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Aja Raden | Jeweler & Scientist

We recently caught up with Aja Raden to talk spontaneous combustion, mermaid tears, and diamonds grown in laboratories. An experienced jeweler, trained scientist and well-read historian, Aja is the foreword writer on one of DK’s newest titles, Gem.


If you had to describe your work in five words, what would they be?

In regards to my published work, I’d say: history’s curio cabinet of forgotten jewels.

What’s the wildest gem- or jewel-related fact that you know of?

When it comes to gemstones, truth is stranger than fiction. Jet has been known to spontaneously combust, especially when you have too much in close proximity. During the Victorian era jet-craze, whole jewelry stores occasionally burned down overnight. Also, real amber floats on water. For thousands of years it wasn’t mined, but fished for with nets in the icy Baltic. It was supposed to be “mermaid tears”, hardened over time. It’s actually tree sap, hardened over a very long time. But even now, if you rub it hard against fabric, it emits a perfumey smell. I like to think it’s the smell of forests millions of years ago.

What’s the strangest myth or superstition you’ve heard?

They’re all strange! But then, so are the facts I just listed. One of my favorite fantastical not-facts concerns bezoars. Bezoars are smooth, roundish, stone-like calcifications, taken from the innards of any sort of animal. They’re sort of like pearls, but ugly, and often much bigger – as big as a baseball sometimes, and believed to have magical properties. Most importantly: the ability to neutralize any poison.

What’s the most common misconception about jewelry and precious metals?

That they have definite value, a definite value agreed upon by all people, in all times. People think that because a diamond or a ruby is real – a physical thing they can see and touch, unlike other kinds of money or wealth – that its value is equally concrete and is immutable. This could not be less true. Value based on desire is fluid and dynamic: what’s on top today is on the bottom tomorrow, and the only constant is change.

What’s the most difficult thing about your work?

When it comes to writing, it’s spelling. Hands down. As for my work in jewelry, I’d say letting go of it. Literally. It’s hard enough to let go of something beautiful when you’ve only seen it. If you had a hand in making it, it’s nearly impossible. That makes designing jewelry hard. Writing has definite advantages in that regard.

What’s the achievement you’re most proud of?

Having chosen something I’ve truly loved my whole life, jewels – something irrational, what some might even say are the epitome of the unobtainable – and managed to make a whole career out of it.

What’s the thing you’re most excited about for the future of precious rocks, stones, and minerals?

Absolutely the invention and sophistication of synthetic, or lab-grown, diamonds. They're very much the 21st century’s cultured pearls. They’re real, chemically identical gemstones. They’ve just been grown deliberately, under lab conditions, rather than formed and found in the earth. This opens up a fantastic array of possibilities: from the artistic, to the ethical, to the most exciting of all, the technological. Diamond semiconductors have the capacity to blow silicon semiconductors out of the water. It’ll be a whole new Computer Revolution.

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