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The short history of the diamond engagement ring

Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

The short history of the diamond engagement ring

Image: DRZ / Unsplash

The universal popularity of the diamond engagement ring is arguably one of the most fascinating and lucrative meetings of custom and commerce. It is also the story of how a concerted marketing campaign changed the world forever.

In September 1938, half-a-century since the establishment of diamond conglomerate, De Beers Consolidated Mines, and some 70 years since the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, a 29-year-old Harry Oppenheimer, son of then-chairman of De Beers, Ernest Oppenheimer, went from Johannesburg to New York to meet with the president of NW Ayer; at the time a top advertising agency in the US. Diamond sales had been falling. De Beers had their eyes set on growing the American market to keep their business and the global diamond industry they effectively controlled, going.

The strategy that began with that 1938 meeting would universally transform the engagement ritual and invent the narrative of the mass market diamond not only as a rare and valuable status symbol but also as a new crucial part of the marriage proposal. Commerce met custom, tied the knot, and in a space of 40 years, took De Beers diamond sales in the United States from a mere $23-million in 1939, to $2.1-billion at the wholesale level in 1979, an almost hundredfold increase.

Thanks largely to the work of the now 86-year-old American investigative journalist, Edward Jay Epstein, this story of the relatively recent creation of the diamond ring as quintessential to the engagement ritual, is one that is easily accessible to all who might wonder how it became the ultimate symbol of love and intent to marry, that many of us unquestioningly accept it to be.

Epstein’s non-fiction title, The Rise and Fall of Diamonds: The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion, was published back in 1982. In it, Epstein takes an in-depth look at how, upon the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, the British colonist investors behind the mines would go on to establish De Beers Consolidated Mines into a cartel that, over the course of the 20th century, basically created a monopoly that fixed diamond prices and controlled the worldwide market for diamonds.

He also penned a nearly 10,000-word piece for The Atlantic, titledHave you ever tried to sell a diamond?” published in February 1982. 

This deliciously long read focuses in part on the development of the advertising strategy that would take the ancient custom of wearing an engagement ring — often and most reliably traced back to ancient Rome — and turn it into a universal tradition. In a world that arguably still continues to be shaped by advertising and popular media, that now almost 40-year-old article is worth revisiting; if not every year, then at least every generation, not only because of Epstein’s deep dive into the creation of the modern engagement ring, but also as an insightful look at the early use of some of the advertising techniques that prey on our need to belong, which continue to be used today.

Early Roman rings didn’t feature diamonds and were mainly plain bands made of iron or precious metals such as gold. According to the book, Jewelry making Through History: An Encyclopedia, “the tradition of diamond engagement rings came about via Maximilian I, archduke of Austria (1459 – 1519), who gave a diamond ring to Mary of Burgundy (1457 – 1482) in 1477.” Over the following centuries, diamonds rings continued to grow in popularity and feature on the digits of the aristocracy and the well-heeled. For the longest time, the only known source of the stones was India, making them a scarcity and not quite the standard.

That would change with the late 19th-century discovery of diamonds in South Africa and the establishment of De Beers Consolidated Mines. And that is not all that would change. 

A number of historians and academics have argued that the discovery of diamond mines alongside the gold mines, laid the ground for apartheid. A paper published by Canada’s CJPME Foundation, titled Roots of Apartheid: South Africa’s Mining Industry, puts it thus: “While apartheid in South Africa was formalised in law in the late 1940s, the seeds for its creation were established years beforehand. The mining industry, especially, spurred the creation of laws and practices in South Africa which progressively disenfranchised the country’s indigenous black peoples.” Tens of thousands of black South Africans are documented as having died in the mines, while many more were injured.

While the mining industry began to wreak havoc on the lives of many black South African miners and their families, World War I and the Great Depression also led to a drop in demand for diamonds, as well as a drop in the value of the stones. Additionally, as per Epstein’s reporting, the notion of a diamond engagement ring had never taken hold in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain; whereas, in England and France, it was still seen as desirable for aristocrats. Most of De Beers’ sales for diamond engagement rings came from the US, but even there, consumers were buying cheaper smaller diamonds. In fact, subsequent research by NW Ayer would reveal that “since the end of World War I, in 1919, the total amount of diamonds sold in America, measured in carats, had declined by 50%; at the same time, the quality of the diamonds, measured in dollar value, had declined by nearly 100%.”

At that September 1938 meeting with NW Ayer president, Gerold M Lauck, the young Oppenheimer “suggested to Lauck that his agency prepare a plan for creating a new image for diamonds among Americans.”

The strategy that the agency came up with focused on the idea of the diamond as a “gift of love”, emphasising the importance of size. The bigger the diamond, the greater the love. The agency looked to the original on-screen influencers, movie stars. As with products that are often sent by companies in search of publicity to modern Instagram influencers, the movie stars were given diamonds to celebrate their love. Then stories of some big diamond some Hollywood stud gave to his beloved upon their engagement would be offered to a selection of magazines and newspapers, with a focus on the size of the diamond.

