I’d always vaguely known that the diamond trade was almost entirely under the control of a single company, De Beers, but I hadn’t fully grasped what that meant until I read this old Atlantic article from 1982. Excellent piece, if long. It’s a bit out of date, but the story it tells–about how De Beers almost single-handedly created the modern equation of diamonds with romance–remains relevant. Particularly interesting is this bit about how the advertising companies adjusted the way they marketed diamonds in the late 70s, after “diamonds are forever” had been around already for thirty years:
Through a series of “projective” psychological questions, meant “to draw out a respondent’s innermost feelings about diamond jewelry,” the study attempted to examine further the semi-passive role played by women in receiving diamonds. The male-female roles seemed to resemble closely the sex relations in a Victorian novel. “Man plays the dominant, active role in the gift process. Woman’s role is more subtle, more oblique, more enigmatic….” The woman seemed to believe there was something improper about receiving a diamond gift. Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as “flashy, gaudy, overdone” and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that “Buried in the negative attitudes … lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success.” It noted, for example, “A woman can easily feel that diamonds are ‘vulgar’ and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry.” The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence—and the diamond.
Does this remind anyone else of Sartre’s “bad faith,” with his example of the woman on a first date who refuses to either acknowledge or reject her date’s advances? What I take from this is: De Beers’ campaigns have been so successful, it no longer matters that you know about them, because your conscious rejection of them is just a bad faith attempt to cover up your hidden desire for them. Diamonds aren’t worth very much, and we only associate them with romance because advertisers have told us to make that connection, but even if you know this, you still have to buy a diamond ring when you get engaged, because even if your fiancee would never do that herself (she knows as well as you do that they’re not worth it), she’ll still enjoy your having done it.
What makes this sad, to my mind, is that diamonds really are associated with some powerful symbolism, or they were before De Beers got to them. But of course the same can be said of, e.g., Valentine’s Day, or really anything related to romance in the age of capitalism. I used reject all of these sorts of things out of hand–and I could get away with it, being single; but since getting engaged and now married it’s a lot more difficult, not because my wife is a zombie who wants what “they” tell her to want, but because love has to be expressed through conventions. When you try to throw them out and be completely authentic you end up with nothing. For example, you throw out all the diamonds, losing sight of the fact that they’re fascinating despite their trumped-up romantic symbolism.