Cold as ice

A broken engagement -- and a broken heart -- sent Tom Zoellner on a wild journey to understand the endless allure of the diamond.

Published July 19, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, the front page of the New York Daily News featured a story about a Staten Island grandfather who lost, and then found, a personal treasure.

"Dump Luck: Hubby Finds Diamond Ring," the headline read.

Seems the 63-year-old had stuffed a 3.5-carat ring into a napkin for safekeeping while his wife was in the hospital. Ring and napkin then somehow ended up in a garbage bag at a transfer station in Elizabeth, N.J. Long story short? After an hour or so spent sorting through piles of trash, the man retrieved the ring he had given to his wife 35 years earlier.

"He was a very happy man when he found it," reported the guy who drove the garbage truck. If by "very happy" the driver meant relieved, grateful, amazed and spared both burning regret and a spouse's disappointment and, perhaps, wrath, then yes, one can picture the Staten Islander standing there, diamond ring firmly, miraculously in hand -- a very happy guy, indeed. Still, a grown man racing to the dump and digging through garbage to retrieve a chunk of compressed carbon might strike an observer as odd -- unless, of course, that observer has ever been engaged, married or otherwise caught up in the seemingly universal obsession with that most enigmatic of gems, the diamond.

"A diamond," writes Tom Zoellner in "The Heartless Stone," his exploration of the stone's near-mystical appeal, "is the thing set apart, a heart outside of the heart, the one shining irreducible moment in clear carbon that is supposed to make us forget our failings and mortality." While his near-florid language and the invocation of hearts and shining moments and immortality might sound to some ears like a tacit endorsement of the manufactured, strictly controlled myth ("A diamond is forever"), the sharply personal tale Zoellner tells in "The Heartless Stone" is far more chastening than celebratory.

Zoellner set out on the diamond's path -- a path carved over millions of years, by incomprehensibly huge natural forces and barely comprehensible cultural and economic variants -- as surely as miners have for millennia set out after riches. Except that, in the author's case, the catalyst for this "journey through the world of diamonds, deceit, and desire" was not blind greed or hope for a life-changing mother lode, but lost love and a broken heart.

"A month after Anne broke up with me," Zoellner writes early on in the book, "I moved back to my hometown in Arizona and took a job as a reporter at the local newspaper. Anne and I maintained a careful friendship over the phone for a few weeks. Then she stopped taking my calls ... Half a year went by. Our planned wedding date, June 16, came and went ... I dreamed about her almost every night that summer, and saw her in the faces of strangers."

Stunned, Zoellner focuses much of his forlorn, fractured energy on the emblem of the love, and the lover, that have slipped away. The diamond ring, the "heart outside of the heart" that he optimistically, ceremonially gave to Anne -- the ring that she returned to him -- grew in significance the longer he held on to it. The engagement long over, Zoellner still clung to the symbol of love ever after. His journey from that near-paralytic post-engagement depression along the winding and often dangerous routes that diamonds travel from beneath the earth to swank shop windows is the heart inside "The Heartless Stone."

That first mention of a broken engagement appears almost casually, well into the first chapter, after the author has already led the reader straight into the moral and economic morass of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and the diamond-smuggling trade between the two war-torn nations. By then, the author's descriptions of the smugglers he meets, the sudden, surreal dangers he faces, and the blasted, hopeless landscapes he encounters in the heart of the African continent establish, or re-establish, Zoellner's bona fides as a genuine reporter. (He has reported for the San Francsico Chronicle and co-authored the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hotel-manager hero of "Hotel Rwanda.") Like any good journalist, Zoellner has an eye for the telling detail, a nose for trouble and an ability to quickly re-create a scene's mood and sense of place. Wherever he is, he puts you there.

Fortunately for the reader, while his reporter's skills are solid, Zoellner's ambitions and occasionally his technique more closely resemble a traditional novelist's -- "The Heartless Stone" is filled with intrigue, "exotic" travel to places like India, Brazil, the Arctic and New York's hermetic Diamond District, as well as characters as bizarre, repulsive and endearing as those one might find in the most imaginative fiction.

Describing the Central African Republic, "the place to go if you want to see how some [diamonds] make their way to America," Zoellner veers cleanly back and forth between his narrative strengths:

"It is a land-locked crescent of ochre-colored earth about the size of Texas at the geographic heart of Africa. To fly over it at night is to fly over a carpet of complete darkness except for the occasional small cooking fire flickering up trough the trees. There are no traffic signals, not a single mile of railroad track and almost no electric lights outside the capital city of Bangui  Children drunk on glue wander the filthy core of Bangui in broken flip-flops, begging for francs. Their T-shirts from Western aid agencies are often dotted with gummy clots; this is where they have smeared the glue to huff through the cloth. Shoe polish is another favorite intoxicant -- it is spread on bread like jelly and eaten for a high."