In addition, NW Ayer also proposed getting fashion designers to talk about the “trend towards diamonds” on radio shows. Then there was also the plan to rope in the royal family by getting the royal couple to wear diamonds rather than any other jewels. “Queen Elizabeth later went on a well-publicised trip to several South African diamond mines, and she accepted a diamond from Oppenheimer,” Epstein writes. On top of this early-influencer marketing, they also bought ads in magazines, “featuring reproductions of famous paintings by such artists as Picasso, Derain, Dali, and Dufy. The advertisements were intended to convey the idea that diamonds, like paintings, were unique works of art.”

It worked. By 1941, the agency was able to report that US diamond sales had increased 55% since 1938. The agency also later noted that they had conceived “a new form of advertising which has been widely imitated ever since. There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea — the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.”

It didn’t end there. Over the following decade, the campaign morphed and grew. For example, in 1946, Epstein writes that the agency organised a weekly service called “Hollywood Personalities”, where some 125 leading newspapers would be given descriptions of diamonds worn by movie stars. As part of the following year’s strategy, the agency stated: “We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology. We seek to … strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services….” And another year later, they stated once again: “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’”

Then came the now world-famous slogan which would later become the official motto of De Beers, written by a copywriter at NW Ayer: “A Diamond Is Forever”. 

Of course, it is not. It can be destroyed in any number of ways. But with this in mind, the diamond’s value grew exponentially in the minds of consumers. And since diamonds actually depreciated considerably in value for those who would try to resell them, it also helped to make sure that owners would rather keep their “forever” diamonds than try to sell them. All the while under the illusion that they would appreciate in value, or at worst, maintain their value.

Image: Alekon Pictures / Unsplash

The anecdotes Epstein shares of the affluent trying to sell their diamond jewellery might inspire a bit of schadenfreude; such as the wealthy New York woman who tried to sell her $100,000 Tiffany ring back to Tiffany & Co, two years later, thinking that because of the diamond boom, she might make a profit. Not only was Tiffany not prepared to take it back, but not one leading jeweller was prepared to offer her money for it.

Over the four decades after 1938, the NW Ayer strategy would be fine-tuned in response to market trends and mining realities. In the 1960s, when the Soviets discovered Siberian mines, which yielded smaller diamonds, De Beers took on the marketing for them. Their US campaign shifted the focus from size and focused on “the importance of quality, colour and cut” instead. “The new campaign met with considerable success. The average size of diamonds sold fell from one carat in 1939 to .28 of a carat in 1976, which coincided almost exactly with the average size of the Siberian diamonds De Beers was distributing,” Epstein writes.

Also during the 1960s, NW Ayer worked on a campaign to create demand for diamonds among long-married couples, and asked De Beers to authorise the beginning of a “long-term process of setting the diamond aside as the only appropriate gift for those later-in-life occasions where sentiment is to be expressed,” which the company approved. After the success in the US, the company expanded to other countries.

Among their most notable successes, was Japan. Epstein writes: “When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5% of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27%. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60% of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage.” 

The rest is, as they say, history; and as mentioned above, Epstein’s detailed and well-sourced essay for The Atlantic is a must-read.

While De Beers no longer controls nearly as much of the market as they once did, their 20th-century campaign transformed worldwide tradition. To this day, the diamond ring remains an integral part of the engagement and wedding ritual. It is also a big part of popular culture, albeit more so on the necks and wrists of rappers rather than those of movie stars.

South Africa is also no longer the top producer of diamonds; according to 2016 statistics, it is number eight on the list, while Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia take the top spots. And while the apartheid laws that provided companies such as De Beers the labour and conditions to thrive and literally change the world are no longer, the origins of many a modern piece of jewellery still reflect neither the romance of courtship nor the celebration of success presented in blinged-out hip hop videos.

In February 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report titled ‘The Hidden Cost of Jewelry’, which they compiled by researching the global diamond and gold sourcing industry, as well as corresponding with 13 of the world’s leading jewellery companies, including Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Rolex and Signet.

They developed a rating system based on sourcing policies and practices. The companies were then rated from very weak, to weak, moderate, strong, and finally, excellent. Not a single company got an “excellent” rating, and only Tiffany & Co scored a “strong” rating. Some, like Rolex, were not rated, as they chose not to disclose their sourcing information.

The authors of the report wrote: “While these are promising signs, we found that most companies still fall short of meeting international standards. 

“While some companies are actively working to identify and address human rights risks in their supply chains, others rely simply on the assurances of their suppliers that their gold and diamonds are free of human rights abuses, without rigorously verifying these claims. Some have made no commitments to responsible sourcing at all. 

“Almost none can identify the specific mines where all of their gold and diamonds originate.” DM/ML

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