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Antidote - Essays

Diamonds Are Forever
March 1, 2004

I want to blame De Beers

by Annie Leyson

When I broke off my first engagement, I began by telling my then-fiancé that the ring he had given me wasn’t right. At the time, I was only twenty and he was twenty-two. He was also shy and awkward—an affliction that was exacerbated by his gushing, late-bloomer love for me. I’d said “yes” because he’d caught me by surprise, but even as I was trying on the ring I knew I’d have to give it back. I was too young to marry, and more importantly, I knew I didn’t love him the way he loved me. Still, it was not until I discovered that the ring had belonged to his mother that I found what to my immature mind seemed like an airtight excuse to break up with him. And although I eventually explained my weightier reasons, I suspect that the way he remembers it is that I was an arrogant bitch who didn’t think his mother’s ring was good enough for her.

Ten years later I’m engaged again, and this time the ring is brand new. The diamond is round, brilliant-cut, 1.7 carats, color grade G, and when examined under a powerful loupe one can discern the slightest inclusion, in the shape of an upturned smile, in its southwest quadrant. The diamond is a beautiful object. Its glitter and symmetry give it an aura of wealth and power.

Text BiteUntil the twentieth century, wealth and power, rather than marriage and love, were the concepts most closely linked to diamonds. The histories of the biggest and most famous diamonds are intertwined with murder, revenge and war—which makes it all the more remarkable to think that today diamonds are popularly associated with a diametrically opposite idea.

My earliest recollection of a diamond as the symbol of marriage dates back to the 1981 televised wedding of Charles and Diana—or perhaps more accurately, to the $400,000 worth of De Beers commercials shown during the event. De Beers is the world’s largest diamond producer, a cunning, often brutal monopoly. This particular advertising blitz was only a miniscule part of its lavishly funded campaign, launched in 1939, to create a “mass mentality in which women would perceive diamonds as an inseparable part of courtship and married life”* and to convince the public that the diamond was “in fact the only acceptable symbol of engagement.” It is to this same campaign that we owe the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever”.

The custom of giving a ring as an engagement gift is at least as old as the ancient Greeks and Romans. We wear the ring on the fourth finger of our left hand because the Romans (who may have heard it from the Egyptians) believed that a special vein connected that finger to the heart. In the Middle Ages, it became common to adorn the engagement ring with gems such as rubies, sapphires and the occasional diamond, but it wasn’t until the unearthing of the massive South African diamond fields in the late nineteenth century, and the subsequent need to create demand for their production, that the convention of the diamond engagement ring was invented.

The cat’s been out of the bag on De Beers for decades, and it’s hard to muster much indignation toward its shady business practices now that Enron, Big Tobacco and other evil empires have taken center stage. Perhaps deservedly, De Beers’s long-running advertising campaign is seen more as a textbook example of flawless marketing than as a cynical exercise in manipulation—so flawless, in fact, that De Beers continues to use the same formulas to this day.

In the early years of its campaign, De Beers enlisted Hollywood studios and their stars, and the wives of social and political leaders, to promote the wearing of diamonds. With the help of high school principals and Girl Scout clubs, it “educated” young ladies about the virtues of diamonds. (Even today, Girl Scout troops continue to benefit from these educational missions). De Beers also targeted men: the infamous two-month’s-salary rule appealed to the male competitive ego by insisting that “the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love”. More recent TV disciples will surely recall the “Shadows” ad campaign (on air since 1993), which was designed to capture “the emotion of giving and receiving a diamond with sophistication and elegance”. (Prepare to gag when you see the latest De Beers TV ads.)

In the last few years, De Beers has begun to pursue the creation of diamond “brands”. It is opening De Beers jewelry shops across the world in the hope that it can generate Text Bitesufficient new demand to keep up with the incessant discovery of new diamond supplies. Ironically, as a diamond owner, I now find myself hoping along with De Beers—after all, no matter how beautiful a diamond is, its dollar value is ultimately tied to the balance between supply and demand, and to the willingness of millions of women like myself to believe that diamonds are not to be resold (or gifted to a son for his own engagement) because they are, indeed, forever.

Six months ago I arrived home one evening to find a trail of white rose petals leading from the foyer thru the living room, up the stairs, into the bedroom and onto the bed. The ring was on my pillow, beside my boyfriend’s head—he had fallen asleep waiting for me.

