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Thirteen Women and The Experiment That Transformed Their Lives

Written by Cheryl JarvisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Cheryl Jarvis


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: September 09, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-50947-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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One day in Ventura, California, Jonell McLain saw a beautiful diamond necklace in a jewelry store window and wondered: Why are personal luxuries so plentiful yet accessible to so few? What if we shared what we desired? Several weeks, dozens of phone calls, and one great leap of faith later, Jonell and twelve other women bought the necklace together–to be passed along among them all.

The dazzling treasure weaves in and out of each woman’s life, reflecting her past, defining her present, making promises for her future. Lending sparkle in surprising and unexpected ways, the necklace comes to mean something dramatically different to each of the thirteen women. With vastly dissimilar histories and lives, they transcend their individual personalities and politics to join together in an uncommon journey–and what started as a quirky social experiment becomes something far richer and deeper.


Chapter One

Jonell McLain, The Visionary

Making an idea happen


Jonell McLain was sitting at her desk looking at the piles of paper surrounding her, struggling not to feel overwhelmed. She wondered why she could never clear her desk, never cross off the forty-five tasks on her to-do list. Were there always forty-five things on that list? It sure seemed so. She felt like Sisyphus, the king in the Greek legend who was condemned to push the same rock up a mountain, over and over. Some days she felt like all she accomplished was moving piles. Some papers she could swear she moved a hundred times. Part of the problem was that she was full of ideas, so she was continually adding projects to the list. Executing them, well, that was a skill she hadn’t yet mastered.

Today, the list didn’t make her queasy as it often did. She’d just finished a deal on a house and so was feeling the high that real estate agents feel when they finally receive their big commission checks. This one represented three months of work and emotional exhaustion. People bought homes when they were undergoing major life transitions, so naturally they were on edge. The shock of prices on the West Coast made those buyers moving to California especially anxious. Because the work was so stressful, Jonell always rewarded herself after each closing.

She hadn’t decided what to buy herself this time, so she headed to the mall just to buy her clients a box of See’s candy, part of the gift basket she’d have welcoming them to their new home.

The Pacific View Mall was the only mall in Ventura, a California beach town sixty miles north of Los Angeles. Jonell moved her wiry frame quickly through the dusty-pink shopping enclave, stopping only to glance in the window of Van Gundy & Sons, a decades-old, family- owned jewelry store, the Tiffany’s of Ventura. Usually Jonell’s glances were as quick as her strides, but this time she stopped. She stared.

In the center display case a diamond necklace glittered against black velvet. A few years earlier she’d searched unsuccessfully for a simple rhinestone necklace to wear to a formal event. Now here it was, the exact one she’d had in mind. She recognized the style as the necklace version of the tennis bracelet, so dubbed after tennis champion Chris Evert lost her diamond bracelet during the 1987 U.S. Open and stopped the match to search for it. The diamonds were strung in a single strand all the way to the clasp, the center diamond the largest, the two closest to the clasp the smallest. The gradations were minuscule, the effect breathtaking.

But this was Van Gundy’s. There was no way this necklace was made of rhinestones.

Jonell rarely wore good jewelry, though she owned her share of it— diamond wedding rings from two husbands, 14-karat-gold earrings, pricey watches. Luxury jewelry was something else. Hmm, she thought, wonder what a really expensive piece of jewelry looks like up close? What it would feel like to wear something so lovely and extravagant?

On a whim she entered the store. “Could I see the necklace in the window?” she asked nonchalantly, as if she did this every day.

She reached up to touch the delicate gold chain she wore. Back in 1972 a boyfriend had given her this necklace with the peace symbol pendant, and in 2003, at the start of the war in Iraq, she’d put it on again. She placed the diamond stunner over her old gold charm. It was, she thought, simply exquisite—and exquisitely simple.

She took a breath, and as she breathed out, she asked the price.

“Thirty-seven thousand dollars.”

Jonell couldn’t stop the gasp. All she could think was Who buys a thirty-seven-thousand-dollar necklace?

She looked in the mirror again. She couldn’t help but think about the choices she’d made in her life, the ones that guaranteed she could never afford a necklace like this. She thought about how different her life might have been if she’d married a wealthy man or invested herself more in a career. If she’d worked harder, maybe she could have generated the kind of money that would enable her to indulge in this kind of luxury. In the end, none of this mattered, not really. In a world overflowing with need, the idea of owning a thirty-seven- thousand-dollar necklace was morally indefensible to Jonell, who’d mentored disadvantaged kids for six years. Lost in these thoughts, she heard only snippets of the saleswoman’s description: 118 diamonds . . . brilliant-cut . . . mined from nonconflict areas . . . 15.24 carats.

