Blood & Diamonds Pt. 2 : A Diamond is Forever

As we learned in the part one of this series, diamond jewelry only became popular at the end of the 19th century. So how did the diamond industry become the global juggernaut that they are today? The answer, as with so many other things, is advertising. As we discussed in the previous post, prior to 1866, diamonds were rare, but not especially popular or prized gemstones. That all changed after the discovery of large diamond deposits in Kimberley, South Africa. The deposits were so huge they had the potential to transform diamonds from an obscure luxury into something so common every person on earth could afford one.

Controlling Supply

Thanks to the ingenuity of Cecil Rhodes, diamonds never became affordable trinkets. Instead, thanks to the monopolistic operations of the De Beers Diamond Trading Company, the world supply of diamonds has been heavily controlled in order to increase their value. 

Creating Demand: The Role of Advertising

But supply is only one part of this scenario. Even when supply is limited, demand is required in order for the value of an object to soar.

Prior to the 20th century, there wasn’t a huge demand for diamonds. Diamonds had been so rare that they were not included in engagement rings for most people, though they were fairly popular amongst royalty. In 1477, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented the first famous diamond engagement ring to his fiancée, Mary of Burgundy. However, due to their rarity, diamond rings remained almost exclusively a royal custom for the next 400 years.

When Rhodes encountered the mines at Kimberley, he assumed creating demand would be easy. But it took a marketing campaign to make that happen.

A Diamond is Forever

De Beers’ infamous “A Diamond is Forever” marketing campaign was born in 1947.  An enterprising young female copywriter from Madison Avenue ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son thought up the infamous De Beers tagline “A Diamond is Forever.” Ayer’ executives immediately jumped on the catchy phrase, creating one of the most successful ad campaigns in history.

At the time, diamonds were dropping in popularity. In 1940, only about 10% of women wore diamond engagement rings. De Beers was desperate to increase demand for diamonds. Ayers’ campaign was perfect, tying true love & eternity to what had previously merely been a shiny rock.

De Beers spent a fortune on the “A Diamond is Forever campaign, and it was well worth it.

Back when my great-grandmother got engaged in the 1910s, the prevalence of diamond rings were in the single digits. She and my great-grandfather opted for a tiny gold ring with an inexpensive coloured stone. By the time my grandmother on my mother’s side became engaged in 1949, even a 19-year-old future wife of a GI hoped for (and received) a handsome diamond ring. Expectations had changed drastically.

But it didn’t stop there. To further bolster demand, Ayer began lending diamonds to starlets and socialites, and placing diamonds prominently in films. Did you think it was an accident that there’s a Bond film called “Diamonds are Forever?” Or that Marilyn Monroe sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a hit feature film? Both are prime examples of brilliant product placement at a time when that sort of thing was less common.

Expanding Markets

De Beer’s didn’t stop at European and North American markets. In the years following WWII, they set their sights on Japan, a nation that had no history of diamond engagement rings. Clever marketing worked wonders, and by 1981, the market had grown from a mere 5% in 1967, to over 60%!  A similar campaign is underway as we speak in China. Engagement rings were unknown in China just a few short years ago. Today nearly 30% of brides-to-be seek diamond rings. This change is perhaps the most significant, when you consider that country’s immense population. Success in China will ensure De Beer’s continued profitability for the future.

Final thoughts

As we’ve seen, diamonds aren’t rare. Their value stems from the culture significance they carry, which is largely manufactured via lavish, clever marketing campaigns. But if you love the look of diamonds, don’t despair. There are more ethical alternatives at all price points, which I’ll be discussing in the final instalment of this series!


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