Q&A: The Author of ‘Stoned’

SourcingMay 25, 2016

Q&A: The Author of ‘Stoned’

Former Tacori designer Aja Raden on how the desire for jewelry has shaped the world and the diamond necklace she’d love to wear to Starbucks.

Released by Ecco in December, “Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World” is Aja Raden’s first book.

New York--The idea for Stoned took shape at a dinner party in Paris that lacked neither liquor nor literary connections.

Aja Raden, who spent nearly eight years designing jewelry for Tacori, was in town for the birthday celebration of her close friend and former college roommate Lauren Oliver, the best-selling author of the Delirium trilogy. 

Seated next to Raden at the table was a woman who just happened to be wearing a Tacori engagement ring that she had designed and her soon-to-be husband, Stephen Barbara, who just happened to be Oliver’s agent.

The discovery that Raden designed not just any jewelry but that very ring led to a broader discussion about worth vs. cost, advertising campaigns and diamonds, peculiar histories and relative value.

And that’s how the idea for Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World was born, at a table with one jewelry designer, an author and a literary agent. As Raden tells it, “Stephen Barbara was Laura’s book agent, and is now mine as well.”

Published in December, the book tells the story of the role eight different jewels played in shaping history including: the diamond necklace that helped to spur the French Revolution, the watch and World War I, and the rise of the diamond as the gemstone of choice for engagement rings.

Since the book came out, NPR, The New York Times and Psychology Today are among those who have interviewed Raden.

Her 356-page nonfiction book, an intersection of science, history and all that sparkles, has earned a spot on the Times’ best-seller list, and found its way into the upper right-hand section of New York magazine’s Approval Matrix grid.

At the upcoming JCK show in Las Vegas, the author will be featured in a one-on-one conversation with JCK magazine Editor-in-Chief Victoria Gomelsky.

Before that, though, Raden took the time to chat with National Jeweler about writing Stoned.  

National Jeweler: Some people write for years without getting a single thing published. How do you think this happened so fast? Was there just a niche in the market for a nonfiction book about jewelry?
Aja Raden: They (the publishers) were very keen to take a chance on me. There was an auction over who got the book rights. They were very excited about it, and I got put on the big books list for fall.
I didn’t have a hard

time selling the book. That happened like magic.

NJ: What about this book do you think was/is so appealing?
AR: I think different things about it were appealing about to different people and that’s what gives it broad appeal. There’s science, there’s history, there’s a lot of information about the jewelry industry, which I think is one of those … secreted industries. If you’re not part of it, you don’t understand how it works. You don’t know where anything comes from or how anyone got it. That alone is fascinating to people.

My favorite part of it, what I like in books, is not so much that there’s something in it for everyone as it is all of those things tied together. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how it all happened, whatever it is. It could be why No. 2 pencils are yellow (and there’s a reason for that actually.)

NJ: How did you feel writing Chapter 2 (Precedents Are Forever), which recounts the post-World War marketing campaign engineered by De Beers that made diamonds the must-have gemstone for engagement rings and states that diamonds aren’t rare? Have you gotten any feedback, or even backlash, on it?
AR: (When the book came out) I thought God, are they going to hate me, are they going to hate this book? And I don’t mean random people wearing engagement rings, I mean … people in the (jewelry) industry. Am I going to get booted out of the club?

I had a random moment of feeling maybe a little bit hypocritical since engagement rings were my bread and butter for so long, and then I thought, that’s not hypocrisy, that’s I know my subject matter, I put in the time. I didn’t really feel bad about writing it.

And I didn’t expect it to be quite so shocking to people.

I knew the engagement ring story sometimes gets a rise out of people--they’re a little bit shocked--but this is just history, this is just science. This is not my opinion. So no, I didn’t feel bad saying it. It is what it is. Don’t shoot the messenger.

NJ: While some diamonds are more common than others, there certainly are gem-quality diamonds of certain sizes and colors that are rare.
AR: Oh for sure; you find a diamond the size of a door knocker, that’s rare. You find a blue diamond, that’s rare. But just your average engagement ring diamond, those are a dime a dozen. There’s always an anomaly in any substance that make it rare. And size alone can be the anomaly.

That’s part of the whole interesting roundabout of imaginary value. It really is, does anybody else have it? It’s positional good (an object whose worth is determined largely or even solely on how badly other people want it).

NJ: Another point you address in the book is the value of things shifting over time. Maybe in 50 years, the padparadscha sapphire will be the gem to have, or tourmaline. Emeralds were, at one time, No. 1 and pearls had their day. Like you said, value’s all perception and perceptions change over time.
AR: Absolutely. I am certainly as susceptible to that as anyone else. I have a padparadscha and I love it. And while I was writing the book I actually wrote in the book that I was in hot pursuit of a red emerald, bixbite. And I got one, and I haven’t decided what to make out of it yet.   

NJ: If you could have one of the pieces you wrote about in the book, which one would it be?  
AR: I gotta go with the Fabergé eggs. I’ve been obsessed with them since I was a child.

If I had to pick one (egg), probably the Mosaic Egg or the Winter Egg. Those are my two favorites. Those are amazing. But I am going to do a Malcolm Forbes here, he who dies with the most toys wins. I want all of them. I’ll take them all. Thank you.

(And) if the French Revolution necklace still existed, I’d be wearing that to Starbucks.

NJ: After reading the book, I would guess that pearls are your favorite gemstone. Am I right?
AR: No actually, they’re not, not at all. I have some nice pearls, I like them (but) I find them hard to wear for a few reasons. One, they don’t look great on me; I’m (very pale.) I have yet to find a set of pearls that does anything for me. (And) I have a short neck, so those strands of pearls, that’s not a good look on me.

Emeralds, opals and rubies are my top three.

NJ: What has been the general reaction to Stoned?
AR: I would say 90 percent of the feedback has been (positive.) It’s really touching. And then maybe 5 percent (of the people) are like, ‘I hated it,’ ‘It was stupid,’ ‘Why was this woman allowed to write a book?’

The majority of people seem to have really embraced it and really like it but the ones that don’t like it, man, they really don’t like it. I think the people who react that way I think they must have some skin in the game, one way or another. Either they’re journalists or they’re historians and they don’t like that a jewelry designer wrote a book about economics and history, or they’re in the jewelry industry and they don’t like what I had to say about the jewelry industry.

NJ: What’s next for you?
AR: I am working on two more books. One’s a follow-up, titled Rocked, and it’s about the human interaction with gems and minerals, how they’ve affected the broader culture and evolution--why people move where they move, who went to war with whom. 

The other one is titled Had, and it’s about nine cons. It’s about, why do we believe what we believe?
Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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