Over the years it took me to research Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds, when I brought up the subject of diamonds, people inevitably asked me Why are people still buying them? It’s a reasonable question. It’s 2016 and we know all about their dark side. We’ve heard of blood diamonds and know the stones have been linked to everything from war to environmental devastation to slavery. We’ve questioned whether sparkling engagement rings are inherently sexist symbols, reinforcing an outdated, transactional view of marriage. We understand that the stones aren’t actually all that scarce and that our perception of them as rare treasures can be traced, in large part, to De Beers: the company that once controlled ninety percent of the world’s diamonds.
So why, in the face of such fierce and competing messages about diamonds, have the positive ones persisted? To make sense of this, it’s worth looking back at a moment in the early twentieth century, after prolific diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. For the first time in U.S. history, the stones were available in such high quantities that average citizens could buy them. Before then, diamonds were prohibitively expensive and were only worn by the grand dames of the Gilded Age — women with last names like Pulitzer, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Astor. When prices dropped on account of the new supply, Americans had already internalized that diamonds were symbols of wealth. In fact, that’s why the rich had prized them, too. Insecure about their status on a global stage, the wives of railroad barons looked to historical European queens for examples of how to dress the part.
After diamonds were found in South Africa, savvy American jewelers like Tiffany & Co. created new uses for the stones, including the diamond engagement ring. Much has been written about the 1939 advertisement campaign, paid for by De Beers and resulting in the indelible tagline “A Diamond is Forever,” as the source of the engagement ring tradition. The truth is that, although that campaign was enormously effective, it did not singularly create the ritual of giving and receiving a diamond ring. Charles Lewis Tiffany debuted the “Tiffany Setting” – metal prongs that supported the solitaire – in 1886. By 1902, the Chicago Tribune reported “the engagement ring is getting to be so indispensable to engagements in this day and age that the girl who admits her betrothal without at the same time shyly exposing the diamond solitaire that twinkles on her little left hand is extremely rare.”
De Beers hired advertiser N.W. Ayer & Son in 1938, when the fashion of giving and receiving a diamond engagement ring had started to fizzle. The campaign – which went well beyond simple print advertisements – succeeded at weaving what might, in retrospect, have been a relatively short-lived fad into the fabric of American culture. The original ads were lyrical, and fed into a young couple’s insecurities by positioning the ring as the perfect intersection of romance and insurance. The subtext was clear: a woman can measure how much she’s loved by weighing the size and quality of her diamond. A man can rest assured that by making this one, critical purchase, his bride will never stray.
The campaign ran through the latter half of the twentieth century and, as early as 1959, surveys commissioned by N.W. Ayer & Son found that eighty percent of brides received a diamond engagement ring. De Beers accomplished a major goal: It used advertising to perpetuate a ritual, and in doing so made its product indispensable. Even still, there have been a handful of moments when the engagement ring tradition showed signs of weakness. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the rise of hippie and activist countercultures threatened the primacy of diamonds. Beyond even their ideological quibbles, young women in Birkenstocks wanted nothing to do with items that recalled their grandmother’s jewels.
When news of the conflict diamond crisis broke in the late 1990s and early 2000s, critics once again sounded the death knell for diamonds. Today, the story of blood diamonds still casts a shadow over the industry, but if it didn’t wipe out the tradition in 2002, when the book Blood Diamonds published, or in 2006, when the movie “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio premiered –well, it probably won’t now. I’ve come to believe that the real threat to the diamond engagement ring isn’t news breaks or ephemeral cultural attitudes. It’s the danger of innovation: the possibility that sometime, in the not so distant future, the ritual around engagement will change, and some other product will take the ring’s place.
For today, however, there’s nothing that says Will you marry me? like a diamond. As long as a ring features so prominently in the American engagement tradition, the controversial gem is here to stay.