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.