Fifteen carats sounded ostentatious and Jonell didn’t like ostentation. She appraised it again. There was nothing ostentatious about this necklace. The diamonds were so small, just right for her five-foot-two-inch frame, yet circling clear around her neck they felt substantial. What was magnetic was their radiance. She’d never seen diamonds shimmer like these.

Jonell hesitated to take off the necklace. After admiring it another minute, she laid it back on the counter and thanked the saleswoman for her time.

Over the next three weeks Jonell was surprised how often she thought about the diamond necklace. When she was back at the mall with her eighty-six-year-old mother, Jonell noticed the necklace still in the window. “Mom, I want to show you something,” she said, excitedly leading her mother into the store as if she were seven and heading for her first Barbie. “Mom, try it on.” Her mother’s eyes widened as she clicked the clasp. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered. Jonell’s mother knew quality, so her admiration told Jonell that the design was classic, timeless.

When Jonell peeled her eyes away from the diamonds brightening her mother’s neck, she glanced at the tag: twenty-two thousand dollars. On the counter, an ad announced a sale in which the store would take bids on any item of jewelry on display.

Jonell remembered being thirty and in need of a respite. Burned out from her job as a speech therapist in Santa Cruz and weary of her long-term boyfriend, she’d gone to New York City to live with her best friend from senior year at the University of Southern California. Jonell witnessed her roommate washing her face with Perrier. She saw her wrap herself in a full-length lynx coat. That’s when Jonell took stock of her own chances for such luxuries. They were slim to nil. That reality aroused not envy but curiosity: Why was personal luxury accessible to so few? After six months, Jonell left New York to return to her native California, but the question had never left her. Now it loomed large again.

Why is it, she wondered, that we can stand shoulder to shoulder to enjoy sumptuous masterpieces in art museums? That whole crowds can admire magnificent landscapes together in national parks? Why can’t we share personal luxuries the same way?

And an idea was born: “I could wear a luxury item if I bought it with other women,” she thought. “No one woman needs to have a fifteen- carat diamond necklace all the time. But”—and here she paused for the clincher—“wouldn’t it be delightful to have one every now and then?

“I can’t spend twenty-two thousand dollars on myself, but I can spend one thousand. . . . A thousand dollars would not be out of line for most of my friends. . . . If I could convince only eleven women to go in with me, I could bid twelve thousand. . . . It’s already come down fifteen thousand. Why not another ten?”

Jonell started making calls to friends and colleagues. She talked to women in her walking group and investment club. Women she’d met at seminars, parties, charity events. Most of the women she approached said no. No money. No time. No interest in diamonds. The responses fired off rapidly: “A formula for disaster. Everyone will fight over it.” “What’s the point of buying diamonds?” “I can get a better deal at the jewelry mart.” “You’ll never get twelve women to get along.” “If I’m going to spend a thousand dollars, I want something just for myself.”

Even her mother fired off a round: “You’ll lose friends over this.”

Some comments unsettled Jonell, filling her with self-doubt. Some spurred her to argue. Some she ignored. But she stayed fixed on her goal. She went back to women who’d said no. She asked new women. In two months she had a group of seven. Close enough, she decided. By the time her Visa bill would arrive, she’d have found the rest.

three generations of Van Gundy men were in the store the Saturday of the sale: Kent Van Gundy, age eighty, who’d started the business in 1957 and was now retired; Tom Van Gundy, fifty-four, his son, who’d taken over the business; and Sean, twenty-nine, his grandson, who now managed the store.

Tom says he’ll never forget that day. Sean won’t forget it either. These women were different from the ones the Van Gundys usually encounter. So many women who come into jewelry stores aren’t happy, says Sean. Their eyes are anxious, their faces tense. Some are in tears. They’re lonely and looking for someone to talk to. Something’s missing in their lives, and they’re looking to fill the empty spaces. These women rushed into the store smiling, eager to be there shortly after the doors opened to beat any competing bidders. Jonell showed the necklace to the four who came with her, two who’d said yes to her proposition, two who’d said no but didn’t want to miss the fun. Mary Karrh, a head taller than Jonell, found herself so far removed from her daily life as an accountant that her expression was one of wonder. If she’d had any fears about what she’d committed her money to, they disappeared when she was face-to-face with the diamond necklace. “Wow, it looks like a million bucks,” she said.

