Robert Crabill's Book Reviews

Reprinted from the SFGMS Monthly Newsletter, The Mineralog

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Jewels: A Secret History By Victoria Finlay

Geologic Trips, San Francisco and the Bay Area By Ted Konigsmark

Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region By Doris Sloan, with photos by John Karachewski

Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven By Stan Leaming, with Rick Hudson

Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore By Bruce G. Knuth

The Sourcebook of Decorative Stone, An Illustrated Identification Guide. By Monica T. Price

Jewels: A Secret History

By Victoria Finlay

Random House, 2006. 496 pages, $14.95 pb, $25.95 hb. Black & white and color illustrations; bibliography.
Available online, in stores, and at the San Francisco Public Library.

Reviewed in the Mineralog in two parts - November 2007 and February 2008
Copyright й 2007, 2008 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

An interest in gems sparked Victoria Finlay to research a book about the human side of gems, in chapters playfully arranged by increasing hardness of the gem material on the Mohs scale, thus: amber - jet - pearl  opal  peridot - emerald  sapphire  ruby  and diamond. She gives a smattering of technical information but mostly charming tales from her research and travels seeking not so much gems, as their stories. Here are the mysteries of archaeology, the broad sweep of the historical uses of gems  the book begins with a 12,500 year old British amber cave artifact  as well as the finders and miners, whom we meet early on as the author seeks out the last remaining jet carvers of Whitby, England and Scottish freshwater pearl fishers.

The ubiquitous quartz materials (with their fortuitous fracture, allowing a softer material like antler to shape a harder one) found use first, putting meat on the menu, but let's not forget it was the soft materials  amber, jet, ochre, fossils, shell, ivory and antler, mostly organic rather than mineral in origin  which were the world's first art materials, so long ago that most stones in today's jewelry shops, if they were known then at all, ironically would have figured only as abrasives.

The book is not hard science, neither is Moh's scale, which pretends to measure using unequal units, there are other books for that. Finlay's gift is to humanize the world of gems for the general reader, in a folksy style reminiscent of John McPhee breathing life into geology in Basin and Range and four subsequent books, a generation ago.

But let's race ahead to Baltic amber, at the very least! To the ancient Lithuanians, amber came from the undersea palace of the mermaid Jurate, who was punished for falling in love with a fisherman: she lost him in the same storm that smashed her home to pieces. The large chunks of amber that washed up on beaches were the bricks of the castle, the small ones Jurate's tears.

We learn also of the Stone Age amber routes, from northern Europe to Greece, to northern Italy, to the Black Sea and Constantinople, truly the first international roads, traveled by gem merchants at least as secretive about their sources as those of today.

In the modern age, Poland's Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa, where the woman's cloak was made of amber offered by local amber workers, but then, no doubt to one-up their old friends the Russians, "...the congregation decided to make an amber altar to surround the icon. It will contain eight tons of amber, to the Amber Room's six, and will measure 1,300 square feet to the amber room's 925." All the raw material will come from Poland, dug with special government permission.

But all is not so splendid as Finlay gets to the bottom of the inglorious history of the Russian amber mines along the coast of the Baltic Sea, run using slave labor from the gulags. As one reviewer wrote of the book, "It is a constant theme: gems may sparkle, full of richness, but the areas from which they are extracted are grimly impoverished."

Victoria Finlay popularizes the subject of gems, not just simplifying technical information for the general reader, but showing us her motivations and questions, and taking us along on her research and travels as she seeks the stories behind gems and the people who mine, craft, and sell them. Readers will learn much about both nature and ourselves through these cultural "stories in stone." The book grew out of the author's research for an earlier book about colors. Some colors used in art and industry, of course, were originally or still are derived from minerals.

For her chapter on the black, organic gem jet, Finlay need not even leave her native country to find the world's most famous jet industry: Whitby in Yorkshire, in northeast England.

The history of jet carving is extraordinarily long, beginning thousands of years ago in England, adopted by the Romans during their occupation, and best known today by the mourning jewelry worn by Queen Victoria, which sparked a fashion craze in England and Europe.

Related to lignite coal, pure black, relatively soft and capable of taking a glossy polish, jet's fossil nature was not realized early on. Like amber, another organic gem originating in the plant kingdom, jet is also light in weight, feels warm to the touch and exhibits electrical properties when rubbed; unlike amber (ancient tree sap), jet is the actual ancient fossil wood itself, found among sedimentary shale layers.

