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Book Review


Bernd-Stefan Grewe and Karin Hofmeester, eds., Luxury in Global Perspective: Objects and Practices, 1600–2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xix + 310. Index. $120.00 (cloth).


     The potential and pain of doing global history is the tension between local studies and global connectedness. This tension runs throughout Luxury in Global Perspective: Objects and Practices, 1600–2000. This essay collection, edited by Bernd-Stefan Grewe and Karin Hofmeester, reflects an ambitious attempt to push our understanding of commodity culture, as viewed through a global lens, deeper on both a micro and macro level.

     In the introduction Grewe and Hofmeester frame their book as a response to several groundbreaking works. These include Arjun Appadurai's 1986 collection, The Social Life of Things.1 Appadurai's work, while pathbreaking in the study of commodity culture, appeared well before the breakthrough of global history, and as such reflected a heavily North Atlantic and European focus. By comparison, the editors of Luxury in Global Perspective desire to read commodity culture beyond a regional level, and they wish to turn away from the typical stories of bulk goods, like salt, to luxury goods, which act differently across settings. They "would like to take this one step further and show how luxury in various settings functioned and how local variations in taste could influence (global) economic interaction" (2). They adamantly seek to turn away from a North Atlantic bias, attempting to erode such a focus by stressing the Global South, which they define broadly as "countries from Latin America to East Asia" (20). In addition to their reaction to Appadurai, Grewe and Hofmeester intervene in the scholarly debate over luxury and capitalism, as presented by Immanuel Wallerstein and Jane Schneider, to "enrich the historical conception of luxury by looking at it from a global perspective," reaching from the early modern period to the twentieth century (4).

     To reach toward this enormous goal—tracing regional taste influence on luxury at a global perspective, reflecting the part played by the Global South in these transactions, setting up a comparative framework that would work across time and region—Grewe and Hofmeester have gathered together ten articles from a host of economic and cultural historians. Their methodology has focused on the global commodity chain approach (with the twist being that their analyses are not focused on North Atlantic consumers), as well as the social biography approach so well exemplified by Appadurai (6). Ultimately, their goal is to demonstrate that luxury is an analytical tool, not just a wording imposed by the sources, and that the "global history of luxury was never a one-way street, but the global connections have to be studied in two directions" (303, 26).

     What's good about Luxury in Global Perspective is that the editors, and the individual essay authors, all do demonstrate the value of luxury as an analytical tool and the importance of reading it in light of a bidirectional relationship. By studying commodity chains, we see not just how different regions connected over a luxury good, but the larger economic implications of this connection. For example, in Karin Hofmeester's contribution, "Diamonds as Global Luxury Commodity," we observe the history of diamonds from ancient India on to the modern period (55–91). Hofmeester manages to show us not just the usual De Beers story but the involvement of surprising players. For example, she shows us the financier role of the "New Christians" (descendants of Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert after the Reconquista) in sponsoring diamond mining in India. She describes the sudden surge of slavery in 1720s Brazil expressly for the purpose of working newly discovered diamond mines there and the spread of small, more affordable diamonds as part of bourgeois culture as a result of that slaving history. She moves forward to detail the modern trend of Indian companies polishing small stones, which had previously only been used in industrial work, to create low-cost jewelry for Walmart and other mass-market chain stores. Similar to many low-cost, mass-market items, though, she points out that the trade still relies on the exploitation of international child labor (80, 83, 87, 88). This is how Hofmeester's work reminds us of the connections between commodity culture and global power. At each point in her article, she connects the history of diamonds to greater historical consumption trends.

     As Hofmeester's article demonstrates, global commodity history is not just the stuff of the North Atlantic alone; here the book also proves its value. With chapters delving into Japan, China, west and east Africa, India, and to a lesser degree Latin America, the authors demonstrate well that there is rich knowledge to be found in what the editors describe as "the Global South," where trade has "not been quantitatively grasped" (7). The authors also prove that luxury, traditionally the subject of analysis for early modern scholars of court life, remains a viable site of analysis today. This is shown particularly well in Berhard Gissibil's investigation of the luxury practice of modern safari hunting, "The Conservation of Luxury: Safari Hunting and the Consumption of Wildlife in Twentieth-Century East Africa," which also opens our understanding of luxury as practice as well as material good.

     Luxury in Global Perspective is a tightly written set of essays that does indeed make large points. What's problematic about Luxury in Global Perspective is that it is almost too sweeping in scope. By its nature, this essay collection, spanning from the 1500s to the modern day, invites comparisons and conclusions across time, gender, power structures, place, and even methodology. As a result, the editors struggle at times to focus on the most important connections between pieces. For example, even in the conclusion, the editors veer off to comment on the applicability of different kinds of method to the history of luxury, even though this has not been a central question of the work. (They offer up the question "of whether the often-used method of discourse analysis in cultural history is an adequate method to study the history of luxury" (309).

     More problematic is the fact that there doesn't appear to be an organized effort to use a central set of themes across multiple articles or to build obvious connections between the pieces. For example, a particularly fascinating chapter, "Imports and Autarky: Tortoiseshell in Early Modern Japan," manages to discuss both the changing definition of need versus luxury, as well as women's role in the economy, in Tokugawa Japan (218–241). Martha Chaiklin discusses how, in the isolated Tokugawa economy elite women increasingly consumed tortoiseshell products, including hair combs and personal devices; at the same time, they were also increasingly linked to images of decadence and vice. The particular class nature of the critique, she shows, fell away in 1859, as the increase in global economic connection and the plummeting price of tortoiseshell meant that all Japanese women could afford it. The essay, weaving threads of class and gender through its argument, offers fascinating insight into a particular locale, but not all of the essays are set up in this way. Indeed, while another chapter also offers a commentary on women's role in a regional and global economy, Silvia Ruschak's "The Gendered Luxury of Wax Prints in South Ghana: A Local Luxury Good With Global Roots," it focuses on the transcontinental connection between the Dutch and Indonesian fabric makers and the local Ghana market women after 1500; the accent is not on the internal workings of an economy and resistance to male-created regulations like the sumptuary laws of Tokugawa Japan. While one could therefore attempt to draw conclusions between these two pieces through their obvious link of gender, they are far too disparate to lead to strong conclusions.

     That does not mean, of course, that the chapters lack value; they simply beg for their use in studies beyond the book. For an upper-level classroom setting, for example, Luxury in Global Perspective would work admirably to invite students to consider the role of commodity culture in global history. In addition, an assignment that challenged students to compare two articles in the book could easily lead to a thoughtful debate about the value of regional versus international emphasis in doing global economic history. The articles themselves are all well-written and engaging, and students should find the material very relatable. (Even in discussing the social value of tortoiseshell for hair combs in early modern Japan, for example, Martha Chaiklin provides a short aside about the use of tortoiseshell for adult activities, certainly the type of content to awaken any undergraduate.) The only limits would be the students' ability to grapple with the extent of theory in the introduction and conclusion; for this reason, the book would likely be most useful to upper-level students rather than all undergraduates.

     Bernd-Stefan Grewe and Karin Hofmeester's collection, Luxury in Global Perspective: Objects and Practices, 1600–2000, is a book that brings us back to when all of us, not just today's students, began with world history. It pushes us to deepen and enrich our analyses of commodity culture in a local and transnational framework, and it invites us to utilize lenses of comparison we may not have considered before. While the book may contain ideas almost too large for its pages, it is nonetheless a very accessible and persuasive reworking of commodity culture in global history.

Krista Sigler is an Associate Professor of History and Department Chair of History, Philosophy, and Political Science at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College. She can be reached at



1 Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life Of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).


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