In sixteenth-century Venice, the Jews are caught in the jaws of the Spanish Inquisition, fleeing their homes in Toledo for the security of more distant lands. While Spain is cluttered with the burnt remains of autos-da-fe, those who remain as conversos, or New Christians, live in constant fear. Yet even in the more liberal Venice, Jews are marked as such by the garments they must wear in public - a yellow turban and a red badge.
In Toledo, Leah ben Gozan is tortured for her Jewish faith, but when her persecutors realize birth is imminent, they cast her out and she dies giving birth to a daughter, Jessica. Leah's widower, Shiloh ben Gozan, a moneylender, leaves Spain for Venice, where he resides with Jessica. Shiloh treasures a turquoise ring given to him by Leah.
Nerissa, Shiloh's servant, gets by on her wits and innate cunning, but when Shiloh fires Nerissa for inappropriate behavior with men, she acts as a go-between for Jessica and Lorenzo di Scimmia, son of a wealthy Christian. Eventually, Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, stealing her father's silver coin and Leah's turquoise ring, later trading the ring for a pet monkey, unaware of its value to her father.
The fate of the turquoise ring propels the story from owner to owner, from Leah to Shiloh to Jessica, then to a merchant. A Spanish sailor steals the ring from a merchant, carrying it to the estate of Lady Portia Bel Mente in Treviso, currently interviewing suitors in a complicated test to win her hand. Nerissa is at Portia's side, now a close friend and confidant. Another key character is Xanthe, a servant in Portia's household who is both a Moor and the daughter of a Jew.
Portia recovers the turquoise ring, ignorant of its history but with her own plans for its disposition. Thereafter, the ring falls into Xanthe's hands, the one woman who holds the secret of the ring's history, linking past to present. Each of these five women play a critical part as the ring passes from hand to hand, touching the lives of Jews and Christians alike, an artifact of circumstance.
These women reflect the chaos and religious paranoia of the times: Leah, tortured for her religious beliefs, giving birth before she expires; Jessica, raised in Shiloh's traditional Jewish home, rejecting his teachings to marry a Christian of noble birth and ignoble intentions; Nerissa, Jessica's maid, who goes on to match wits with the soon-to-be-wealthy Portia, a cherished friend; and Xanthe, Portia's servant and keeper of secrets, who recognizes Leah's face in that of her daughter, Jessica.
Tiffany blends the lives and fortunes of these five women in a tale of the Spanish Inquisition and the merchants of Venice, their economy flourishing with the trade of the infiltration of Spanish Jews as the women overcome society's restrictions to accomplish their dreams. In a take on The Merchant of Venice from a woman's perspective, fact and fiction blend together in a tale of misspent fortunes, religious intolerance, tattered relationships and the excesses of a century in transition.