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gilt
Author: Jamie Brenner

 

PART ONE

 


        One empire falls, another empire rises, all because of the inherent human weakness for pretty things.

    —AJA RADEN,

STONED: JEWELRY, OBSESSION, AND HOW DESIRE SHAPES THE WORLD

 

 

1


   New York City, 2004

   She reached for her mother’s hand, excited and just a little bit afraid. The sun was beginning to set on Fifth Avenue, and cars were at a standstill. Reporters crowded the sidewalk and onlookers pressed against metal security barriers.

   “Over here, over here,” photographers called out, and her parents stopped for a moment, her mother leaning down to whisper to her, Smile for the camera.

   “Paulina, show us the ring,” someone called, and her mother flashed her left hand. A woman stepped forward holding a copy of a magazine and asked for an autograph.

   It seemed to take forever to reach the jewelry store on the corner of Fifty-Third Street, a seven-story limestone and granite building her grandfather called a “monument to love.” The entranceway was engraved with her family name. Tonight, display windows were filled with black-and-white photographs of legendary couples: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. And in front of each photo, a Pavlin & Co diamond engagement ring, just waiting to be bought by a customer with a love story of their own.

   It was the tenth anniversary of Pavlin & Co’s most famous diamond of all, a thirty-carat pink stone called the Electric Rose. Her grandfather Alan gifted the treasure to the first of his three daughters to get engaged: her mother.

   That afternoon, her mother had let her try it on. It was so beautiful she couldn’t take her eyes off it, the color of a pale rose petal but also clear like a drop of water. Gemma had to clamp her small fingers tightly together to keep the ring from tilting over.

   “One day it will be yours,” her mother said.

   The thing was, while everyone in the family loved talking about the ring, no one seemed to ever want to talk about her parents’ actual engagement. Or wedding. Or anything about her parents at all. Gemma was too afraid to press with questions. Sometimes she worried things were too perfect. That it could somehow all disappear.

   Gemma and her mother spent all day getting ready for the party. A stylist visited their apartment, piling her mother’s blond hair into an updo and blow-drying Gemma’s until it hung down her back like a golden sheet. Both of their gowns were white and embroidered with butterflies, each delicate wing hand-sewn by another visitor to the apartment earlier that week, a man with a white ponytail and dark glasses and an accent, who her mother called “Mr. Lagerfeld.”

   “We’re twins tonight,” her mother said with a wink. “No one will be able to tell us apart.”

   When the car arrived to whisk them down Fifth Avenue, her father looked at them both and said, “You two are more beautiful than any diamond in the world.”

   Gemma’s parents guided her inside Pavlin & Co, the vast sales floor transformed into a wonderland of sparkling diamonds everywhere you looked: in glass display cases, on the hands of the glamorous guests, and in the framed photos on the walls.

   The photos were advertisements from the long history of Pavlin & Co, starting back in 1947 with a black-and-white picture—now recognized all over the world—of a man on one knee in the snow, slipping a diamond solitaire ring on the finger of a willowy brunette in a ball gown. Above them, in elegant script, the sentence A Diamond Says Love. With those four simple words, her great-grandfather had created the idea of the diamond engagement ring.

   Her mother told her the story over and over again, the way other little girls were told fairy tales.

   “There was a time when people didn’t buy diamond engagement rings,” her mother said, “not until our family made them important.”

   Gemma’s eyes skipped forward eagerly, alighting on her favorite series of ads, the ones featuring her mother. She’d modeled for the 1994 ads wearing furs and her own pink diamond. Whenever Gemma looked at the photographs of her mother with her chin resting in her palm, the spectacular gem flashing on her finger, her big blue-green eyes staring directly into the camera, they didn’t make her long to get engaged so much as they made her long to be Paulina. She was sure lots of women in the 1990s felt the same way. Buying a Pavlin diamond wasn’t just buying a piece of jewelry—it was buying the promise of love.

   They passed the orchestra playing near the gilded elevators, and her grandmother rushed toward them. Constance, with her eternally blond bouffant hair and head-to-toe designer outfits, seemed like a queen to her.

   “You’re late,” Constance said. “Come along, everyone’s waiting for you.”

   The rest of the family was assembled on the podium: Alan, looking distinguished in his tuxedo, and her mother’s two older sisters, Aunt Elodie and Aunt Celeste. Like her grandmother, her aunts seemed regal and somewhat unknowable. Aunt Elodie was Alan’s right hand at Pavlin & Co, while Aunt Celeste lived far away at a beach. Gemma wished she was closer with her mother’s sisters. Maybe that would help fix the nagging sense that something was wrong. She was especially uncomfortable around Elodie. There was just something about the way her aunt looked at her.

   Uniformed guards encircled the podium as her grandfather stepped toward the microphone. On either side of him, glass cases displayed glittering diamond rings in every shape and color, yellow and white and even a rare blue stone set in platinum. Of course, none of them compared to the ring on her mother’s finger.

   “Gemma,” Aunt Elodie said in a loud whisper, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t you find it interesting that with all this security, a thief can still hide in plain sight?”

   What?

   “Oh, give it a rest, Elodie,” her mother said.

   “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

   Confused, Gemma looked between her mother and her aunt. Her stomach tensed, and that feeling came over her again—the sense of something terribly wrong.

   “Gemma, go over there and stand with Grandma,” her mother said.

   “Why?” She didn’t want to leave her side.

   “Please just do it,” her mother said, a rare flash of annoyance in her voice.

   Biting her lip, she dutifully walked to the other end of the podium. What just happened?

   She blinked back tears, then told herself she had no reason to be upset. Looking out at the crowd, she knew she was lucky to be exactly where she was in that moment. Everyone wanted to be a Pavlin, to have beautiful things and be surrounded by love. So what if her aunt Elodie and her mother didn’t get along? It wasn’t the end of the world.

   But something deep down told her that it could be.

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