by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
Put it in Your Pocket
Hong Kong was the first place I came to after I finally left South Africa in 1977. I'd left behind what turned out to be a 14-year-long race riot, but that wasn't Hong Kong's general perception of the situation there.
___"Ah -- gold!" people said enthusiastically. Or: "Ah -- diamonds!" And sometimes "Ah -- gold and diamonds!" This was a refreshingly different perspective. After all, there were more jewellers and goldsmiths per square foot in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world, along with an absence of race riots.
___It was also a perspective I could share, as it happened. I kept hearing mythical tales of ex-millionaire ex-industrialists from Shanghai who'd fled to Hong Kong in 1949 after the Communist victory in China with nothing but a few barge-loads of gold and built new empires here. I'd fled pretty much at my leisure, with nothing but a wad of traveller's cheques and a good job to go to, and I didn't have any barge-loads of gold. I had quite a big diamond in my pocket instead.
___It was a good one, and it was uncut. This was not a problem in Hong Kong, which is a relatively sensible place, but where I'd come from, in the Land of Gold and Diamonds, unauthorised persons were strictly prohibited from dealing in or otherwise possessing, touching or even dreaming about diamonds of an uncut nature.
___The laws were tough, but there was no social stigma to breaking them. Honest tradesmen and other pillars of society would get caught with uncut diamonds, go to jail, serve their terms and pick up their lives again where they'd left off. Nobody thought they'd done anything "bad", or even dishonest, only illegal. A mayor of a small town in the Northern Cape got caught, went to jail, did his term, and was elected mayor again.
___As everyone knew, the laws were just a market control. The diamond marketing strategy is to keep them scarce. If South Africa really mined it's diamond "fields", diamonds would be so cheap it wouldn't be worth cutting them. They have whole beaches made of diamonds there. So they hoard them, along with all the other major producers in the world, and release only a most carefully calculated trickle.
___But you can't fence off a whole country, and other trickles constantly emerged. It was just a game, really. You couldn't even get rich, the illicit trickles were too small -- and that too was surely calculated in the arcane supply-and-demand sums of those-that-be when it comes to diamonds.
___Including, no doubt, the one in my pocket. I kept it there for a while, taking it out now and then to stare at the cold fire in its ancient heart. Then I met some local Hong Kong gents who had friends in the trade. They led me through a wonderfully impressive security system, on the far side of which were their friends, who scrutinised my sparkler and agreed to cut it. They turned it into a fine brilliant-cut gem ablaze with white light, which I put back in my pocket.
___Eventually I sold it to a jeweller. I got a good price, but I was sad to lose it -- all those greasy banknotes I got in exchange seemed much less worth having. And indeed, three years later, in 1980, I would have got five times as much for it, and today, probably five times as much again. Which is one reason Hong Kong bought $16 billion worth of cut diamonds last year.
___But there's more to it than just the cash. Diamonds have an intrinsic value all their own. They're exotic, incredibly romantic things with a strange attractive power few can resist -- as we all discovered in our youth, when temptation was something to be explored rather than resisted. There's something in a diamond, a spirit that pulls.
___Maybe it has something to do with their origins. They aren't really stones at all, or at least they haven't always been stones. In fact they're made of wood. This is how you make a diamond: first you take about 50,000 trees, then you cover them with a few hundred million tonnes of rock, and then you leave them for about 300 million years or so. Well actually that's how to make coal. If, however, during the 300 million years the 50,000 trees somehow get sucked down into the Earth's molten mantle and subjected to intense heat for a very long time, and then happen to get spewed up to the surface inside an erupting volcano, there's a chance that they might be turned into a rather small diamond.
___So a diamond is a sort of super-distilled forest. In the process, each of its interlocking carbon atoms gets bonded to its four nearest neighbours, and this is what makes it so hard -- 100,000 times harder than the next hardest substance, rubies and sapphires.
___This structure also gives it a very high refractive index, or light-bending ability -- diamonds throw back almost all the light that enters them, separating it into pure colours (what jewellers call "fire"). The rainbow colours that flash out of a diamond have a brilliance and intensity that cannot be seen anywhere else. In other words, they're beautiful.
___Cutting and polishing them makes them even more beautiful. The geometrically complex "brilliant" cut, perfected in Venice 400 years ago, has 58 facets, 33 above the girdle and 25 below, each cut at a precise angle for maximum light refraction. This is what I'd swapped for a bit of cheap money. And there wouldn't be any more -- that gruff voice on the telephone wasn't going to call again.
___It all started because I used to pick up hitchhikers. I lived in the belt of smallholdings just beyond Johannesburg, where there was a bit of space. A lot of blacks lived around there, but most didn't have cars, and it was a long walk to a bus-stop. So I gave people lifts.
___Once I gave a couple of guys a lift, and when we got there they invited me in for a drink. It was a shebeen -- an illicit bar -- in the back-garden servants' quarters of a large home in an exclusive white suburb. There were a few other people, jazz music playing. We sat down and the auntie brought us beer. One of my new friends took something from his pocket and handed it to one of the other men, and I saw something flash before he put it in his pocket. He smiled at me. "Do you like diamonds?" he asked in a deep, gruff voice.
___"Everybody likes diamonds," I said. A rich friend had asked me the same question a week earlier, and I'd given him the same answer. "So do I," he'd replied, "and I like buying them too."
___The man in the shebeen gave me a small packet. I opened it and five fine uncut gems rolled out onto my palm.
___"Oh!" I said, thrilled.
___"Do you want them?" he asked.
___"Yes, but I can't afford them. But my friend ... "
___He selected the smallest gem and handed it to me. "Give this to your friend, and if he likes it we can do business."
___"Don't listen, don't do it, don't trust him," said a nagging little voice in my ear -- but it was him who was trusting me, so I took the diamond and put it in my pocket. And I became a go-between. It was small-time, the commission hardly kept me in cigarettes, but it wasn't the money -- the diamonds had got into my blood. It only took about half a second.
___One day Mr Gruff had something different, a bigger stone, and beautifully cut. "My friends say their friends have more like this," he said. "The whole set," he added.
___I'd read about this -- a big jewel heist in the rich suburbs. "Different ball-game," I hedged.
___"Show it to your friend," Mr Gruff urged. "Maybe he'll want to have it tested." What was this all about? I shrugged and put it in my pocket. Mr Money's eyes bulged when I gave it to him. "They say you should have it tested," I said. He called a few days later and gave me back the stone. "Not a diamond," he said. "It's titania -- very hard, even more brilliant, but not a diamond, and more or less worthless."
___Baffled, I took the fake sparkler back to the shebeen and told Mr Gruff Mr Money's verdict -- and everyone roared with laughter and slapped their sides.
___"Eh! -- these rich whites," said Mr Gruff eventually. "That woman arranged to have her diamonds stolen -- my friends thought she wanted the insurance money. But she'd secretly had them faked, then she had the fakes stolen and got the insurance payout -- and she's still got all the original diamonds!"
___He gave me back the stone: "Yours," he said. So I put it in my pocket. Every now and then I took it out and stared at it. It was a lovely gem, but it didn't have the same spirit. What it did have was the power to put a rich woman in jail. Yes, it was worthless. Finally I gave it away, to a girl whose name I can't remember.
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