“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”
You may have heard the phrase, which was sung by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) as an ode to the world’s most luxurious stone. And while diamonds today are a luxury item worldwide, the humble rock has travelled across the world over millennia as it charted its course to become the world’s most popular rock for engagement rings.
A “diamond” – derived from the Greek word “adamas” meaning “unconquerable” (referring to its hardness) – is typically formed deep in the earth under extreme heat and pressure and ejected violently upward to the earth’s surface. Many of our planet’s diamonds also originated from space – these are deposited via asteroid impacts billions of years ago, creating diamonds called carbonado.
No matter what the source, the history of diamonds as a gem begins in Asia 2,400 years ago.
India: 4th century BC
Diamonds were once gathered from the country’s rivers and streams, making India the world’s first producer of diamonds. The limited quantities meant that diamonds were only for the very wealthy, but gradually the diamonds made their way to Western Europe via trade caravans that travelled to Venice’s medieval markets.
Europe: 1400s to 1700s
From here, diamonds moved onto Bruges, and then to Antwerp, which became the centre of the diamond trade in Europe. By the 1400s, diamonds became fashionable accessories for Europe’s elite.
By the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had a near monopoly on the diamond industry – while the Dutch kept the best stones for their own diamond cutters, they sent Antwerp inferior-quality rough diamonds. However, they managed to transform these rocks into fine gems, giving them a reputation as a diamond centre.
In the early 1700s, as India’s diamond supplies began to decline, Brazil emerged as an important source. The country dominated the diamond market for more than 150 years, bringing increasing affluence to western Europe and the US.
South Africa and Botswana: 1800s to 1900s
The 1866 discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, South Africa really took things international. Over the next few years, South Africa yielded more diamonds than India had in over 2,000 years.
By 1888, diamonds were so prolific that they weren’t considered “rare stones”, so the folks behind the South African mines realised that the diamond market would be saturated if they didn’t do anything about it. So they set two audacious goals.
First, they monopolised diamond production by creating the De Beers company. By 1900, it controlled an estimated 90% of the world’s diamonds through its mines in South Africa. In 1982, it acquired Botswana’s diamond mines, which at the time was second in the world in diamond value.
De Beer’s second goal: stabilise the diamond market. To succeed, they had to control both supply and demand – they did the latter through an advertising agency called N.W. Ayer, who created what’s possibly the world’s greatest PR stunt amid a global economy that was suffering.
Europe was on the verge of war in the 1900s, so De Beers chose to market to the US. Since diamonds lose half their value once you buy them, the campaign had to keep people from reselling them, so the campaign latched onto something emotional, socially valuable, and eternal: love and marriage.
The plan was to create a situation where marriage proposals require a diamond engagement ring. During the campaign, the agency created a buzz in the media with celebrity proposals, and the now-famous slogan “diamonds are forever” was coined.
In the 1930s, the campaigns suggested spending one month’s salary on an engagement ring; it was reset to two months’ salary in the 1980s. The ad’s tagline? “Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?”
The “two months’ salary rule” is still widely accepted in the US today, where more than 78% of engagement rings sold have diamonds. So whether you see diamonds as the biggest scam in history, or ingenious marketing, the De Beers advertising campaign was so successful, it dominated the jewellery industry for a good 80 years.
Blood diamond, aka conflict diamond, was coined during the 1990s, when brutal civil wars were being waged in parts of western and central Africa by rebel groups. Diamonds mined in rebel-controlled areas were sold in the open market, with proceeds used to buy arms for the rebel groups.
Worldwide concern arose, prompting the UN Security Council to implicate De Beers (which controlled 60% of the world’s diamonds) and Antwerp, world’s largest diamond market, in 2000. In 2003, the Kimberley Process was developed specifically to verify whether diamonds were “conflict-free.”
Death of Diamonds: 2000s
Many consumers still doubted the Kimberley Process certification process, which impacted the sales of diamonds worldwide.
Today, retail sales of diamonds is slowing globally as a younger generation of consumers seem less attached to diamonds than their parents. According to research by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, millennials tend to be more value conscious, more concerned with sustainability and ethical production, and often value unique and individual products. Millennials also prefer to spend money on experiences, like travel and dining.
Because diamonds are associated with weddings, its slump can also be attributed to the fact that millennials are marrying later (or not at all). Plus, some couples are opting for more gemstone engagement rings, such as sapphires, or lab-grown diamonds.
“Diamonds are forever” may be a popular slogan that spurred a James Bond movie and a soundtrack of the same name, but with the current trajectory, how long will “forever” last?