How Diamonds Became Forever

About to get married? Chances are you've put some thought into an engagement ring. It is now commonly suggested that a wedding ring should be a diamond and should cost roughly 2 months salary. But how and when did this come to be?

The diamond invention—the fabrication of the idea that diamonds are rare, valuable and a sign of status is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade. Up until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were found in a few riverbeds in India and in the jungles of Brazil and that's about it. In fact, the entire world production of gem diamonds amounted to a few pounds a year. In 1870, however, massive diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa and all of a sudden, diamonds were being scooped out by the ton. The market was flooded with diamonds. The British financiers who had operated the South African mines realized that the investment that they made in diamonds was at risk for two reasons. The first being that diamonds had little to no intrinsic value and the second being that their price depended entirely on their scarcity. The fear was that when new mines were developed in South Africa, diamonds would become far less scarce and far less precious. How did they deal with this?

To solve for the scarcity problem, in 1888, British investors created De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now De Beers) while meticulously extending the company's dominance over all operations of the diamond trade. This allowed them to have nearly complete control over the supply of diamonds and maintain the facade that diamonds were a scarcity.

To solve for the lack of intrinsic value, they had to find a way to manipulate the demand of diamonds. In1938, De Beers hired New York–based ad agency N.W. Ayer who helped create an advertising campaign that essentially invented the diamond ring. In fact, in the 1930's, almost nobody proposed with a diamond ring - a fact that would soon change. 

N.W. Ayer set out to persuade young men that diamonds (and diamonds alone) meant romance, and that the measure of a man's love (and even his personal and professional success) was equivalent to the size and quality of the diamond he bought. Young women also had to be convinced that true courtship was not possible without a diamond - messages that N.W. Ayer crammed into all areas of popular culture. 

Then, in the late 1940's a slogan that famous slogan was born - "a diamond is forever". To coincide with De Beers advertising budget increasing from roughly $200,000 to $10 million a year between 1939 and 1979, they also witnessed saw sales in the US increase from $23 million to $2.1 billion.

Check out the percent of First-Time Brides Who Receive Diamond Engagement Rings over time:

Citigroup/De Beers

Citigroup/De Beers