Jet carving in the region of Whitby began with material washed up on local beaches; then in its heyday in the second half of the 1800s, the huge demand for raw material inspired dangerous cliff mining and mines inland during the boom times.

In recent decades jet has had a modest resurgence, with craftspeople using jet found by secretive beachcombers and local stores selling souvenir jet jewelry and repairing older pieces. The history of jet demonstrates an oft-repeated pattern seen elsewhere in the gem and jewelry world: an initial boom in popularity, followed by cheap imitations flooding in and hurting the reputation of the original gem or jewelry, followed by a change of fashion.

>Victoria Finlay's Jewels: A Secret History is an enjoyable, eminently browseable book in which you can learn many interesting and lesser-known things about the world of gems, and she even took the trouble to cite her sources in footnotes.

The book has been a springboard to learning more about gems and their history for me, which explains this second essay of mine about an enchanting book.

To learn more:

Whitby Jet Heritage Centre - Jet artists who provide good articles on the material, its history, mining and use, and show antique equipment from an antique jet working shop.

The Whitby Website - Good information on history, working techniques, etc. from the city of Whitby's website.

Jet Jewelry and Ornaments, Helen Muller. U.K.: Shire Publications, c1980. 32 pp. An affordable illustrated book by an authority on the subject. Available via: http://www.shirebooks.co.uk

Geologic Trips, San Francisco and the Bay Area

By Ted Konigsmark

GeoPress (P.O. Box 964, Gualala, CA 95445), 1998. 170 pp., $13.95 pb.
Available online, in stores, and at the San Francisco Public Library.

We are fortunate to have this book in our own SFGMS library at the clubhouse.

Reviewed in the Mineralog, Dec. 2007
Copyright й 2007 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

We should appreciate the enriching and rare gift two local authors have given us in the last decade: a pair of readable and informative books on the geology of the San Francisco Bay Area, certainly an area with many notable geologic features as well as scenic beauty. I'll consider first the older, shorter, less technical and more field-trip-oriented of the two.

Retired geologist Ted Konigsmark, who has written several California geology field guides, including a recent and longer guide to the Sierra Nevada, does a good job of briefing the reader on S.F. Bay Area geology before he guides readers on seven local geological tours.

The first quarter of the book introduces important geological themes in a non-technical way. It includes a quick introduction to reading a landscape and thinking in geologic terms (geologic time, uplift and subsidence, scale, erosion and deposition), and a clear but brief treatment of concepts important to our geologically dynamic part of the world: plate tectonics, plate subduction zones, and terranes.

A longer chapter on faults and earthquakes, and two sections on the rocks and geologic history of the San Francisco area follow.

The second, larger part of the book features seven field trip guides: to the northwest coastal areas of San Francisco, the city's highest mountain, Twin Peaks, and Alcatraz Island; the dramatic Marin Headlands along the Golden Gate strait, with their pillow basalt and remarkable, world-famous layered chert [think also of O'Shaughnessy Boulevard in SF]; metamorphic Angel Island with its geologic mixtures including hints of jadeite; Ring Mountain (Tiburon) and its chaotic geology of melange and rare minerals, and Fort Funston and the western beaches back in San Francisco for a look at sediments, erosion and fossils.

A longer chapter on Bay Area faults takes us further afield to visit northwestern San Mateo County coast including Mussel Rock and the precipitous Devil's Slide, the Crystal Springs Reservoir built directly on land carved out by the San Andreas fault, and the Hayward Fault in the East Bay, returning to San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.

The final chapter tours the Point Reyes Peninsula and its earthquake features, headlands and beaches.

Geologic Trips, San Francisco and the Bay Area is illustrated throughout with diagrams and black & white photographs, and has a short glossary. More detailed and technical geology field guides to our area do exist, but are harder to find and more expensive.

By the book's end, or even if you only skip around the book -- and, yes, even if you are an armchair field tripper and don't do the field trips, book in hand -- you will have learned a lot and be reminded of the amazing geography and geology in this area, which on an average day we might admire as scenery but usually don't give a second thought to.

Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region

by Doris Sloan, with photos by John Karachewski

University of California Press, 2006. 335 pp., color photos, figures & maps, bibliography. $17.95 pb, $50 hb
Available online, in stores, and at the San Francisco Public Library.

