How Marketers Made (and Remade) Diamonds a Girl’s Best Friend

Diamonds – universally recognized as a token of status, wealth, power, and above all romance. It’s absurd actually, considering their lack of inherent value, but the intrigue around diamonds, or rather the myth market, has made them an inseparable and indispensible part of courtship and love. 

Some say the concept of the engagement ring has roots in ancient Egypt where rings were worn on the third finger of the left hand, believed to be connected directly to the heart through a vein. The concept is said to have spread to Rome in the second century BC where rings made of iron or gold were given to brides-to-be. In the middle ages, the engagement ring became a part of religious history when a letter from Pope Nicholas 1 described the token as a “ring of faith.”

Although diamonds had been found and shared in India since the 4th century, it was not until 1866, when a family of farmers came upon them on the banks of Orange River in South Africa, that diamond mining became a modern industry. This led to the subsequent diamond mine craze, with competitors attempting to out-produce each other and flooding the market with the stones. The abundance and availability caused the price of diamonds to plummet and even the less affluent could afford to purchase them.

So why do we hold these little white stones in such high esteem? 

By the 19th century, the token was defined in its purpose as having purely functional benefits – essentially acting as a retainer. This was a time when women were likened to property. An engagement was hardly romantic, but rather a business contract to give the bride-to-be insurance that her virginity could be entrusted to the man, and a law called the “Breach of Promise to Marry” allowed women to sue men for breaking it off and tainting their reputation (not to mention their market value).

De Beers Consolidated Mines was founded in 1888 as a response to the market flooding in order to control all diamond production. After closing mines during the Great Depression, by 1938 De Beers was looking to push the product again. American popular opinion during the rough economic time was that diamonds were a luxury that only the ultra-rich could afford and provided no functional benefit – they were a gross waste of money. In this decade, states began striking down the “Breach of Promise to Marry” law and the 1940s saw a societal shift – more couples were having premarital sex and the notion of an engagement ring as a form of security in a business transaction was unnecessary. 

The response was the creation of the diamond narrative. Diamonds were explained to society as a necessity to engagements and tokens of love and affection. Giving a woman a diamond signifies that she is loved in a special way. On the flipside, a woman who never gifted a diamond is somehow seen as “less loved,” having missed an important milestone in her life.  Sales of diamonds subsequently increased by 55% by 1941.

“A Diamond is Forever’ was born in 1947, with the advertising agency in charge arbitrarily setting the appropriate cost of two months salary for a diamond ring. This immediately linked how much a man spent on a diamond with how successful he was – a very deep and personal connection to a man’s sense of masculinity and pride. If he wasn’t spending big bucks on his fiancé-to-be (or, heaven forbid, not buying her a diamond at all), he was less of a man and clearly not worthy of the relationship or hypothetical family.

Fast-forward to today – the modern woman has more spending power than ever before, and gender roles in society continue to shift so the old token of virginity-insurance is sure to become obsolete, right?

Well, the discourse now draws upon history (rather selectively) and iconic love stories (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, anyone?) to re-imagine the diamond narrative. Rather than eliminating diamonds from the equation altogether, the discourse has been altered to diamonds symbolizing strength, beauty, and power. They now also serve as a representation of self-love and empowerment – and women are buying diamonds for themselves!

Considering its backwards and sexist history, the diamond myth with its changing narrative has managed to achieve the ultimate goal of indispensability through its agility in being linked to everlasting love.

Shereen Ladha, Khalil Hamzo, and Jerry Liu are MBA Students in the new Customer Experience Design course at the Schulich School of Business at York University. 

ERRATUM: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that diamonds hadn't been discovered until in 1866. However, this date only refers to the beginning of diamond mining as a modern industry in Africa. Following Johnson (2002), "[t]he story of diamonds in Africa began between December 1866 and February 1867, when a 15-year-old found a transparent stone on his father's farm, on the south bank of the Orange River".