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Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

By Aja Raden
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Stoned by Aja Raden

Stoned (2015) is a collection of historical stories told through the lens of human desire – and the lengths to which we’ll go in pursuit of that desire. These blinks take you around the world and through time, showing how our desire for beautiful objects can move mountains and why our valuation of those objects can change so easily.  

Key idea 1 of 6

People’s pursuit of desire has helped shape world history.

What quality do you think motivates people the most? The Greek philosopher Plato once said, “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”

Plato was probably right to mention desire first. Indeed, many figures throughout history, desiring some precious object, have taken drastic action to obtain it.

One of the most famous objects is La Peregrina, a perfectly pear-shaped white pearl that’s so big it fits snugly in the palm of an adult hand. The name translates to “the wanderer” or “the pilgrim.” The name is apt, for it has a long history of finding its way into the hands of many influential people around the world. In recent history, it was owned by Elizabeth Taylor. In 1969, the actress received the pearl as a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband, Richard Burton.

This gift is even more impressive when you consider that, 400 years earlier, La Peregrina was changing world history. It all started in the sixteenth century, when Philip II of Spain gave the pearl to his betrothed, England’s Queen Mary I. She adored La Peregrina so much that it can be seen in almost all portraits of her. But someone else had also developed a desire for the pearl: Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I.  

When Elizabeth eventually became Queen of England following Mary’s death in 1558, Philip II offered her the pearl along with his own hand in marriage. Elizabeth, determined to rule England on her own, refused the proposal.

Philip returned to Spain, taking the prized pearl with him. But Elizabeth’s desire burned on, so she passed a new law that allowed English privateers – basically sanctioned pirates – to plunder Spanish ships in search of La Peregrina.

Philip was not happy about this, and, in 1588, he raised a Spanish armada to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth, who Pope Pius V had called “the patroness of heretics and pirates.” England devastated the Spanish Armada, however, marking the end of Spain’s naval dominance and paving the way for England’s global commercial empire.

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