Now that I’ve told this story over three dozen times, I’ve begun to appreciate in it a simple charm that is missing from the flashier proposals I’ve heard about from friends: overcooked schemes that relied on cleverness to overcome an inherent lack of romantic circumstance. It seems that our first-world, digital-age lives offer little opportunity (or incentive) for the strain of romantic heroism that thrived in the age of exploration, when the origin of diamonds was enshrouded in mystery and adventure, when their discovery was associated with names like Marco Polo and Sinbad and with tales of desert caravans, man-eating serpents and soaring eagles.

There is very little mystery left in the world of diamonds today. Even the mafia-like dealings of De Beers and its collaborators are being voluntarily replaced with clean, government-sanctioned contracts. In any event, what happens at De Beers is of little immediate consequence to the man on the street. As long as he is willing to invest some time in a little research, the actual purchasing of a diamond can be as simple as buying a suit. Widespread use of the “four Cs” to categorize and valuate diamonds, the professional certification of diamonds and the emergence of transparent pricing on the internet have removed any vestiges of complexity—some might say challenge—from the acquisition of a diamond. The only real sacrifice a man will make in obtaining a diamond for his woman will be the amount of debt he will incur to purchase it.

You can’t, then, blame the man who resorts to elaborate ruses to evoke romanticism when an unflappable marketing machine has severely constrained his flexibility to choose the vehicle of his expression, and when efficient markets and technology have stripped his enterprise of any hope for adventure—let alone heroism. Nonetheless, part of me is glad that my fiancé didn’t feel the need to make a big, artificial production of his proposal. Another part of me, however, begrudges him—and myself, too—the conventionality of our engagement, the mindless way in which we have caved into this empty De Beers tradition, grasping onto it as if to save ourselves from the failure of our imaginations, or from the recklessness of deviating from the norm.

I often think of my grandmother and her ring. When we were kids, grandma loved to tell my brother and me stories about grandpa, especially the story of how he had proposed to her at her favorite restaurant. I loved listening to the happy inflection in her voice and watching the way her eyes softened and sometimes teared up as she took off her ring to let us try it on. It was not until after her death that my mother told me the real story: Grandpa had been too cheap to give her a ring, so after he died, grandma took some of the insurance money and bought herself an engagement ring. Then she made up the proposal story.

I doubt my grandmother ever worried about crafty De Beers or about being another victim of their brainwashing campaign. She probably didn’t even know what De Beers was. Sometimes I think I should try to emulate her and ignore what I know, but I’m much too proud, and my feelings are too convoluted, to let myself do so.

Text BiteFor starters, there’s my disturbing complicity. My interest in De Beers and the history of engagement rings began years ago, when I decided to explore the roots of my petty behavior during my prior engagement. And yet, even though I’ve long known all about De Beers’s manipulating schemes, I did not, for example, tell my fiancé that I didn’t want an engagement ring, or that he shouldn’t buy a diamond, or that he should ignore the two-month rule.

Then there’s the matter of my obsession with the ring as a physical object. I’ve had it for half a year and I still can’t stop stealing glances at it, admiring it when I think no one can see me. It continues to occupy a more constant and prominent share of my mind than any other thing I’ve owned. Against all rational consideration, I confess that, because I am engaged, I feel, at the same time, entitled and compelled to wear it.

At this point, I must state the obvious: I know that this ring doesn’t change our relationship. It doesn’t make me love my fiancé more, it doesn’t increase the chances that we will succeed as a couple, it doesn’t heighten my confidence in his commitment. If he had not given it to me, I would love him no less and I would still have accepted his marriage proposal.

So, if the ring contributes nothing to my relationship, if its purported symbolism is a hollow corporate invention, why am I as attached to it as my grandmother was to hers?

My fiancé and I have known each other for at least three years, two of those as a couple and the last one traveling and living together. I have never known someone more intimately, yet I can still be surprised by him, especially when we’re not alone. I see him with his friends, with his parents, and there is a hint of foreignness there, a foolishness that rarely surfaces between us, or old tensions I’ve seldom witnessed. I am reminded that I know us better than I know him, and then I wonder how much of him I don’t yet know, how much I will never understand.

His proposal and the ring have turned my abstract musings into concrete questions. Most of these, admittedly, are overblown. I ask myself, for example, if he thought that it was absolutely necessary to give me a ring in order to propose. Did he decide that he had to prove his love to me, and if so, does that mean he thinks I doubt his love? Or maybe his purpose was not to prove his love, but to compensate for not feeling enough of it. Would this explain why he selected such a large stone? Or was the choice of size purely a macho impulse, an unspoken contest with his friends who have recently gotten engaged?