Reviewed in the Mineralog, Jan. 2008
Copyright й 2008 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

To UC Berkeley professor Doris Sloan, our region is "a crazy-quilt pattern of rocks almost defying description and order." Think Jackson Pollock, or visualize, as one reviewer wrote, a "geologic wrecking yard." But Sloan rises to the challenge with superb popular science writing, making sense of this unique set of geological materials, causes and effects. For this book one can uncork an old saying, "only once in a generation does a book like this come along." In our era of declining geological education and publishing, unfortunately this is a safe bet, though serious science readers welcome books of this caliber anytime.

Sloan writes in an authoritative yet accessible, clear writing style with the student and interested amateur in mind. This is a readable text on geologic processes shaping the nine counties around San Francisco Bay. It's all here: the mechanics and history of local landscape change; subduction from the west and movement from the south along fault; the geological oddities of the region including the wild rock mixtures of Franciscan melange, and still-moving rock units that match up with others still hundreds of miles to the south. Though not a detailed field guide (see Konigsmark, above), most chapters discuss "special places to explore." This book from the UC Press California Natural History Guides series updates but far surpasses two older, related books in the long-running series. Rocks and Minerals of the San Francisco Bay Region by Oliver E. Bowen (1962) is a thin old-timer with much interesting information on mineral localities in our area (gold, in Berkeley?), and since it mostly describes minerals and rocks (unlike Sloan) and dwells less on geological processes, it is probably still largely accurate despite its age.

Because her work covers a smaller area of the state, Sloan's new book does not entirely replace Arthur D. Howard's modest classic Geologic History of Middle California (1979; still in print). It used the remarkable, then-new theory of moving crustal plates to explain the evolution of the dramatic landscapes of the San Francisco Bay Area and outlying areas. Sloan recommends the book even now. These last two books still have value, but few will look back to them, as our taste today - and whois immune? - is for science books with far more color illustrations. As each has a different focus, perhaps both belong on your shelf (they're thin). Collectors can find a saving grace even in outmoded books, when found at the right price!

I do take issue with the format of Doris Sloan's work as a small but thick paperback book. It looks "reduced" and would have been much nicer in a larger format, with larger text and illustrations, even at a higher price; perhaps the hardback should have been larger, since at almost three times the pb price, it is no bargain. But Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region is another of the excellent and affordable UC Press natural history guides, and is a wonderful addition to any earth science book collection.

If you'd like to learn more, the book was also reviewed in the Oct.-Dec. 2006 issue of Bay Nature; the review (along with Doris Sloan's own regular geology articles for the magazine through the years) are archived at: www.baynature.com.

This book has also been reviewed at About.com's Geology website.

Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven

By Stan Leaming, with Rick Hudson

Heritage House Publ. Co. Ltd., Surrey, B.C., Canada, й 2005.
Available online, in stores, and at the San Francisco Public Library.

Reviewed in the Mineralog, Mar.. 2008
Copyright й 2008 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

Stan Leaming is an expert on Canadian nephrite jade, which constitutes much of the world's commercial supply, and he wrote the chapter on jade in North America for the excellent 1991 world survey Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven, edited by Roger Keverne. Leaming's own book is the product of a man who made his mark both as a geologist and technical writer. Jade has been the focus of much of his career with the Geological Survey of Canada and his travels after retirement. Looking back over a long career and written with writer-rockhound Rick Hudson, Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven is a popular book about nephrite jade. It is really several books in one, reflecting first the author's interests in all aspects of British Columbia nephrite, from its geology to the miners, promoters, and artists who have worked with it. But, as the book also takes a wider look at aspects of jade elsewhere, it is worthy of more than just local interest.

Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven is first of all a detailed history of jade production in Canada from its beginnings in the early 1960s, and also a look at the challenges of mining it which involves working in remote roadless areas, often restricted by climate to only a few usable months of summer, and prospecting, sampling, and sawing large masses of the toughest mineral on earth down to a transportable size, with bulldozers and helicopters the only practical vehicles.

Some interesting chapters profile the extensive jade use by the ancient native peoples of the Northwest (unfortunately without illustrations of artifacts) and take a scientific look at the two minerals that are both called jade, the imprecise term "jade" itself, and similar-looking stones. A brief survey of jade occurrences in North America and Europe follows. Perhaps it's understandable in a book focusing on large commercial deposits, written by authors who know their justly famous Canadian resources best but, in a book that aims as high as this one, I found the meager information on Wyoming and California jade disappointing.

