DeBeers and the Creation of the Myth of the Diamond Engagement Ring

Were it not for a single company and its drive to dominate the diamond industry, the history of engagement rings would be very different.

In Western society today, a man’s love and commitment is measured by the size of the diamond he places on his beloved’s finger. Diamonds are said to represent true love, faithfulness, and the strength of your relationship. They are also believed to be the rarest of all gemstones. The reality is in fact significantly less romantic.

Diamond engagement rings, which are so commonplace as to be almost passé these days, actually rose to popularity in the early to mid-1900s, thanks in no small part to Harry Oppenheimer, the son of the founder of what, according to Gemnation would become,

 [T]he most successful cartel of the twentieth century – De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. The South African company incorporated in 1888, during the burgeoning local diamond rush. At its formation and over the ensuing years, De Beers would successfully acquire countless interests in diamond mines and production facilities throughout the world.

Oppenheimer, in a stroke of genius, contacted N.W. Ayer & Son, one of the leading advertising agencies in the US in the 1930s. Their goal was to reverse the declining price of diamonds with an advertising campaign that aimed to strengthen the association of diamonds with romance and enduring love.

Young men, who purchased 90% of engagement rings, would be bombarded with the idea that diamonds were the gift of love … Women, too, would be targeted with the idea that no courtship would be complete without a sparkling diamond. Famous houses of worship were featured in follow up advertisements, establishing a link between diamonds and the sacred tradition of a religious wedding.

The marketing plan designed specifically for DeBeers by N.W. Ayer & Son included many different aspects to saturate the media and culture with diamonds. Photos of engages socialites wearing their new diamond rings, stories and advertisements with celebrities for newspapers and magazines wearing DeBeers diamonds, were all carefully planned to push the idea that “diamonds were eternal, forever linked with romance, emotionally valued, and a necessary luxury.”

The agency even used its significant influence to strategically modify scripts for films and movie titles to more prominently feature diamonds. All of these tactics were so successful that in 1941, only three years after the beginning of their very subtle and expertly executed campaign, diamond sales in the US had risen an amazing 55%. And by the end of the 1950s, 20 years after they had started, the American public had been influenced into believing a diamond engagement ring was a vital and necessary part of the “engagement ritual.”

Before the 20th century, the engagement ritual in Western society consisted of two stages, first a man asked a woman for her hand in marriage, if she agreed he would then meet with her father to ask for his consent and blessing. After years of inspired and brilliant marketing initiatives by DeBeers and Ayer however, the ritual has changed forever. It now centers on the giving of a diamond ring, and has forever changed the perception and by extension the value of diamonds themselves. They are now considered the symbol of wealth, luxury, esteem, and above all, true romance.

This belief is so deeply ingrained in 21st century society that according to Credit.com the average engagement ring costs about $5,200 and more than 12% of couples spend over $8,000 for a diamond engagement ring.  In fact, they explain that an entire industry just to finance what so many have come to consider a necessity has developed specifically for those of us who don’t have that kind of money just laying around. They say, “All of the major jewelry stores offer financing, with many of them promoting interest-free financing for six to 12 months.” However, as they go on to point out, there is a catch. If you miss a payment, or are unable to pay off the balance before the end of the grace period, you will end up paying a whole lot more than the original price of the ring.

Credit.com explains that with most, if not all of the financing plans offered, if you make even one late payment or fail to pay the full balance during the promotional period, the interest will be charged from the original date of purchase, not from the end of the promotional period. For example,

Jared: 0% interest if paid in full within 12 months; up to 24.99%.

Kay Jewelers: 0% interest if paid in full within 12 months; up to 24.99%.

Shane and Company: 0% interest if paid in full in 6 months; 27.99%

Zales: 0% interest if paid in full in 6 months; 23.73% to 28.99%

So while the interest-free financing may seem like the best way to go, it only works if you are able to pay off the full amount before the promotional period ends. And although you, or your intended may have your heart set on the most gorgeous ring your money can buy, it’s important to remember that you can’t put a price on true love. Also, the belief that giving a diamond engagement ring is a time honored tradition in Western culture, is in reality a very carefully executed marketing scheme engineered by the very companies that stand to make a profit.

