History of Single Life

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There’s no more apropos subject for a column on the history of single life than the object that signifies the end of singledom: a sparking diamond set atop a band of gold. Engagement rings have been around since antiquity, and various theories suggest they originated as a miniaturized form of slave bands, a ritualized exchange of wealth, or as symbols of eternity. But while the rich often decorated such rings with jewels, the idea that "only a diamond will do" is a relatively recent innovation. And, as Edward Jay Epstein’s 1982 exposé in The Atlantic Monthly and his follow-up book made clear, the way in which would-be grooms became required to tithe "two month’s salary" to the bijouterie gods ain’t a pretty story. Diamonds, as Carol Channing sang, may be a girl’s best friend, but it’s a pretty unhealthy, codependent relationship.


For much of human history, diamonds were found in only a few hard-to-reach places — the jungles of Brazil, and a couple of riverbeds in India. They were so rare, in fact, that only the ultra-wealthy could afford them. Archduke Maximillian, who would soon be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, gave one to Mary of Burgundy to seal their 1477 betrothal in what is often cited as the first historical example of a diamond engagement ring. However, this situation changed in the 1870s, when massive diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Poorly-paid, abominably treated native African workers could now strip the gems from the earth by the ton. Faced with the prospect of a massive oversupply of diamonds, the investors (chiefly arch-racist Cecil Rhodes and his partner C. D. Rudd) formed the De Beers mining company in 1880. By the end of the century, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had managed to collect all the colonial African diamond discoveries under the De Beers banner. To quote Epstein, the cartel was (and to some extent still is) "the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce," carefully controlling the supply of diamonds to assure their scarcity and value.

But what about the demand side? How to convince the world that an isometric-hexoctahedral crystal lattice allotrope of carbon was something they absolutely needed to buy?

How to convince the world that an isometric-hexoctahedral crystal lattice allotrope of carbon was something they absolutely needed to buy?

The answer was marketing. Anyone who owns a TV has seen the commercials: the dancing shadows on the wall, the violin score quickening to the point of string-ensemble orgasm. The thirty-second spots are only the latest incarnation of a carefully orchestrated campaign that stretches back decades. In 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, De Beers formed an alliance with the New York advertising agency N.W. Ayer. With war in Europe looming on the horizon, the United States seemed the safest bet to expand the diamond market, and Ayer performed brilliantly. Soon, Hollywood movies featured prominent product placements, celebrities and actors were festooned with diamonds for public appearances and fashion designers, photographers and reporters were encouraged to talk up the "diamond trend" or the size of the rock Ginger Rogers was sporting.

This, however, was only the beginning. The next step was a psychological approach: consumers everywhere had to see the diamond as the universally recognized symbol of love, commitment and the social status derived from middle-class domesticity. The slogan "a diamond is forever" debuted in 1947, giving consumers not only the idea that the diamond is a symbol of enduring love, but that it shouldn’t be resold. This was because diamonds lose considerable value in resale, and since there’s no point in paying De Beers full price when you could get a cheaper one second-hand, De Beers loses a lucrative sale on every diamond resold.







In the 1960s, De Beers extended its efforts overseas. Japan, for instance, went from being a country of arranged marriages to a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market. The discovery of enormous mines of small, high-quality diamonds in Siberia in the late ’50s meant not only that the Soviet Union had to be taken into the cartel, but that the diamond pushers had to create new markets, insisting that we shell out for "eternity" rings, "trilogy" rings (for the past, present and future of a relationship) and the more recent "right-hand" ring for "independent" women.

Of course, in De Beers’ defense, the pitch has to hit a receptive audience. Male engagement rings, popularized in the ’20s, never took off in the way that men’s wedding bands did. The marketing works because it ingeniously plays on men’s complexes about love, status and money — if you don’t buy her a diamond, it implies, you not only don’t love her, you can’t afford her. The diamond ring is not only a symbol of commitment, but of status. What’s more, the script is one of near-prostitution where the woman passively (or passive-aggressively) hints that a gift of diamond jewelry would be welcome.

The marketing implies, “If you don’t buy her a diamond, you not only don’t love her, you can’t afford her.”

(Or, as Ron White of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour translates it, "A diamond — that’ll shut her up!") In other words, the diamond script is profoundly anti-feminist. Even the right-hand ring, which sounds prima facie pro-woman, is really just clever marketing touching a raw nerve in single women with lucrative careers.

Nor does much seem to have changed since Epstein wrote his article and apartheid fell in South Africa: De Beers, which still controls about 40% of the world diamond market by value, agreed to pay a $10 million fine for manipulating the price of industrial diamonds in 2004, and recently settled a class-action lawsuit on price-fixing. De Beers’ parent company Anglo American has also been accused of trading in conflict diamonds and underwriting human-rights abuses in order to continue unfair and environmentally-damaging mining practices. In short, diamonds not only aren’t a girl’s best friend, they’re also bad for human rights and the environment. Worse, they’re a symbol of the same conspicuous-consumption consumer culture that reduces human relationships to a bank balance. With a thousand and one creative ways to show your love for each other — claddagh rings, pornographic medieval badges — a diamond-free engagement band shows love for the rest of the world.  



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Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.