“Try it on, Mary,” Jonell urged. The other women huddled around Mary, who found herself standing even taller. Her words surprised her: “I can see myself wearing this.”

Maggie Hood represented the quintessential California girl with blond hair and a hard body. She moved back and forth, one minute admiring the necklace, the next flirting with a good-looking salesman.

“We need pictures!” said Jonell. One of the women along for the camaraderie ran out into the mall to buy a disposable camera.

Each woman—Jonell, Mary, Maggie, the two friends—posed for a photo with the diamonds. They vamped and giggled, amazed that three of them were even thinking of buying such a thing, even as a “time-share.” Obviously these giddy women didn’t buy diamonds every day. Throughout the posing, there was awe. “It’s so beautiful,” they said. They said it over and over. They said it when they saw it on one another and when they looked at themselves in the mirror. They breathed it when Mary wore it with her sleeveless shirt and khaki shorts. They repeated it when Maggie tried it on with her tank top and jeans. And they intoned it as the diamonds lay against Jonell’s gold peace symbol charm. “This necklace is so beautiful!” The women swept everyone up in their excitement as they grinned and gushed—and anticipated.

Then it was time for Jonell to hand Tom Van Gundy an envelope. In it was a sheet of legal-sized paper with her handwritten bid and the names of twelve women, four followed by question marks. As she proffered her bid, her posture was confident and her grin playful. But she was nervous. She was asking him to cut his price nearly in half. She was grateful for her real estate experience in negotiating prices but as she knew all too well from her work, coming in with a low bid might not succeed.

The scene had caught all three Van Gundy men in its footlights. Nothing like this had ever happened in their store. It wasn’t just the buzz in the place. In a quarter of a century of working in the business, Tom Van Gundy couldn’t recall seeing a single woman buy luxury jewelry for herself. Women fueled the desire, but they waited for the men in their lives to make the purchase.

Tom almost hated to take his eyes off these spirited women to look at their bid, twelve thousand dollars. He winced inwardly. Jewelry stores can have large markups—that’s a reason so many chain jewelry stores offer discounts of 70 percent. Being in the jewelry business meant being a negotiator, and in this store Tom usually handled negotiations himself. However, on big-ticket items—and this was definitely a big-ticket item—he needed clearance. This one would be tough to get. Still, he managed to look and sound kind when he said to Jonell, “I need to run some numbers.”

He went to the back room. Priscilla Van Gundy, his wife and chief financial officer, was hunched over the books, hyperfocused, trying to tune out the noise. She usually worked in the administrative office across the street, but because of the sale she was squeezed in the store’s small stockroom between shelves of inventory and a desk that doubled as a kitchen table.

Priscilla had heard the commotion. She’d figured it was the group of women she’d heard the salespeople talking about, but she hadn’t left her desk to see. She avoided looking at customers’ faces. She didn’t want negotiations to get personal.

“There’s a group of women who want a special price on the diamond necklace,” Tom said to the thick auburn hair hiding his wife’s face. “What can we sell it for?”

Priscilla tapped figures on the adding machine: one for the actual cost of the necklace, another for the number of months it had been in the store, a third for what they needed to make a profit.

“Eighteen thousand,” she said.

Tom knew the number wasn’t going to fly, but he was used to the back- and-forth of negotiations. He went back to the store front to counter Jonell’s bid.

“Not low enough,” she said. “We only want to spend a thousand per woman.”

Tom had anticipated the answer. He nodded his head and returned to the back room.

“Can we go any lower?” he asked Priscilla.

She felt his apprehension. Thirty-three years of marriage and she could read his emotions like a spreadsheet. She tapped the numbers on the adding machine.

“Seventeen thousand,” she answered.

Tom scratched out the twelve-thousand-dollar figure on Jonell’s envelope, scribbled fifteen thousand, and showed it to Priscilla.

“Can we do this?” he asked.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“It could be good for business.”

“We sell it for that and we won’t have a business.”

Tom was silent. Priscilla said more firmly, “That is not going to happen.”

