Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones by Hettie Judah - review by Will Wiles

Will Wiles

All That Glitters

Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones


John Murray 336pp £20

‘Geology is a story-telling science, requiring great leaps of poetic imagination,’ writes Hettie Judah in Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones. Stones that come to us hard and cold and unchanging are the product of immense geological heat and upheaval. They provide glimpses into the inhuman abyss of time and are windows onto past epochs. And stones and minerals underpin every part of every civilisation, explaining and revealing, showing that the pinnacles of wealth, luxury and artistic achievement are often allied to misery, despoliation and violence.

There is a good deal of geology in Lapidarium, as you’d expect, but it is not a scientific book in character. Judah is an art critic and there’s also a lot of art, but that does not dominate it either. In essence, it is a storybook, and a delightful one, composed of sixty short essays, each on a different type of stone. There are all the big names you’d expect – ruby, coal, moon rock – and many more that are unfamiliar: Haüyne, Lewisian gneiss, phonolite porphyry.

Whenever Judah looks like heading into obvious territory, she swerves into something unexpected. Diamonds are lipophilic: they are attracted to fat and grease. The association between diamonds and love might just be shrewd marketing by jewellers, but Judah suggests that their association with bad luck might also stem from sales patter, the connection talked up by auctioneers to add gothic lustre to indifferent stones.

Other stones have far more ancient symbolism. Jadeite – the word ‘jade’ actually signifies two different stones, jadeite and nephrite – was prized by the Mayan civilisation for its association with ripening maize, the staple that was for Mayans the stuff of life. But that’s not all. ‘Dense and

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