My title has nothing to do with the topic of my blog post— I just thought it was clever and wanted to incorporate it somehow. Indulge me, please.
Jewels are ubiquitous throughout the Tolkien universe, and in class we discussed their inherent worth and power, which jewels in our modern world do not have. Owning or wearing a jewel may confer some level of social capital or monetary wealth, but the gem itself is simply a mineral cut in a pleasing way (or, nowadays, a product of scientific advances). Humans generally desire them, sometimes for their beauty and sometimes for their use as a status symbol, but very few people are genuinely looking to gain superpowers through possession of a colorful rock. In Tolkien, however, and often in other mythologies, jewels themselves bestow actual, tangible powers upon their bearer or owner. In Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels trilogy, individuals store reserves of strength in their stones. Taking Eragon as an example (while resisting from passing judgment on it…), we see that jewels here have both the power to store and magnify energy. In the Silmarillion, the powers of the Silmarils are unclear. They cause most who come across them to desire them to the point of madness; they are filled with the light of the Two Trees, but what exactly that confers is vague; and they are hallowed by Varda, making them excruciatingly painful to any evil thing that touches them. After their theft, Melkor sets them in an iron crown, but rather than give him power, they instead seem to leech him of strength. Later, we get a more tangible answer as to the power of jewels in Tolkien with the descriptions of Narya, Nenya, and Vilya, which were set respectively with ruby, adamant, and sapphire, and gave the bearers the ability to “ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world”. Although it is still not clear if it is in fact the jewels or the rings as a whole which posses such power, we can take this to mean that jewels to some degree have power of their own. The Ring of Barahir, too, has jewels: four small emeralds. But these jewels most definitely hold no power, except to identify the wearer as a descendant of first Barahir and later of Elendil.
Jewels, either with their own power or simply as markers of majesty, are clearly important to Elves and the Valar. It is written that when the Teleri came at last to Aman, the Noldor gave them many gems, “opals and diamonds and pale crystals, which they strewed upon the shores and scattered in the pools… and many pearls they won from themselves from the sea, and their halls were of pearl, and of pearl were the mansions of Olwë…” Yet we find the most particular thing: when Sauron makes his One Ring of Power to rule all the others, he forges a simple gold band, with no embellishments or jewels whatsoever, besides the fire-revealed inscription. Why wouldn’t Sauron, the being who has most likely (given that his master Melkor wore them upon his head at all times) seen the glory of the Silmarils with his own eyes, put jewels on the lynchpin of his domination?
Fortunately I can’t read Sauron’s mind (what a scary place that must be), so I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question, but I think that asking it raises a huge issue that we circled about in class. It felt that we fairly well established that when approaching jewels in Tolkien, we must reposition ourselves to understand them as items of innate meaning, as opposed to seeing their value simply as a product of their placement in human social constructs. I would instead argue that jewels do not have inherent power in Tolkien’s universe, besides that which is bestowed upon them by outside sources, such as the mystical (magic, perhaps?) of the Elves or the enchantment of a Vala. Jewels are not once (at least to the extent that I have read, and I would be the first to admit that I am far from an expert on all that Tolkien wrote) described as storing energy, or striking someone with lightening, or making one who touches it stronger. They are in fact described much as we would describe them—valued for their beauty, for their rarity, for their perfection. Jewels are no different in Tolkien, they simply exist in a universe where there are creatures who can imbue them with mystical characteristics.
This is not all to say that jewels are not incredibly highly valued by the inhabitants of the World, nor that they may not place some mystical importance on them. I only fear that if we decide that jewels are simply what they seem to be, items of intrinsic power which confer characteristics onto their bearers, then we lose the opportunity to delve further in to why, exactly, Elves and Men and Dwarves and Valar and Maiar all seem to be so drawn to jewels—and by extension, why we are. Is it because they are a symbol of an individual’s mastery over the earth? Is it because they shine? Is it because they so neatly fit into metaphor and simile about light and reflection and depth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't lay in an inherent power, waiting to be tapped by protagonists.