There follows an extensive section of accounts of Leaming's travels to world jade localities with other jade experts, notably Russell Beck of New Zealand, the author of several good books on his country's nephrite jade. Destinations include the historic Khotan (Xinjiang Province, China) river jade deposits, and jade sources in Taiwan, South Korea, Siberia, Australia and New Zealand. The groups met geologists, shared information, visited local museums and collected samples. The author's wry humor enlivens his stories of traveling to some unusual places following their shared passion for jade.

The final chapter describes the challenges of carving and polishing jade, and then paints a portrait of the carving scene in British Columbia, beginning in the 1970s and flourishing with the creations of locally trained artists and resident Chinese carvers, many of them portraying local wildlife. One remarkable (but atypical) creation was a large sitting Buddha, now in a Bangkok temple, which was carved in the 1990s from a huge nephrite boulder by master Italian marble carvers who must have learned a lot! However, Canadian carvers had to fly in to do the final polishing. Leaming says that the number of fulltime B.C. jade artists has dwindled from thirty to six as a result of inexpensive overseas competition.

Sixteen pages of color photos show jade localities and a beautiful selection of Canadian jade carvers' art. The book includes notes, a bibliography and two valuable appendices on the differences between nephrite and jadeite, and on world jade production: prospecting and mining methods, grades of material, and industry production figures.

Jade Fever, Hunting the Stone of Heaven is a significant contribution to the gem and mineral literature of North America, essential reading for jade lovers and a great addition to any library. The western United States, including Wyoming, deserve a book like this, a story of the many and varied local jades, and a tribute to jade miners in the West, and the collectors and artists who pursue and create art from jade, but it doesn't exist yet.

NOTE TO THE READER: One would have to assemble and read a wide array of magazine articles, technical reports, and books to create a composite story of jade in the West. I've been reading and collecting articles and books for years, and the SFGMS library has some great resources as well. I know I'd love to hear from readers who have found interesting information, or collect books about jade! Send letters to Robert Crabill c/o the Mineralog Editor at the clubhouse or email to mineralog@earthlink.net.

Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore

By Bruce G. Knuth

Jewelers Press, Parachute, Colo: revised edition c2007 pb $21.95 398 pp.
Available online, in stores, and by mail order.

Reviewed in the Mineralog, April, 2008
Copyright й 2008 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

This is a revised edition of Colorado gemologist and jeweler Bruce Knuth's 1999 hardcover book. The original edition sold for $55, and this is a popularly priced version that has shed its expensive illustrations and is smaller in format (though with more pages) and comes paperbound in the name of affordability.

The book begins with an introduction to gems and why they were appreciated and valued in olden times, and background information on amulets and talismans. The core of truth in some medical claims for gems, and the early reverence for stones that faded but never entirely died out as the world went from a magical worldview to a scientific one, are also mentioned. A history of early writings about gems follows, tracing the major authors in mineralogy and gemology as these became true sciences, and neatly introducing many sources that contribute elsewhere in the book.

More than half of the book is given to the author's "lapidarium", or guide to stones, compiling for each gem both modern mineralogical data and information on colors and varieties, as well as the fascinating lore, mythology, and even poetry of various ages and cultures about the gem material. Often current-day metaphysical lore of the "healing stones" variety is also included.

This is followed by an interesting short chapter on mythical gems, many of which seem to come from animals. Brief chapters list gem references in the works of Shakespeare, the Bible and the Koran, and translate several obscure gem-related poems by Marbode of Rennes (1035-1123).

A substantial chapter on the many systems of birthstones follows, charting their roots in the Bible and astrology. Knuth calls the wearing of birthstones the most most popular vestige, in the lives of average people today, of this ancient talismanic magic of gems.

As Knuth says, "mysticism and metaphysics remain strong influences in the lives of many, but misinformation and confusion abound. Modern authorities profess great insights regarding gems and their uses, but a great deal of the information being disseminated does not recognize the knowledge of the past and the foundations of gem study." That said, only a brave author wades into the shifting sands of subjects like these, with all the problems of bringing scientific rigor to worlds of folklore and early religions, magic and the roots of medicine, and with added challenges from changing terminology and languages, and the passage of the centuries.

Knuth generally cites the original sources for his information. Sometimes his book left this reader wishing for the erudition and elegant prose of John Sinkankas, for a bibliography of all cited sources, and more of the polish of a book that has had the careful attention of an outside editor and proofreader. But Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore taps the better known sources and some surprising others, and presents a remarkable picture of gems in culture. Anyone interested in gems and stones will both learn from it and be entertained. Its perspective on gems in cultural expression worldwide, extending well beyond Western European beliefs on stones to countries such as India, is particularly welcome. Minor faults aside, for a work of independent publishing the book is a remarkable effort, giving in one now popularly priced book an experience of a rich world of gem knowledge predating today's scientific one, a parallel world that has seen a remarkable resurgence in the last few decades with the rise of the "crystal consciousness" movement.

