Aja Raden in her new book, “Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World.”
Raden, a professional jeweler and amateur historian, focuses on historical specifics, like how the company De Beers built a near monopoly on diamond mining in South Africa by the early 20th century or how the Spanish Empire rose to world dominance around the turn of the 16th century due to a huge influx of plunder from the Americas. But she also shows how jewels are a bridge between world history and everyday human psychology.