"They set it in four rows of stones " Exodus 39.10


The verse above is the first of four describing the precious and semi-precious stones on the High Priest's breastplate, which represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Although translators have suggested that it is difficult to identify the different stones precisely, the question that would strike many of us is where the Israelites found such a variety of gems. Some might say that they were part of the booty given to the Israelites by the Egyptians before they left the land, others perhaps that they were found or mined in the Sinai wilderness. Whatever the origins of the gems, the text is noteworthy because nowhere else in the Torah is a comparable collection of jewels mentioned.

Those of us who have bought gems for loved ones rarely think about their provenance, yet the reality is that some stones cost a price far higher than what we may have to spend. A prime example is "blood diamonds", so named because they have been mined and often illegally traded to fuel bitter conflicts in such countries as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and although some of the wars for which such diamonds helped to pay have ended others, as in the DRC, rage on.

These days it is not just gem stones that are the subject of concern, but ores like coltan, which is widely used in mobile phones and other electronic devices. Some 80 per cent of coltan is mined in one of the principal habitats for eastern lowland gorillas in the DRC, and its high value fuels the conflict in the country and threatens the lives of the most charismatic of all primates. Its production threatens precious habitat and the creatures that live in them: they pay the highest price of all for our pleasures.

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