The Sourcebook of Decorative Stone, An Illustrated Identification Guide.

Monica T. Price

Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY: c2007, large format hb, $39.95, 288 pp.

Reviewed in the Mineralog, July, 2008
Copyright й 2008 by Robert Crabill (click for details)

The fascinations of color and pattern are what attract people to stones, and here hundreds of types of quarried stone are wonderfully illustrated and thoroughly investigated by Ms. Price, a British geologist, science historian and curator of the Corsi Collection of ancient Roman decorative stone at Oxford University. The book begins with the history of large-scale stone use and of the techniques for quarrying and working it, followed by helpful information on geology, mineralogy and nomenclature. Prominently featured are the stones we loosely term marble and granite, for centuries made into columns, wall panels, stairways, decorative floors, as well as smaller vases and boxes, and of course statuary.

Mini-essays throughout profile stones of royalty in ancient times like porphyry; pietre dure inlay work; archaeologists hunting ancient quarries; the Italian scalpellini 'mining' the ancient ruins of the Mediterranean and Europe for stone to re-cut into smaller objects; the stone mosaic floors called "Cosmati pavements" with their fantastic geometric patterns and symmetries; centuries-old paintings on stone slabs; and look-a-likes and outright fakes.

Stone, much-used as a structural and exterior building material, in its polished form was a premium decorative material seen only in better quality buildings, churches, palaces and estates, monuments and select public sites such as government buildings and banks ╨ buildings meant to suggest permanence and prestige.

The varieties of cut stones and even their names can be fascinating. Some stone reminded people of commonly seen things: marble with dark curving banding was called cippolina (Italian for onion), as the resemblance could be striking; other stones evoke a trip to the beach with swirls of sea-green colors, or beds of fossil seashells. But many stones were unlike anything typically seen in daily life 500 or 1000 years ago: the phenomenon of a breccia ╨ fractured rock pieces re-cemented by a second mineral of a contrasting color ╨ with its bold patterns resembles nothing so much as certain 20th century art. Certainly colors and patterns like these were little seen before chemistry synthesized colors centuries later, and art went abstract.

Monica Price's Sourcebook of Decorative Stone is a wonderful documentation of Old World cities and cultures through the many centuries in which people lived immersed in beautiful stones rather than surrounded by all the many synthetic and soulless modern materials like concrete, brick, plaster, steel, glass, plastics, etc. For a worker's perspective on this change in building styles, read stonemason Seamus Murphy's book Stone Mad about his apprenticeship as a stone carver in the 1920s. Then the ancient stone crafts faced the decline and death of their artistry and rich human traditions ╨ discarded for reinforced concrete in the name of cheaper, faster construction, as architectural tastes relentlessly changed.

The final chapter shows us more valuable stones occurring in smaller deposits: malachite, lapis lazuli, fluorite including England's valuable banded "Blue John" variety, rhodonite, rock crystal and amethyst, as well as newer gem materials such as charoite and eudialyte. The author includes an extensive bibliography.

If not an essential book for most lapidaries, The Sourcebook of Decorative Stone can be a valuable reference work for designers and architects, those who deal with antiques as well as art history buffs and lovers of the enchantments of stones. Other art books will give you more large photos of stone-embellished cathedrals and palaces, but no book I know of will teach you more about how these cultural treasures came to be: the raw materials, their sources and working techniques, history and lore, and how building and decorating with stone flourished and waned, but now enjoys a bit of a rebirth, via the use of polished stone slabs in home kitchens and bathrooms. Perhaps now as societies go "green" and examine the "carbon footprint" of all our building materials, the time is right for a return to building with beautiful stone, inside and out!╩ If so, this is the guidebook we need.

Notice of Copyright

The book reviews on this webpage are Copyright й 2007, 2008 by Robert Crabill. All rights reserved. They may be freely distributed to public newsgroups and mailing lists, unmodified and with proper attribution and this copyright notice. Copies may be printed for non-commercial use. Web links are welcome. Please check if you want to redistribute, publish, or archive these reviews in other ways. Send your inquiries to Robert Crabill c/o the Mineralog Editor at the SFGMS clubhouse or email to mineralog@earhlink.net.

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