More than once I have been on the verge of asking him why he gave me the ring. I’ve held back because I cannot find a way to pose the question without the risk of hurting his feelings, and because his answer will not reassure me in any way. I know I am unfairly projecting my own ambivalent feelings about the diamond ring onto him.

In the 1970s, market research conducted for De Beers showed that “men were not moved to part with their earnings by the value, aesthetics, or tradition of diamonds, but by the expectation that a ‘gift of love’ would enhance their standing in the eyes of their beloved.” I suspect this motivation is closest to the truth for my boyfriend: he was catering to my expectations, real or perceived. But if he was only doing what was expected of him, by society or by his girlfriend, is the ring then just a fancy, overpriced gift with no true emotional significance for him? Is it, in fact, the worthless piece of carbon crystal that I know it to be? And if so, again, why am I so attached to it?

A few weeks ago, I finally managed to forget my ring. I placed it on the soap dish and left it there when I suddenly recalled I was late for a lunch appointment. It took more effort than I expected to keep myself from turning the car around once I noticed the naked finger on the steering wheel. My lunch date, an old friend from nursing school who had just learned of the engagement, asked to see the ring. When I told her I had forgotten it she stared at me as if I’d grown a third breast. In five years of marriage, she said, I have never forgotten my ring.

Text BiteAt different times in the last six months, when I have found it necessary to justify to myself my use of the ring, I have concluded that I wear it to please my fiancé. But the reality is that I wear it more for my benefit than his. That day at lunch I mocked my friend’s seriousness—It’s just a ring, I told her—even though I couldn’t help running my fingers over the empty spot, or reprimanding myself for leaving it behind. I began to wonder if my forgetfulness, as my friend seemed to imply, was an omen of waning commitment to my fiancé. And if so, was I letting myself believe that my internal vow to avoid such forgetfulness again would really serve to forestall an unfortunate future?

This tortuous and surprising emotional attachment to my ring is coupled with the fear that, by accepting it as a symbol of our love and our relationship, I have also, unintentionally, accepted a bribe. I worry that we may have embarked on a pattern of mutual corruption—a pattern that I have observed in my parents, and between my brother and me. At first the gift supplements love, but eventually it substitutes it, and in the end, it buys it. It begins with the diamond engagement ring, but De Beers has a lifetime of diamonds in store for us: the first anniversary this, the fifth anniversary that, the tennis bracelet, the three-stone necklace, the ear studs, the eternity ring.

My mother often complained that grandmother kept grandpa alive with her ring, and that she used that illusion, and its accompanying illusory happiness, as an excuse to avoid finding another man with whom she could live out her years. I, too, have been tempted to conclude that grandma’s happiness was a fabrication, yet it is simplistic to presume that just because her desire to own her diamond can probably be traced to De Beers, that the happiness it brought her was any less real, or any less her own.

De Beers established the association between a diamond’s size and the amount of love, between the act of giving it and the implication of commitment, and most of all, between the physical properties of the rock and the chimera of permanence. This last association is especially galling. Every time I see “A Diamond Is Forever” in a magazine ad, I want to scream because De Beers has co-opted my fundamental need for stability and tainted it with greed and cheapened it by turning it into advertising fodder. I want to blame De Beers for making me feel like a weak-minded victim of mass marketing when I can’t help hoping for what it wants me to hope for.

I want to get angry at De Beers, to accuse it of manipulating my grandmother and me and every single woman I know. I think of locking up my ring in a box and never wearing it again. I think of selling it on eBay. But nothing I do to my diamond will extinguish my worries or suppress my selfishness or sort out my contradictions. Protesting against De Beers by refusing to wear my ring, or to ever buy another diamond, will not make me any less susceptible to its subliminal messages, nor will it change the fact that I was once too vain to accept a ring that had belonged to someone’s mother, or that I don’t know the man I am about to marry as well as I’d like, or that our relationship sometimes feels too scripted and mundane and adult.

Like my grandmother, I have invested the ring with my illusions. Unlike her, I have also invested it with my misgivings. As much as I’m attached to those illusions and to the avoidance of those misgivings, I am attached to the ring. And when I wake up each morning and put it on, I do so knowing that if I let my fears come true, if I fail to realize my hopes, I won’t have anyone to blame but myself—and I won’t be suing De Beers for false advertising, either.



END NOTES:

*Unless otherwise noted, quoted material is borrowed from Edward Epstein’s excellent, though dated, book, The Rise and Fall of Diamonds (Simon and Schuster, NY, 1982), which provides a fascinating account of De Beers’s incredibly successful marketing strategy.

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