While it seems odd today, diamonds weren’t used in many engagement rings prior to our grandparents’ generation. Until then, when engagement rings even had precious stones, exotic gems like opals, rubies, sapphires, and turquoise were chosen more frequently. In a world without the “A Diamond is Forever” campaign that wouldn’t be surprising. After all, there isn’t really much difference between diamonds and other rocks coming out of the ground, except that they are a lot less noticeable than the gems we just mentioned.
So why are they the top choice now?
To answer that we first need to discuss De Beers, which was founded as a monopoly to raise the value of diamonds by creating artificial scarcity. Unfortunately for them, scarcity alone isn’t enough to make everything desirable and De Beers was faced with the question of how to raise demand for something with little inherent value.
After struggling through two decades of stalled sales, De Beers turned to the ad agency N.W. Ayer. But the way the agency saw it, raising demand meant completely eschewing the idea of inherent value and instead making diamonds mean something.
N.W. Ayer’s first step was to raise public perception of diamond’s by associating them with high society. They lent jewelry out to stars for awards ceremonies and other highly visible social events. They also pushed diamonds into movies and magazines. But they began to branch out from using diamonds solely as a mark of status and towards connoting love as well. For instance, they placed diamond rings in movies as symbols of unwavering devotion, and instructed the press to report on celebrity romances, the diamonds celebrities wore, and particularly on their diamond engagement rings.
By 1941 sales of diamonds had risen 55%, but N.W. Ayer wasn’t done. Actually, in their 1947 strategy plan they stated, “We seek to … strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity”. Incidentally, 1947 is also the year they created the slogan “A Diamond is Forever”, which is perhaps their most effective conveyance of the idea that diamonds are the symbol of love and commitment. Obviously, they were successful in creating that psychological necessity: diamond engagement rings became a part of our culture because we accepted the idea that giving someone a diamond proved you were in love. In fact, they were so successful that in their 1951 annual report N.W. Ayer said “jewelers now tell us ‘a girl is not engaged unless she has a diamond engagement ring.’”
Further campaigns continued to promote the association between diamonds and love, solidifying their brand positioning. For instance, some campaigns used diamonds as anniversary presents or encouraged people to hold on to the stones of family members as heirlooms, which had the side benefit of keeping supply down.
But it wasn’t always easy for De Beers. They made diamonds objects of conspicuous consumption. Engagement rings in particular are meant to show that you are in a committed relationship and to ward off new suitors. But that also makes diamonds status symbols – bigger stones were bringing higher status (or proving great devotion). That is, until later in the cold war, when Soviet diamonds appeared on the market and threatened the delicate pricing De Beers created. It’s at this point that De Beers began to inform people that, actually, the the size of the diamond didn’t matter, after all. Instead much less noticeable things like color and cut were the important factors.
At this point we could sit back and roll our eyes. Their success in making diamonds represent love and commitment is certainly arbitrary, but it’s also kind of beautiful.
Unfortunately, there are also other pernicious factors at play. The price of diamonds isn’t just inflated because of manufactured scarcity or successful marketing. It’s also inflated because diamonds unnecessarily pass through the hands of several middlemen who take a cut of the profits even before entering a second monopoly. Often people will shop around for the best deal on an item, jewelry is no exception. The difference for jewelry is that the big chains (Kay, Jared, and many others), are actually owned by the same company, and strategically placed near each other to trick you into believing the prices for their monopoly supplied diamonds are fair. They aren’t.
De Beers campaign was so successful that 80 years later the diamond ring is still an unquestioned rite of passage. It’s legacy is undeniable.¹ And that’s also why De Beers shouldn’t fear the new technology enabling diamonds to be mass produced – those diamonds weren’t formed over thousands of years, those diamonds haven’t stood the test of time, those diamonds aren’t forever. What De Beers should fear isn’t a new twist on the problem of Soviet diamonds, what they should fear is an erosion of what diamonds stand for.
1. In fact, I find it hard to imagine turning your loved ones into jewelry could have happened without it, though perhaps that would have been for the best.