The diamond myth
de beers and the diamond
The history of the engagement ring can be traced back to ancient Rome. Roman women generally received two rings once they got engaged, one made of iron to wear at home, and one made of gold to wear in public. The reason why it was most commonly worn on the left hand’s ring finger, is because at the time it was believed that this finger contains a vein that leads straight to the heart, commonly called the “vein of love”.
Modern scholars have debunked the long-held popular myth that the wedding ring was originally part of a bride price intended to “buy” a wife from her parents’ family.
Historically the practice was, for the most part, never intended as a mark of ownership but rather as a bona fide gesture of love.
Engagement rings remained popular and common practice throughout the middle ages. For those wealthy enough to afford it, gold was the most popular material in which engagement rings were cast at the time.
In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissioned the very first diamond engagement ring on record for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. Apparently, the ring’s design was rather spectacular and featured long narrow diamonds in the shape of an “M”, the first letter of her name. While this gesture initially led to only a few other European nobility following suit, it did set the trend for becoming more creative with the design of engagement rings as opposed to the dull and boring rings characteristic of the medieval period.
By the Victorian era, detailed metal work to create delicate rings was in demand and ornate engagement ring designs that mixed diamonds with other gemstones, precious metals and enamels had become quite popular. It was not until very recently, however, that diamond engagement rings actually became a trend and the reason for this, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the inherent value of the stone itself.
Once diamonds were discovered in South Africa in the nineteenth century, the potential was there to flood the market with an oversupply which would of course have radically brought down prices. The mining company De Beers intervened, however, buying up the mines and taking control of global supply, thus monopolizing the industry and releasing only enough diamonds to meet annual demand, thereby controlling their price.
During the 1940s the advertising agency NW Ayer launched a most brilliant advertisement campaign for De Beers. Diamond sales in the US, their main market, hadn’t yet recovered from the losses of the Great Depression. While diamonds were previously only bought by the wealthy – due to De Beers’ monopoly of course – they now wanted to expand their market across all spectrums of society.
In other words, along with this control of supply, De Beers also needed to figure out a way of taking control of global demand in order to stabilize the market. Hence their marketing campaign through NW Ayer consciously aimed at changing societal perceptions of diamonds and appeal to a wider audience.
To do this, they needed to link their product to something emotionally close to the very heart of humanity, and they found this link in love and marriage. In their attempt to achieve this, NW Ayer consequently called in the aid of a few popular Hollywood stars and marketed diamond engagement rings under the slogan “diamonds are forever” – by which the campaign emphasised the durability of these precious stones to appeal to the traditionalist sentiment that love and marriage is forever.
The idea behind the campaign was twofold: 1) to show that the purchase of a diamond engagement ring was a commitment of longevity and 2) to eliminate any form of secondary sale market: if a diamond is forever, people would be less likely to sell or buy it second-hand. This ensured consistent and continual sales. The “love and marriage” market furthermore ensured an influx of new customers every year.
The ingenuity of this spectacularly successful marketing campaign is particularly evidenced in the fact that diamonds are, in fact, not particularly rare at all. Compared to other precious stones, they are quite common and they are certainly not worth as much as we pay for them.
De Beers’ game plan, however, was to maintain control of and limit supply while creating a society where almost everyone feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring. Before World War II, only 1 in 10 engagement rings contained diamonds, but by creating a new narrative, NW Ayer and De Beers effectively manipulated public opinion and thereby pushed out the longstanding tradition of ruby and sapphire engagement rings and replaced it with an overwhelming demand for diamond rings.
Every one of De Beers’ advertisements through NW Ayer featured an educational tip called, “How to Buy a Diamond”, with instructions such as: “Ask about colour, clarity and cutting — for these determine a diamond’s quality, contribute to its beauty and value. Choose a fine stone, and you’ll always be proud of it, no matter what its size!” In this way, they engaged with the general public in an unprecedented way and made them feel much more educated about diamonds.
The ads even advised men how much to spend on a diamond for their future wife if they wanted to be truly sophisticated and romantic: about one month’s salary. The advised amount gradually grew to two months’ and eventually to three months’ salary over time – perhaps a sneaky marketing strategy, but admittedly quite brilliant, isn’t it?
And so N.W. Ayer succeeded in helping De Beers successfully turn what was a failing market into a newfound psychological necessity – and a multi-billion dollar industry. Their highly successful and modern advertising campaign not only led to an immediate spike in the demand for of diamond engagement rings, but the long-term success of the campaign was so overwhelming, that AdAge named “diamonds are forever” as the number 1 advertising slogan of the century in 1999.
This spectacular rise of the diamond as a symbol of romance, love and marriage due to this campaign was also soon evidenced in popular culture. The classic song popularized by Marilyn Monroe, “Diamonds are a Girl’s best Friend”, originated from a Broadway production in 1949, at the height of the De Beers advertising campaign.
Since then, diamonds have become a standard feature for engagement rings. Not only in America, but also globally, as it has been the number one choice of precious stone for those wanting to tie the knot for decades. And all this is due to what has to be acknowledged as a stroke of marketing genius: instead of marketing to their product, N.W. Ayer mastered the art of marketing values and ideas – in this case, the values and ideas surrounding love, romance, and marriage.
They effectively created value out of nothing by means of propaganda for what they wanted people to believe their product represents – a marketing strategy that has created the lasting perception of diamond engagement rings as a must-have that conveys both a distinctly modern kind of refinement, while also being widely (albeit wrongly) considered as a classic representation of the traditional values of commitment and perseverance.
Paul Russell is co-founder of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national training company with offices in London, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise exclusively in the luxury industry and deliver training in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across the globe.
Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles within luxury hospitality. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.