As Valentine’s Day approaches it’s worth examining how diamonds became the most popular way for nervous men to propose to their hoped for life partner.
Advertising campaigns would have you believe that they are rare and “a diamond is forever”. There’s no doubt they can be beautiful in the right setting but this romantic view of diamonds is not as timeless as you might think.
The De Beers diamond cartel used an incredibly successful advertising campaign created in 1947 by ad agency N.W. Ayer coupled with product placement in Hollywood movies like Marilyn Monroe’s song in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, to convince the public that since “a diamond is forever”, therefore you should never sell it.
Clearly they were successful as diamonds are perceived as the perfect romantic present and the slogan “a diamond is forever” is considered one of the most effective marketing techniques of the 20th century.
When I spoke with her 2 years ago, Sydney based jewellery designer Victoria Buckley told me that control of the diamond supply chain had slipped from the historic stranglehold by De Beers, with Russian state owned diamond monopoly Alrosa now in the dominant position.
Buckley says she “established a direct line with ethical diamond cutters in Russia” and “prefers to use Russian diamonds due to their high quality and visible provenance”. This ensures that conflict diamonds aren’t used in her jewellery, an issue which has been in the public eye since the film Blood Diamond was released in 2006.
The historic use of cartel held the price of diamonds to an artificially high level and perpetuated the myth that diamonds were very valuable because they were rare. The Russians haven’t attempted to hide this manoeuvring with Andrei V. Polyakov, a spokesman for Alrosa on the record in the New York Times stating that “if you don’t support the price … a diamond becomes a mere piece of carbon.”
Writing in the Scientific American, special projects editor Michael Moyer stated bluntly that the popular belief that diamonds have always had a high monetary value is incorrect:
"It’s hardness is natural; its value is not. A diamond is forever. So are sapphire, silica and Styrofoam. It is the hardest known naturally occurring substance, which explains why diamonds are excellent industrial cutting materials, not emblems of romance. They are no more rare than any number of minerals, no more dazzling".
If diamonds were actually so rare, cartels wouldn’t need to control the supply of diamonds to buyers. When they are sold second hand, for most diamonds it is at a sizeable loss compared to the original purchase price, akin to a car which depreciates as soon as it passes ownership from the dealer to you.
Philippe Mellier, CEO of De Beers Group recently told his sightholders that:
“a consumer’s desire for diamonds is the only source of value for the industry. And that desire is underpinned by confidence … that a natural treasure given to symbolise forever was actually formed in the Earth billions of years ago”.
Meanwhile synthetic diamond manufacturers claim when it comes down to it, “natural” mined diamonds are nothing more than compressed carbon and theirs made in a lab are much cheaper.
However this is not a particularly romantic selling point. De Beers succeeded in making diamonds a highly emotional purchase about desire and a symbol of affection that had nothing to do with rational scientific thinking. It will be interesting to see if the romantic view of diamonds changes in the future.
Neerav Bhatt is a Polymath: UNSW Engineering IT staffer, Freelance Journalist, Photographer, Librarian, Environmentalist, Professionally Curious, Lifelong Learner.