Here, in a nation "corrupt, destitute and nearly forgotten by the rest of the world," diamonds smuggled from other parts of the continent make their way into the legitimate, glittering flow of the international diamond market. Zoellner is intrepid, meeting miners, smugglers, cryptic heads of this and that ministry (all of whom, it seems, live with a hand held out to collect some fee) and jaded officials ever ready to retreat back into the Graham Greene novel from which they've only briefly emerged after imparting some diamond-related information (or misinformation) to the author.

Leaving the sweltering chaos and politically charged dangers of the CAR behind, Zoellner visits a Canadian mining camp -- or rather, a camp of drillers, engineers and geologists seeking evidence of diamonds -- 300 miles above the Arctic Circle.

"Diamonds are strangers to the face of the earth," Zoellner writes, in the offhand poetry that marks much of "The Heartless Stone." "The hellish foundry of the earth's innards, at depths approaching 120 miles, is the only birthing place for a diamond, which takes its name from the Greek adamas -- which means 'indomitable.'"

In the Arctic camp, we meet a woman named Vicki Yehl, "the kind geologist who falls in love quickly, and she was starting to fall in love with this pipe."

"This pipe" is a funnel of grayish-green rock called kimberlite -- "carrot-shaped fossils," as Zoellner calls the pipes -- and its presence is the one indication that Vicki and her crew are possibly in the presence of diamonds. Lots of diamonds. Enough diamonds to justify the enormous expense of launching an all-out mining operation in a land as brutal and unforgiving as the Canadian north. Zoellner hangs out with the crew -- exactly the sort of laconic, office-job-spurning hard-asses one would expect to find in a frontier mining town -- and when he's not marveling at the "immense silence" and stark, brutal beauty of the place, he asks the right questions and dutifully records the answers. In the end, he provides both a thorough overview and an intensely site-specific sense of the hard, grinding, gradual work that goes into identifying, studying and either recommending or rejecting a place (or a pipe) that might produce the "indomitable" jewel.

Along the way, as he dashes off an entertaining history of the search for the Northwest Passage, introduces us to characters like Tara -- the "magazine-model blonde" cook spending her 12th summer in camp -- and relates Inuit legends about how the local mountains were formed (giants died on the tundra before the time of the ancestors, their bodies covered with a shroud of stones), Zoellner puts the geologists' and drillers' work in sharp perspective.

"Drilling for kimberlite  provides a peephole into the ground just slightly thicker than the circumference of a broom handle. Trying to divine the shape of a kimberlite body through drilling might be compared to standing twenty feet away from a billboard and trying to read the message only by looking through a narrow tube  [and] every glance you took through that tube was going to cost your employers at least $50,000."

At a camp "managers' meeting" -- "a term understood to mean that somebody was going to produce a bottle of smuggled whiskey" -- a bearded, pony-tailed driller abruptly and eloquently reminds the reader and Zoellner what all the ingenuity and hope and hard work described in the chapter are all about. Mike Merante has spent his entire career in Canadian mining camps, but he has never enjoyed what the industry calls "an exploitable discovery."

"All for a fucking ring," Mike says, shaking his head and laughing as the meeting breaks up.

"The Heartless Stone" is at its very best when Zoellner -- in reporter mode -- roots out why that "fucking ring" became such a symbol of loyalty and commitment in the first place. In the chapter titled "Desired Results," the reader enjoys a graceful, well-documented tour through decades of diamond-related lore, from the intensely effective advertising juggernaut that swept over Japan in the 1960s -- "a risky move, for diamonds have no place at all in traditional Japanese culture" -- back to the bizarre, unheralded brilliance of a woman named Frances Gerety, a copywriter for the ad agency of N. W. Ayer & Son.

Gerety -- "a woman who wasn't married," Zoellner points out -- was something of a literature buff, wont to quote the likes of poet Robert Southey in her work: "Like a diamond, its holy flame forever burns."

Not bad.

But in 1948 she was asked to come up with some copy to accompany some illustrations of gems in a price chart. Emerging at the other end of a series of advertising and marketing tortures not quite worth delineating here, Gerety arrived in the wee hours at a phrase that any English-speaking person on the planet would tag as the heart, soul and property of Ayer's client, the South African (and, at the time, barred-from-doing-business-in-America) company of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd.

A diamond is forever.

"Gerety's late-night scribble," Zoellner writes, "would eventually be deemed the most successful advertising slogan of all time by Advertising Age magazine."

Gradually, meticulously and (one begins to sense) ruthlessly, Zoellner strips away from the diamond its pure, graceful and romantic veneer. Never denying the stone's intrinsic beauty, he charts impossibly hard, immeasurably old chunks of carbon from their source -- almost always in an impoverished land -- through their frequently sordid and even murderous ports of trade to the fingers of avid, smiling men and women.

In the end, "The Heartless Stone" does not merely -- or thoroughly -- demystify diamonds. Instead, it leaves the reader poised before a kind of literary store window. It's dusk. Yellow light spills out onto the sidewalk. A person who looks vaguely, eerily familiar ponders pushing open the shop door, willing to pay through the nose for an object at once fiery and lifeless, irresistible and cold.

By Ben Cosgrove

Ben Cosgrove is a freelance writer in New York and the editor of the baseball anthology "Covering the Bases."

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