It’s almost Valentine’s Day, which makes us think of romance, relationships and engagements — and the sparkly glare of a diamond engagement ring. Yes, diamonds are pretty, precious, and these days, cost a zillion dollars. But it wasn’t always so — and you can thank a concerted effort on the part of diamond mines, the advertising industry and Hollywood for mercilessly inflating the price of these glittery gems. Here’s how a stone with little intrinsic value became the most important gem in the world.
The diamond myth is more a marketing love story than a true romance. Believe it or not, diamonds only came into popularity in the 20th century (before then, diamond production amounted to a few pounds a year). But in 1870, a huge cache of diamonds was unearthed in South Africa, sending the previously small and exclusive market into a tizzy. With a voluble increase in available diamonds, how could they be priced for their scarcity and rareness? Diamond mine financiers realized that they needed to protect their interests, and the best way to do that was to merge into one mega-diamond corporation. And that’s how De Beers — which held a monopoly on diamond mining and pricing — was created.
By combining their holdings into one large monolith, De Beers was able to control and inflate the pricing of diamonds. But that only solved half the problem. De Beers now had a bevy of diamonds but no one to sell them to. So De Beers set about developing an image for the stone, one that portrayed diamonds as “universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance” — emphasis on romance. In order to sell diamonds, the myth of the diamond as the ultimate token of affection had to be developed and massaged. As writer Edward Jay Epstein notes, “Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life.” The public had to believe that “a diamond is forever” — that it was not only a signifier of commitment, but that it also should never, ever be resold (so that the diamond market wouldn’t be flooded with secondhand diamonds, thereby lessening the demand and value of new market diamonds).
In the 1930s, De Beers heads met with prominent New York advertising agency N.W. Ayer in order to concoct a plan that would convince people of the necessity of a diamonds. Ayer head Gerald M. Lauck hit upon a genius idea: use films as a way to get the public to buy into the importance of diamonds. Lauck urged De Beers to partner with the relatively new film industry to promote diamond story lines, place engagement rings in films and get diamonds into the hands of burgeoning celebrities. It was a full-on assault: diamond plot lines were put into films, fashion designers were enlisted to discuss the dazzle of diamonds on radio shows, and De Beers lobbied for increased exposure to stories of film stars sporting monstrous diamond rings. Diamond marketing stressed that each stone was unique, special and very exclusive. It was subtle, but very, very effective.
Over the years, the campaign extended its reach. in the 1940s, a series of lectures was promoted in high schools: “All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions.” Ayer pushed editorial pitches on “engaged socialites” with the idea that the cultural desire for a diamond might trickle down from the social elites to the middle classes.
All the advertising, film and television placement and mass psychology worked. After 20 years on the campaign, Ayer reported that the younger generation had successfully been implanted with the idea that diamonds were a de rigeur part of courtship. “To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone,” their report read. And once the diamond myth took over in the United States, De Beers set about changing global perceptions of diamonds. In the ’60s, they hired a separate advertising company to develop a marketing strategy for Japan, where marriage ceremonies were marked by the slightly less ostentatious act of drinking rice wine. The approach? Market diamond engagement rings as a delightfully modern move toward Westernization — one that a depressed post-World War II Japan would no doubt clamor for. The strategy paid off; when the campaign began in 1967, only five percent of Japanese women wore engagement rings. By 1978, nearly half of the country’s women wanted diamonds.
In the U.S and abroad, one idea remained constant: De Beers sold the idea that a diamond was an expensive but necessary token of affection — that giving a woman a diamond ring was synonymous with showing that you loved her. Conversely, a woman who didn’t have an engagement ring –who wasn’t showered with diamonds throughout her relationship — was somehow “less loved” than her diamond-swathed counterparts. The bigger and more expensive the diamond, the more a woman should feel cherished. It’s a lie that started less than a 100 years ago, and it’s a lie the diamond industry has been banking on ever since.