In a consumer culture like no other on the planet, where shopping centers outnumber schools, where continual advertising streams into our computers and mailboxes, our television and movie screens, our billboards and stadiums, who hasn't voiced the words, "I want." Whether it's a Passat or a Prada, a Bose or an Iphone, Juicy Couture sweats or Manolo Blahnik heels, a bungalow at the beach or an apartment in Manhattan, one of the things our culture does best is inculcate desire.
And what symbolizes the desire as much as jewelry? A multi-billion dollar business, its connotations run deep: beautification, wealth, conquest, love, a statement of who we are, the promise of who we can be. Since cave men crafted necklaces from the fangs of saber-tooth tigers, jewelry has defined tribes and cultures, religions and generations. In ancient times, the Greeks offered jewels as gifts to the gods, while the Egyptians placed them in tombs to accompany the dead to the hereafter. The belief that jewels carried supernatural powers continued into the Middle Ages when European kings wore them as protection in battle and monks embedded them in shrines. Artists as celebrated as Botticelli and Dali sculpted them into works of art, while poets and novelists through the ages have used them as metaphors.
Throughout nations, jewels have long been symbols of power and entitlement. The Chinese emperor Kublai Khan once offered an entire city for a nine-inch ruby. Henry VIII, with his more than 500 rings and brooches, wore more jewels than any of his six wives. For centuries, popes wearing emerald crosses and gold-inlaid miters have presided over Vatican vaults dazzling in gemstones. Still seductive today, jewelry's appeal crosses socioeconomic lines, character lines, gender, race, and age, appealing to princesses and gangsters, society matrons and showgirls, pro athletes and punks. Hip-hop musicians wear so much glitter the word "bling" has entered the lexicon. Youth define their identity with rings studding their tongues and circling their toes, piercing ear lobes and labia, noses and nipples and navels. Jewels adorn more body parts today than at any time in history.
And no gem is more evocative of glamour and privilege, of opulence and romance than diamonds, the hardest natural substance on earth. Originating 93 miles beneath the earth's surface and requiring a volcanic eruption to be excavated, diamonds — $9 billion worth a year — are miraculously transformed from lumps of carbon into the most prized material in the world. When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were screen idols and the globe's most celebrated lovers, Burton made international headlines with his purchase of a million dollar, 69-carat pear-shaped diamond for his glamorous wife. At award galas today's movie stars drip in multi-million dollar diamonds from Harry Winston, while the masses buy them at K-Mart and Costco. On any given day, more than 100,000 pieces of diamond jewelry are auctioned on ebay. On any given year, more than 8 million people come from around the world to gaze upon the 45-carat Hope diamond at the Smithsonian.
In this culture of desire and consumption emerged thirteen women in Ventura, California, who on September 18, 2004 went together to buy a diamond necklace. Within months the media picked up their story. People magazine ran a feature. Katie Couric reported on the venture for “The Today Show.” Other segments followed on “Inside Edition,” “The Early Show,” and KCBS-TV’s “Studio Two” in Los Angeles. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the movie rights. Because the group was in its infancy, the flurry of news stories barely got beyond the purchase. No one knew then where the necklace would lead, least of all the thirteen women who’d bought it.