Forever is for Chumps. Shiny Things Are for Cats.

Thinking about tying the knot? First off, ew, all I can picture is open bathroom doors and toenail clippings. Secondly, I get it, you’re happy and for some bizarre reason you want to form a union that has a 33% chance of failure (a statistic that doubles if you’re under the age of 25). Best of luck. Do as you please though, all I am going to say is; steer clear of the pretty rocks.  Marilyn Monroe lied to you. To be fair, it was a long time ago and she had super gorgeous hair. However, diamonds are not your best friend. Not even close.

The diamond invention, that is, the idea that diamonds are rare, valuable, and an essential symbol of love and commitment, is only a recent construct in the history of the diamond trade. Until the end of the nineteenth century, diamonds were only found in a few small riverbeds in India and in the jungles of Brazil. The entire world production of diamonds amounted to only a few kilograms per year. As a result, the industry was tightly controlled.

However, in 1870, enormous diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River in South Africa. Diamonds were being scooped out by the tonne and the market was suddenly flooded. The British financiers initiating the South African mines quickly realised that their investment was endangered and began to wet themselves a little. Diamonds had little intrinsic value and as a result their price depended almost exclusively upon their scarcity.

Thus, the major investors decided, after careful and calculated deliberation, to merge their interests into a single entity that would be powerful enough to both control production and perpetuate the illusion of scarcity. The product of such collaboration birthed in 1888 and is known as De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd.

As De Beers took control of every aspect of the global diamond trade it assumed many facades. In London it operated under the benign name of the Diamond Trading Company. In Israel, it was known only as “The Syndicate.” In Europe, it was called the “C.S.O.”, standing for the Central Selling Organisation. Finally, in other areas of Africa, it disguised its South African origins under subsidiaries with names like Diamond Development Corporation. At De Beers’ height (the majority of the twentieth century), it controlled all of the diamond mines in Southern Africa but also owned trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.

This all turned out to be just a really, really good idea. De Beers became the most successful cartel in the history of recent commerce. While other commodities, such as gold, silver, copper, rubber and grains fluctuated wildly in response to global economic conditions throughout the century (particularly the Great Depression and the Second World War), diamonds continued to advance upward in price.

However, this was still not enough. De Beers was seeking economic security, as well as a monopoly on the mineral itself. Consequently, they did much more than organise a structure for the supply of diamonds. Supply, no matter how well it’s managed, being nothing without demand. In 1938, De Beers united with the New York based advertising agency N. W. Ayer who immediately began to foster an international appetite for diamonds. One principle objective of their campaigns was to tackle the issue of returning sold diamonds on the market.

This is where things get interesting. The key to ensuring that sold diamonds did not return to the market and thus overwhelm supply, was to endow them with emotional value. To do this N. W. Ayer enlisted the help of the rich and famous. Movie stars decked in diamond-studded engagement rings epitomised the gem’s fairy tale: glamour, financial success, true love and commitment. In 1947, De Beers coined the now renowned slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”.

Now, where does all the quality-clarity-colour-cut rubbish come from? Well, when diamonds were discovered in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, De Beers quickly partnered with the local traders to control sales by absorbing the flow. Because the USSR diamonds were very small, De Beers and N. W. Ayer refocussed their marketing effort. No longer was a big diamond presented as the quintessential symbol of love. Value in a diamond became determined by quality, colour and cut. So that sales in larger diamonds didn’t cease as a result of this new distinction, they ran parallel, contradictory campaigns placing status upon the larger diamonds as well. No-one seemed to notice though because let’s be honest, people are easily distracted by shiny things.

All in all, De Beers and N. W. Ayer were market masterminds. When N. W. Ayer had partnered with De Beers in 1939, diamond sales were stagnant at 23 million. By 1979, sales were at 2.1 billion.

So go ahead, run head first into the bizarre institution of marriage, or civil union if you are not yet afforded that right by the jokers in charge. However, be aware that, post break up, if you ever try to sell a diamond ring, you may struggle to get even a quarter of what you paid for it.