Photo: stephend9/Flickr

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About Kathryn DeHoyos

Kathryn DeHoyos currently resides on the outskirts of Austin, TX. She has 2 beautiful children, and is very happily un-married to her life partner DJ.

Comments

  1. One quibble: this is the second post I’ve seen recently (another one was from Chloe Angyal at New York Magazine) where it is asserted that *couples* spend X dollars on engagement rings. I don’t know what the precise statistics on this are, but I’d estimate that 95% of engagement rings are purchased by the husband-to-be.

    • Chuck, I would love to know the actual statistic on how couples pay for their engagement/wedding rings. My husband and I share the cost of “our” rings. Yeah…I get to wear the big ol’ diamond but it’s just as much his as it is mine. I’d hate to think we were in a tiny 5% minority but, who knows?

      Statistics anyone?

      • The stats would be interesting. After a quick google search I came up with nothing. All the debates seem to be about how much the groom to be should spend (most popular, one month’s salary), but I’m sure at least some couples share the cost.

  2. Yeah, quite a scam. Thanks for the heads up.

    • And guess how much difference this knowledge is going to make with regard to women’s expectation of diamonds as ‘proof of your love’? (Hint: Zero.)

  3. During World War II De Beers had it within their power to deny Germany the industrial diamonds they needed to make weapons of war. They let the diamonds flow to the Third Reich. And De Beers over-charged the United States for industrial diamonds, profiteering from the war. Even while doing this they had the audacity to advertise in the U.S. “Buy our gems, because they pay for mining which produces the industrial diamonds America needs to win the war.”

    Think how many fewer people might have died if De Beers had been done the moral and right thing during this tragic time rather than pad their profits.

    For more information see:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/transcripts/1209.html

  4. I really really don’t like stones that stick up out of rings (snag on everything in my world). I really am not a fan of diamonds since they haven’t completely addressed the conflict diamond issue. It fascinates me how engagement rings have evolved over the years (even recent years) in general. For a long time I didn’t know many people would get the “set” of wedding band and engagement ring. Kind of makes me thinks more women are picking out their own engagement rings so they get the appropriate matching set of diamonds in their wedding bands. Most of the women I talk to freely admit that their now husbands popped the question but they bought the ring together ahead of time to assure the right ring was bought.

    These ring sets kind of turn of me off too because I don’t like wide banded stuff on my fingers like that and they look like they’re a little much when it’s all said and done. Little bit dated and a gawdy to me.

    DeBeers also manipulates the industry by flooding it with diamonds they have too much of. So you’ll see a huge advertising push toward large stones for awhile. Then suddenly you’ll see a push toward jewelry speckled with lots of tiny stones instead of the large stones.

  5. Alyssa Royse says:

    This is such a pet-peeve of mine. Here’s an old post that I wrote about it, http://alyssaroyse.wordpress.com/2008/03/11/please-dont-buy-me-diamonds-anymore/. And, true to form, At our wedding last weekend, my husband graced my finger with a $26 sterling band to go with the $36 sterling and Peridot (my daughter’s birth stone) engagement ring that he gave me. Perfect. Inexpensive, and if I lose them, it won’t be a big deal. For that matter, we can change them up whenever we want. Or go without. ;)

  6. Money is a fictional human construct. Love and marriage might be, but if you’re living in it you really shouldn’t believe that. Which is why I’ve always believed that if I loved someone enough to want to marry them, I’d dig the ore and stone from the Earth myself with my own two hands and I’d forge the ring myself. Maybe in that mine fire in Pennsylvania. Also, maybe fight some ninjas or some MMA guys along the way just to make it a little challenging. It’s just because to me, if I don’t love someone enough to want to do all that, why am I marrying them? I mean there are those penguins that hunt for the shiniest pebble and then spend forever kicking it through the dirt and snow to smooth it out even more to present to a mate. Like I’m going to let a penguin that doesn’t even have opposable thumbs be more romantic than me?

  7. When I was engaged, I found a ring online I fell in love with for about $30 and my partners was $20. I ended up buying them both. Cheap thrills :D Its the fact that you have some sort of shiny symbol I guess. I couldn’t care less about diamonds or silver or gold. The engagement broke off some years ago, and I still have that $30 ring. Haha

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