June 07, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Heartless Stone

Current Status
In Season
Tom Zoellner
St. Martin's Press
We gave it a B+

When his fiancée returned her engagement ring, the depressed author decided he would trace the roots of his now-tarnished diamond. The breakup is a bit of a disingenuous hook for The Heartless Stone — a few awkward descriptions of his personal trauma sprinkled willy-nilly into an otherwise dazzling display of intrepid reporting. Tom Zoellner heads to the mines of the Central African Republic, a diamond-yielding kimberlite hole in the Canadian Arctic, and polishing factories in India. Along the way, he highlights rampant injustices in a notoriously corrupt industry. In Africa, ”finders were paid about $100 a carat…. Those same rocks would be worth about $20,000 under the glass at Zales.”

More fascinating, though, is Zoellner’s exploration of the diamond’s symbolic history, as dictated by shrewd marketing campaigns. (”Your left hand says ‘We,”’ reads one ad aimed at single women reared on Sex and the City. ”Your right hand says ‘Me.”’) He interviews rising hip-hop star Sean Gemini about the culture’s emphasis on bling. ”You don’t want to talk about saving seals,” says the rapper. He accompanies a young couple shopping for rings at a mall. Despite her growing awareness of diamonds’ tainted roots, the woman still wants her rock. ”No one would think you were getting married if you were wearing a ruby,” she concludes.

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