Literary Jewels

The Bulgari Connection, by Fay Weldon. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001; 190 pages.

Prior to the publication of The Bulgari Connection, it was revealed that English author Fay Weldon had accepted payment from Bvlgari in return for a little literary product placement. Weldon was immediately taken to task by the literary public, who accused her of opening the pristine doors of high art to lowbrow commercial pandering. Weldon, known for high-class, well-written chick lit, was unapologetic, pointing out that no one had ever given her a literary award, so …?

The Bulgari Connection is a quick, entertaining read. The main character is a Londoner named Grace, and the book begins just after her release from jail, where she has spent the last three years for attempting to run down Doris—her former husband’s current wife—in a supermarket parking lot one morning. The former husband, a wealthy builder named Barley, had left the slightly frumpy, comfortable Grace to marry the young, hip Doris, the host of a television arts program—and a greedy little harpy.

Grace is living a pale existence—alone in an apartment, sustained only by Barley’s alimony checks. She has few allies, but old friends occasionally take pity and invite her to their swell affairs. One of these events—a charity auction thrown by Grace’s friend Lady Juliet—sets the plot in motion.

As Grace sits quiet and alone, Barley and Doris arrive at the auction. They’ve come straight from Bvlgari, where they’ve just bought a necklace to match Doris’s dress.

The main auction item goes on the block, and all eyes turn to look. It’s a portrait of Lady Juliet painted by an up-and-coming young artist, and it depicts her wearing a spectacular custom-made necklace by—you guessed it—Bvlgari. The necklace is “steel and gold set with cabochon emeralds, rubies, sapphires and brilliant cut diamonds, made in the Sixties, and insured for £275,000.” Doris immediately covets it.

Her increasingly desperate attempts to get it—along with a blossoming affair between Grace and the young portrait painter, and Barley’s dawning realization that both his business and his marriage are racing toward rocky ground—constitute the rest of the novel. Thrown into the mix are a long-lost son, a former prison inmate, and some shady Russian mobsters. Toward the end there’s even a nod to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.

The novel is clever, amusing, and well written, and it has a moral—greed isn’t good. And Weldon’s casting of Bvlgari’s jewels as the catalyst for Doris’s fall is perhaps the most ironic twist of all.

The Love of Stones, by Tobias Hill. Picador USA, 2002; 396 pages.

A cerebral adventure story along the lines of A. S. Byatt’s Possession or Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures, The Love of Stones opens a window to another time. Hill weaves two disparate stories together, taking the reader from 19th-century Baghdad and London to contemporary London, Istanbul, and Tokyo.

The stories are linked by a legendary gold and gemstone brooch known as the Three Brethren, a name that derives from three 70-ct. balas rubies (also known as spinel) that form part of the brooch. The three spinels are set in a triangle around a 30-ct. pyramid-shaped diamond—”The Heart of the Three Brethren”—with three large baroque pearls set between them. A fourth pearl dangles from the setting.

Created in the first decade of the 15th century for Duke John the Fear- less of Burgundy, the Three Brethren has beguiled many—from crowned heads to street scavengers—throughout its existence. The novel’s narrator, a gem dealer named Katherine Sterne, recounts its long and varied history. She also makes this observation: “I think that after a certain age jewels cease to be possessions. At that point they become the possessors.”

Sterne should know. For five years, she’s been on a single-minded search for the brooch, driven by an obsessive need to have it: “It is as if the wind has changed on my life and I have been caught. I am lost in myself, between places. It is like a curse, although the Three Brethren carries no recorded curse.”

Sterne tracks the brooch through old archival records, rumors, and the occasional theft of documents, jumping from city to city with only a few inexpensive gems to fund her quest. Her search takes her to parts of the world few tourists see—the remote Turkish home of an ailing pearl collector, seedy streets in London’s Camden Town, and finally a small city on the water in Japan.

Also crucial to the history of the brooch are Salman and Daniel Levy, two Jewish brothers who leave their native Baghdad in the early 1800s to settle in London. Their story takes place alongside Katherine Sterne’s, creating intriguing juxtapositions of place and time.

In Baghdad, the young Salman apprentices himself to a lapidary—an Arab, full of sadness over his solitary life in a foreign city. When his homesickness becomes too much to endure, Salman helps the man on his journey home. In gratitude, the lapidary gives him a sealed jar said to contain “amulets.” The contents of the jar enable the brothers to book passage for England, where they set up a goldsmith’s shop.

Through the eyes of the brothers, Hill depicts the squalor and wealth that coexist in 19th-century London. Their experience as outsiders in a foreign city makes for vivid and compelling reading, whether they’re going about their everyday lives or being presented at the court of the newly crowned Queen Victoria.

Back in the present, Katherine Sterne’s obsession with the brooch has estranged her from her family and led her to break numerous laws, both statutory and moral. But her drive to find the piece is gripping and keeps the pages turning.

Jewelry Talks: A Novel Thesis, by Richard Klein. Pantheon Books, 2001; 227 pages.

Jewelry Talks is a very different sort of novel. Defining his book as a “novel thesis,” Richard Klein, a professor of French at Cornell University, has folded an academic look at the history and meaning of jewelry into a depiction of an alternative lifestyle. The book is written in the form of an extended letter by Abby Zinzo—a self-described “TransGendered-Bisexual-fully-Cross-Dressed-TransVestite-woman”—to his niece, Zeem.

Zinzo intends to leave his collection of jewelry to Zeem, and throughout his dissertation tries to establish for her the importance and power inherent in jewelry. He spends much time focusing on jewelry’s history and iconography—particularly its use in the hands of contemporary style icons like Wallis Simpson, Princess Diana, and Elizabeth Taylor—and he intersperses tidbits of his own extraordinary life within his treatise.

The book may be heavy going for some. It has no dialogue, and at times tends to veer into the overly academic—but it remains powerful reading. Klein approaches the idea of jewelry from a particularly thought-provoking angle, emphasizing that each individual piece of jewelry transcends mere ornamentation and has a message to send to the viewer, whether denoting prestige, signaling availability, whatever. Klein’s point is that we must always be conscious of what our jewelry is saying to others.