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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.



Commentarium (19 Comments)

Jun 23 08 - 2:36am

Never wanted a diamond ring. I don't see the point, unless what others think really matters to a couple. If it does, then by all means, go for it!

Jun 23 08 - 3:55am

Aw, harsh. I plan to have a secondhand stone in my hypothetical future ring; that's always seemed like a humane way to balance my social conscience and my love of shiny things. To the people who can forgo the diamond altogether: More power to you. But compromise, I think, is also good.

Jun 23 08 - 8:34am

I have to say, these dispatches are the best writing on nerve. Interesting, informative, yet always funny and sexy.

Give Ken M. a raise!

Jun 23 08 - 11:39am

I got a swanky diamond engagement ring from my mother, who'd gotten it from her second husband, and gave it to the fiance who swore up and down that she wasn't materialistic. She was, she went beserk when the ring when missing, the marriage sucked and was quickly over.
In future? Fuck diamond rings, and the girls who want 'em. I see it as a most-excellent early warning system for The Wrong Girl.
Anyone who hasn't read that Atlantic article (available free online) should do so.

Jun 23 08 - 1:28pm

I was adamant about not having a diamond for many of these reasons. Not to mention talk about wasteful... I still got some bling in the form of faux aquamarine though.

Jun 23 08 - 1:31pm

Unfortunately the diamond shuts everyone up. Living in the south, hubby and I are often suspected of some form of "marriage lite" for not displaying all the traditional signs of subjugation--wedding rings, same last names, mortgage, and so on. Sometimes I'd rather try to blend in than field all these questions about how committed I am.

Jun 23 08 - 7:04pm

Well researched, but does it say anything new?

Jun 24 08 - 6:47pm

I believe that before the diamond became the big engagement stone, it was the sapphire. My close friend has a sapphire engagement ring (her husband researched cruelty free rings) and it's beautiful.

Jun 27 08 - 9:48am

Anti-feminist? The idea of a man using three months of his salary to buy a diamond ring for his fianc

Jul 16 08 - 11:12am

I totally agree with most everything stated in this article, but I do think that there are some somewhat reasonable underpinnings of the broader culture around men making a commitment to women in marriage, symbolized by an expenditure of $$, as much as I find all of it annoying and an impingement on my liberty and wealth, meager as it is.

Our generation clearly wants to wish differences between the sexes away -- for good reason -- but the reality is that women have less reproductive mobility than men (fewer eggs than men have sperm, and a shorter period of time during which to procreate). As a consequence, a man leaving a woman after impregnating her does a woman a much larger disservice than a woman leaving a man. Therefore it's necessary to basically get the guy to do a whole series of things (spend money, make a legal commitment with severe consequences if he breaks it, etc) to decrease the likelihood that he is going to screw the woman over, because she is more vulnerable post conception. It ain't PC, but this is the bottom line.

The diamond industry has exploited this dynamic quite effectively. But if it were not diamonds, we would be encouraged to buy something else. In our case we bought an antique diamond ring (from turn of the century) which is more beautiful in my opinion, holds it's value better, and does nothing for the current debeers clan. But it's still a diamond.

Dec 07 08 - 6:12pm

I would agree that the least expensive way to buy a diamond ring is in the second hand market. However, if that's not your way yo might try the following website:

Feb 14 10 - 6:42pm

wrong article link to print

Nov 20 11 - 5:26pm

Wow I must confess you make some very trenchant pnoits.

Nov 20 11 - 6:05pm

If not for your writing this topic could be very conovltued and oblique.

Nov 21 11 - 2:14pm

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Nov 21 11 - 2:48pm

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Nov 24 11 - 2:41pm

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