A Diamond is a Girl’s Best Friend
"Diamonds have been used to seal engagements for centuries."
In the United States, 80% of men who propose marriage to a woman do so by presenting her with a diamond engagement ring, the average one costing around $4,000. Proposing with a diamond ring is such a part of the Western mindset that most people think it was always that way.
While there is some minor historical precedent for the practice—the diamond industry likes to point out that the future Emperor Maximilian I of Austria gave his bride Mary of Burgundy a diamond engagement ring in 1477—it wasn't widespread until the late 1930s. And that sudden popularity of diamonds for engagements has more than a little to do with De Beers.
A 1982 expose in The Atlantic chronicles the tale of how De Beers manipulated public opinion. In the late 1930s, the price of diamonds was falling worldwide, thanks to the Great Depression. If De Beers couldn't stop that by manipulating supply alone, they would have to manipulate demand as well. With war looming in Europe, there was little potential for expanding the market there, so De Beers Chairman Harry Oppenheimer went to New York in 1938 to consider possibilities in the US.
Diamond sales in America had been declining steadily since the end of World War I. When Americans did buy diamonds, they were smaller and of lesser quality than what De Beers was selling in Europe. 90% of diamonds sold in the US were for engagement rings, but the typical price paid was just $80. Public perception still strongly equated diamonds with the aristocratic and fabulously wealthy.
Oppenheimer hired leading advertising agency NW. Ayer to encourage Americans to shell out their savings for something they didn't need and weren’t particularly interested in buying. So NW. Ayer undertook the task of remaking the diamond's image. It had to convince young Americans that diamonds expressed a level of devotion that was prerequisite for any marriage commitment. Not only that, your level of devotion and commitment is proportionate to the size and cost of the diamond.
Soon the American media showed images and stories of celebrities presenting diamond rings to their fiancées, particularly stressing the large size of the stones. Fashion designers and commentators discussed the trend toward diamonds and artful advertisements equated these stones with works of art. N.W. Ayer advertised famous socialites who were engaged and sported diamond engagement rings. The agency even arranged lecturers to tour the country and speak to high school girls about diamond engagement rings.
There was no mention of advertising diamonds for sale, just the image of the gem as an integral part of the process of getting married. N.W. Ayer often included references to "the engagement diamond tradition" in its portrayals. There was no such tradition, but it came into existence now.
In 1948, a young copywriter at N.W. Ayer named Mary Frances Gerety coined the phrase that would become the De Beers official motto: "A diamond is forever." It encapsulated De Beers' vision that diamonds should be equated with lasting emotion and permanence. That slogan has been named the best marketing phrase of the 20th century and is studied by marketing experts for its incredible success and longevity.
The campaign reversed market trends within three years. While diamond sales had been on a steady downward trend since the end of World War I, in 1941 they were already up 55% In 1951, N.W. Ayer reported that "jewelers tell us 'a girl isn't engaged unless she has a diamond ring.- About 80% of American brides already wore a diamond ring, a level true to this day. And in 1979, 40 years into the campaign, De Beers' sales of diamonds to the US had soared from $23 million to an astonishing $2.1 billion—an increase of over 9,000%! De Beers didn't stop there. Japan became an up-and-coming economy in the post-war world, but Western traditions were largely unknown. Most marriages were still arranged by parents, as they had been for centuries. There was no tradition of an engagement ring. Undaunted, De Beers launched a campaign in 1967, touting diamonds as a symbol of Western values. Attractive advertisements in Japanese magazines showed Western women in fashionable Western clothes engaged in Western-style activities such as camping or biking—all showing off a diamond ring. The campaign was an unprecedented success. In just 10 years, Japan became a $1 billion-a-year diamond market, second only to the US. In 1981, 60% of Japanese brides wore diamond rings, up from less than 5% in 1967.
De Beers was forced to adapt again with the emergence of Soviet diamonds in the late 1950s. The cartel bought up large stocks of Siberian diamonds to maintain its control. The problem was that it now had a supply of millions of high-quality diamonds, most of which were just .25 carats or less. There was no market for such small stones since engagement rings "traditionally" were set with a single larger diamond. So the marketing strategy was revised to emphasize quality oversize, with advertisements now showing women wearing rings with smaller stones.
When the US market for engagement diamonds maxed out, De Beers didn't give up. It just invented yet another new market. Diamonds became the appropriate way to reaffirm a marriage commitment again later in life. (This was a tacit admission that diamonds are not forever, but few people caught on.) This was to be done with an "eternity ring," a band with a line of tiny diamonds circling it for husbands to give their wives later in life. They were set with 25 of the small diamonds.