Beijing, 14 August 2014

There was a board game I used to play when I was young, I forget its name, but it had to do with pirates and their treasure. I suspect that the game was loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which the boys of my generation had all read.

Treasure.Island frank godwin 1925

“Harr, me hearties, pull strong, pull straight! Yohoho an’ a bottle o’ rum!” etc.

The purpose of the game was to capture the treasure, and like all good board games it had miniature treasure – miniature gold bars, miniature rubies, miniature diamonds, and so on. You stockpiled your treasure on islands, and you attacked each other to lay your grubby hands on everyone else’s treasure. I was fascinated by all that miniature treasure. I most lusted after the rubies. “Get in thar, lads, and grab t’ treajaye!”

This fascination of small boys like me with pirates and treasure was brilliantly tapped into by Hergé, the author of Tintin, who in two volumes caught the whole buccaneering spirit


and the subsequent hunt for buried treasure


Ah, look how that evil pirate Rackham the Red shows off his treasure to Captain Haddock!

rackham montre le tresor

And look how his great-great-great etc. grandson Captain Haddock’s head is sent spinning when he finally finds this treasure!

Capt Haddock trouve le tresor de Rackham le rouge

All that glinting gold! All those sparkling gems!

But I grew up, and grew more sensible, and found that I didn’t actually like sparkling gems (I still like gold, though …). I’m told that gemstones are cut and faceted to bring out their sparkle – or to use the correct language, their brilliance and their fire. Some fellow called Marcel Tolkowsky even went so far as to work out mathematically the best faceting to give gems so as to use the light’s reflection and refraction to maximize their fire and brilliance. But when I now look at my once-favourite rubies

WellsFargoInsertRuby, July

or sapphires

sapphires-blueor emeraldsemeraldsor diamonds


I see nothing but cold, hard precision, stuff for the Rich Bitch.

This was forcefully brought home to me last Christmas when my wife and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art during what has become our annual visit to our daughter in New York. The museum happened to be holding an exhibition of the medieval treasures from the Cathedral of Hildesheim in Germany. At that time – we are talking the 1100s – people didn’t know how to facet stones, so gems were mainly polished and rounded into cabochons. Take a look at these photos to see what I mean.

Here is a bible cover.

photo 012

This is a cross.

photo 004

This a reliquary.

photo 010

This a liturgical fan.

photo 007

The rounded shape in a gem is so much more simpatico, I feel, warmer, more approachable, so much more like us. I mean, we’re sort of round – more round than faceted. OK, it’s all a bit fanciful, but it is true that cabochons are much more like all those rounded, smooth, coloured pebbles that I’m sure we all picked up as kids on the beach and dreamily turned over and over in our hands.

boy on beach

I was certainly an assiduous pebble collector, a habit which I have kept up all my life. Everywhere I have gone, I have collected stones smoothed by the passage of water. I am always looking for interesting colours, striking striations, or curious shapes. Every time I find myself on a beach, my eyes will automatically drop and scour the sand or pebbles for interesting stones (or shells, or any curious flotsam thrown up by the sea). Even here in Beijing, far away from any beach, I have my collection of smooth stones, collected here and there.

So you can understand that in my sensible adulthood I have not been so interested in Rich Bitch jewelry like this

emerald necklace elizabeth-taylorpreferring “ethnic jewelry” like this.

ethnic necklace

(there is also a small matter of the price tag, but we’ll put that aside for the time being)

I insert here a photo of a wonderful necklace I bought my wife some five years ago. It’s a string of red agate stones. Very pebble-like, don’t you think? You see it here gracing her wonderful neck. I bought it in a little shop in Vienna which specializes in Asian ethnic jewelry.

my wifes necklace 001

In these preferences I feel a bond with my faraway ancestors. But back, back we have to go, beyond the Romans

Roman necklace

and the Greeks

Helenistic gem and gold necklace

where too much gold intrudes.

Beyond even the Egyptians, where silver gets in the way

Egyptian Electrum Cowrie Shell Necklace

We have to go back to the Celts two Centuries before Christ.

celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerlandand even further back to our prehistoric ancestors, 4,000 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beadsand 2,600 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beads-2

I’ve always felt myself to be a bit of a Cro-Magnon man. I think my wife sometimes agrees …


Treasure Island book cover: [in
Le Secret de la Licorne: [in
Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge: [in
Rackham shows Haddock the treasure: [in
Capt. Haddock finds the treasure: [in
Rubies: [in
Sapphires-blue:×737.jpg [in
Emeralds: [in
Diamonds: [in
The Hildesheim treasures: my photos
Boy on beach: [in
Emerald necklace (Elizabeth Taylor): [in
Ethnic necklace: [in
Necklace on my wife: my pic.
Roman necklace: [in
Hellenistic necklace: [in
Egyptian electrum and beads necklace: [in in
Celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerland: [in
Late prehistoric necklace: [in
Late prehistoric beads-2: [in