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Fair Share : Diamonds help the girls become best friends in Cheryl Jarvis' account of a bold social experiment.

'The Necklace'

Twelve women whose decision to co-own a diamond necklace inspired a book make tracks for the Capitola Book Caf.

By Molly Zapp

Four years ago, Jonnell McLain dreamt up a dazzling experiment in paradoxes. The baby boomer and lifelong liberal who scoffs at the idea of ever spending $200 on a purse wanted to buy a 15-carat diamond necklace, valued at $37,000.

"It was morally indefensible for me to pay so much for a luxury item, yet it was attractive," the Ventura resident says. Conscious of the detrimental impact that American consumerism has on people with less money, McLain decided to put her own spin on the pursuit of material goods. She didn't want to buy the diamond tennis necklace for herself; she wanted to share it with other women as a social experiment on ownership and materialism.

The real estate agent rounded up her friends, friends of friends and a few women who barely knew each other, talked the jeweler down to $15,000 on the condition that his wife could join the group and bought the necklace. Thirteen women paid $1,200 each, christened the necklace "Jewelia," and the Women of Jewelia group was born.

The lives of the Women of Jewelia and the transformation they experienced is chronicled in the newly released The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment that Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis. Thoughtful and funny, the book exudes an Oprah-like appeal in its examination of the intersection of personal luxuries, community building and the lives of women approaching their golden years.

McLain, who lived in Santa Cruz for part of the '60s and '70s, sees her experiment as a way for aging progressives to again push for the social visions they had 40 years ago.

"We really believed we were all going to make a difference and that the world was going to get better," McLain says. "Then we got sidetracked, had careers, had families. It's kind of a second chance to do that."

As originally decided by the group, each woman has the necklace during the month of her birthday. But the necklace serves as much more than an accessory. It became a reason for the group to gather and talk at least once a month; a sparkle that ignites long-married couples' sex lives; a door to hundreds of conversations with friends, co-workers and strangers about the value of sharing. As people in Ventura heard about the women and they received media coverage, the group decided to use the necklace's appeal to help raise funds and awareness for social issues they cared about. They raised money for domestic violence shelters, a drug rehabilitation program and a teen transitional living house. Within a year and a half, the ladies raised more money for charity than the necklace cost. Thousands of women, men and children have tried on Jewelia.

Group member Tina Osborne is a middle school social studies teacher. Her students receive both the bauble and the message eagerly.

"It's not just a necklace--we talk about what sharing really is," Osborne says. After telling her class the story of Jewelia, she watched them share their lunches with kids who didn't have lunch. "It felt really good to share," they reported back to their teacher.

The women in the group come from a variety of political, religious and marital backgrounds. All are white except one, who is Hispanic. All are baby boomers and enjoy the class privilege that affords them a unique platform from which to spread their "We are not what we own" message.

"We live a privileged life, we are women of privilege," McLain says. "We're women in position to bring about social change; it's going to take women of privilege seeing the cost of consumerism in other women's lives to change their consumption habits."

McLain emphasizes the difference between sharing and simply giving or donating.

"People defend themselves against the idea of sharing: 'Well, I've always given to charity, etc.,'" she says. "But when you share, you're actually in a relationship. It builds something that changes you in a way that's different from giving to charity."

McLain says that "women you know who could afford a diamond necklace" understand the social impact their economic choices have on the lives and safety of other women and children.

"We see the message resound within her," she says. "Then all of a sudden it's two women in their 60s tearing up together," she says with a kind laugh.

JEWELIA and 12 of its 13 owners will be on hand for a discussion and signing of 'the necklace' on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.462.4415.

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