Tom looked at his wife. He remembered how much more relaxed he’d become after she started working with him six years ago. She had her finger on every dollar, and she was good at it. The business was doing well in large part because of her. More important, he trusted her more than anyone.
Cheryl Jarvis|Author Q&A

About Cheryl Jarvis

Cheryl Jarvis - The Necklace

Photo © Gretchen Saller

Cheryl Jarvis is a journalist and essayist and the author of The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home. Her byline has appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Reader’s Digest. A former television producer and magazine and newspaper editor, she has taught writing at the University of Southern California and at Washington University and Webster University in St. Louis.

Author Q&A

A Conversation Between Dr. Roz Warner, One of The Women of Jewelia, and Cheryl Jarvis

 Dr. Roz Warner: I can see that you’re a woman who doesn’t wear jewelry. What attracted you to writing our story? 

Cheryl Jarvis: I hadn’t been in a jewelry store in twenty years, and at first, I was ambivalent about taking on the project. All I knew was that thirteen women had collectively bought a diamond necklace. But I thought there might be more to the story, so I flew to California to meet with you and Jonell. By the end of the meeting, I was hooked. 

RW: What changed your mind? 

CJ: First, the two of you were nothing like I’d anticipated. For you, the story wasn’t about the necklace. Nor was it for any of the eleven others. The story was really about the needs of women at a mature stage in life. And that subject interested me. 

The other intriguing element was the group’s diversity. Many of us gravitate to those of like mind, and increasingly so as we get older, but these women have thrived on their differences, or perhaps in spite of them. 

RW: Did anything else persuade you to write our story? 

CJ: Yes. Typically a woman who owns an expensive piece of jewelry wears it ten or fifteen times a year. This necklace is worn 365 days a year by hundreds of individuals. And that part of the story was to me the heart of it–that a piece of jewelry became a catalyst to build and nurture relationships, not just among the thirteen women but with an entire community. 

RW: How long did it take you to write the book? 

CJ: The research and writing took a year. I spent a week or two with each woman as she went about her life. It was an unexpected opportunity to see how thirteen women my age live their lives. That was the fun part. 

RW: What was the hard part? 

CJ: The greatest challenge was figuring out how to structure the book. Thirteen individual stories had to be woven into a larger group story. 

RW: What do you hope people take away from this book? 

CJ: That with collaboration and creative thinking, we can change our lives in profound ways. One of the things I like about this story is that it begins with a familiar scenario: looking in a store window wanting something on display. These women took a universal experience and turned it inside out. Through an object as material as a necklace, they connected with their community in ways none of them had anticipated or imagined. Who would have thought? 

A Conversation Between Dr. Roz Warner, One of The Women of Jewelia, and Patricia Raskin 

Patricia Raskin M.Ed. is a nationally recognized broadcaster of positive media messaging and host of Positive Living™ talk radio, heard online and over the airwaves. She is an award-winning producer, author, and motivational speaker. For more information and to listen to her interviews, log onto www.patriciaraskin.com. 

Patricia Raskin: It seems to me that when the experiment began the women did have something in common. They were either isolated, or their lives revolved around a small circle, and sharing this necklace opened them to a wider connection. Would you say that’s accurate? 

Roz Warner: That’s accurate. What’s amazing to me is that we are all so different, that each woman had her own reason for joining the group and, eventually, her own story of transformation. There was a core group who had known one another for a long time. They wanted to continue having fun together, and the necklace provided them with that opportunity. Several others were in the midst of lifechanging events, and Priscilla, the wife of the jeweler we bought the necklace from, had just lost her sister. 

PR: Tell us more about making the deal with the jeweler Tom Van Gundy. 

RW: For Tom it wasn’t about the money; he wanted to see his wife laugh again. He wanted her to be able to share the joy these women were sharing with one another. 

PR: The fact that he saw this is such a beautiful testimony to relationships. This was an opportunity for him to reach out for her. 

RW: That’s right. That is such an important part of this story. If it weren’t for Tom, who was willing to sell us the necklace at that price, it wouldn’t have mattered how many women we could have gotten together. 

PR: What did the group do for you personally? 

RW: I came to Ventura eight years ago from Philadelphia, so at the time this group began I was kind of an outsider. I didn’t have female friends. 

I was one of the women who initially said no to the necklace. How would I relate to women and become part of a group with them? It’s not something I had ever experienced. Today, four years later, I have this group of friends I can call if I need help, or if I just need to talk to someone. I probably speak to one or two of these women every day and not necessarily the same ones. That’s something I never had before. 

