For young women today, receiving a diamond ring with a proposal is an important, even expected, tradition. The ring symbolizes love and commitment, the beginning of a life together. Their mother received a diamond engagement ring and their grandmother, and so on down the line. It is the universal symbol of love and has been for generations.
Of course, these young women might be surprised to learn that the history behind that ring isn’t quite as rich and long-standing as they believe. In fact, this tradition is simply the result of an extremely successful advertising campaign in the 1940s.
The average consumer believes that diamonds are very rare; the rarest, in fact, of all gemstones. This is untrue. And In the early 1900s, when DeBeers controlled the diamond industry, there came to be a surplus of diamonds. DeBeers needed a way to market them.
In the 1930‘s they turned to an American advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son. Before this time, diamond rings were rarely given as engagement rings. Within years a diamond ring was the norm, expected by women being courted women nationwide.
So what happened?
In short: they decided that diamonds should symbolize romance, and so they made it happen.
The campaign started with the rich and famous. DeBeers gave young Hollywood actresses large diamond rings, then watched them gush about the jewelry to the press. They arranged to have diamond-centric scenes in movies; the handsome young hero would hold out a beautiful diamond ring when he asked for his lady’s hand. DeBeers arranged for photographs of celebrities with diamond rings, then printed them in newspapers and magazines. They had product placement on television, and trend reports on the radio. They also sent representatives to home economic classes to teach teenage girls about the connection between diamonds and eternal love. With each advertising move, the goal was to make the diamond not only a status symbol but a measure of a young man’s love for his girlfriend.
These tactics were an excellent start, but it wasn’t until 1947 that the campaign really took hold. A copywriter at N.W. Ayer & Son created the slogan “A diamond is forever,” which completely revitalized the diamond market. With this campaign, the general public learned that a diamond will never break or lose value, thus it’s the ideal representation of an unbreakable bond between two people. Because of this romantic association, women would never want to sell their diamonds. Additionally, a mother wouldn’t simply pass her diamond ring down to her daughter; she would get her own upon her engagement. This meant that very few diamonds entered the aftermarket. Even after death, the sentimental value would keep descendants from selling a diamond ring. This has kept the market wide open for brand new diamonds ever since.
This article was contributed by Frank Fisher.