PR: What’s one of your favorite stories about the other women? 

RW: When it was Dale Muegenburg’s time to wear the necklace she was so excited. She put it on, looked in the mirror, and said “Don’t I look gorgeous?” Then she realized that her image of what she thought she should look like and what she actually saw were very different. So she decided to make a change. In the process of losing weight and thinking of other possibilities for her life, she revitalized her marriage. 

PR: What was the group able to do, as a result of this new connection, that they weren’t able to do before? 

RW: We have really expanded into the community. We’ve done a number of fundraisers. Ventura now considers us a model for what the city is calling “A Circle of Caring.” It’s an advocacy program for the homeless. A year ago we found out about a woman who was living behind a statue on the grounds of the Mission Church in Ventura–that was her home. This woman had no opportunities, so we tried to help make her life better. 

PR: If listeners get one thing out of this program–what’s the message? 

RW: As a group we’ve discovered that the more we’ve shared, the more we’ve gained. It’s not about the diamonds, it’s not about wealth. It’s about expanding your life by sharing yourself with others. I hope that women can find some part of themselves in this book, that maybe they can use it as a blueprint to expand their own lives and share in some way, try an experiment of their own. It doesn’t have to be a necklace. It can be a thought. It can be an hour of your time. Make an adventure out of it. 

(The preceding interview was originally recorded on December 15, 2008 and is reproduced here, with permission, in an abridged form.) 



“Inspirational . . . The best way to honor the book’s principles is to share your copy with a friend.”—New York Times

The Necklace is a fascinating journey into thirteen women’s lives. Sweet and touching, it also manages to make you think about what really matters in life.”—Kathie Lee Gifford

“Original and beautifully crafted . . . How this piece of jewelry transformed the lives of the participants is the subject of a highly readable book that is part memoir, part metaphor and all charm.”—Tucson Citizen

“This moving book profiles a remarkable social experiment, where friendships and beliefs are uncovered and found to be just as strong as the stones being passed from neck to neck.”—Redbook

“[A] must-have book . . . The Necklace could as easily have been titled The Sisterhood of the Traveling Diamonds.”—New York Daily News

“A feel-good and thought-provoking book.”—BookPage

“A gem of a story sparkles under The Necklace.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What is the significance of the Jean Shinoda Bolen quote that begins the book:
“Here we are, women who have been the beneficiaries of education, resources, reproductive choice, travel opportunities, the Internet, and a longer life expectancy than women have ever had in history. What can and will we do?” 

2. The author gives each woman a two-word description in the chapter titles. Why do you think the author created these? What do you think of the different descriptors? 

3. Were you surprised at how open the women were to discussing intimate details of their lives? Do you think they would have been so candid in their twenties? Thirties? Forties? Would you be comfortable revealing your life this way? 

4. Of the thirteen women, which one did you most identify with? Who did you most admire? 

5. Do you think the structure of the book, with each chapter being a profile of one woman, was effective? Or do you think the book would have been better if just a few women had been featured in more depth? If so, who would you have chosen? 

6. What do you think of the disagreements between Jonell and the group in chapters 8 and 12? Were you aligned with Jonell on either one? 

7. The women decided to purchase a luxury diamond necklace five years ago, long before the current financial crisis. Does the country’s economic plight make the story less relevant? Why or why not? 

8. Would the story have been just as compelling if the women had shared a rhinestone necklace or a piece of pottery or a pair of jeans? Is there any significance to a luxury piece of jewelry? 

9. Though some of the women came from impoverished backgrounds, today all thirteen could be called upper middle class. Do you think this story is just as relevant for women from other socioeconomic or ethnic groups? 

10. The subtitle of this book, Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives, indicates that each woman was changed by the experience of being in the group. Do you feel the author effectively showed the transformation in each woman, or not? 

11. At the time the book was written the experiment had already been featured in People magazine and attracted a movie deal. Do you think this media attention affected the women’s staying together? Do you think the group will still be together two/five/ten years from now? 

12. Have you ever shared a valuable possession with friends? If so, how did that work out? If not, would you be willing to? What would you choose to share with a group? Has the book changed your views on personal luxuries? 

13. Is this a decidedly female story, or can you imagine a group of men doing something similar? 

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