It’s 1947 and getting late. Frances Gerety glances at the clock, then shuffles the ads she’s just finished designing back into a folder marked N.W. Ayer and Son, Philadelphia - the advertising agency where she works. She gets ready for bed then lays down to rest for a few short hours before another busy day. She has a meeting in the morning with the marketing team, a meeting about - ugh. Frances sits up in bed, bringing her palm to her forehead. She was supposed to come up with a signature line to present at the meeting. “Dear God, send me a line,” she mumbles and then, half awake, jots something down on the notepad beside her bed. The next morning, she glances at the notepad. “A diamond is forever,” it says. Eh, it’s okay, she thinks. It’ll do. Frances later reported in a 1988 interview that quote “nobody jumped” when she presented the line at that meeting. And yet, “a diamond is forever,” has gone down in history as one of the greatest advertising slogans of all time. It has appeared in every single De Beers diamond ad since 1948 and was ranked the number one slogan of the century by AdAge marketing journal in 1999. But, did you know, the company that hired Frances’ ad agency to come up with this slogan, De Beers, used it to trick the entire world into thinking diamonds are worth way more than they actually are? And that this made up illusion of value - this complete scam - has been used to fuel violence, tyranny, and oppression in developing countries? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. When you think of an engagement ring (go ahead picture one) you’re most likely picturing a diamond. I’m wearing a diamond engagement ring right now. The central diamond came from my grandmother’s engagement ring, actually, so it’s pretty special. It has sentimental value to me, emotional value, but that’s it really. Thanks to De Beers, diamonds are advertised as an investment, much like silver or gold. Something with the potential to appreciate in value, or at least something that holds its value - forever. But did you know, once you buy a diamond, its value actually drops by as much as 50%? People rarely sell their diamonds, anyway though. I would never sell my engagement ring, not with my grandmother’s diamond in it. It’s an heirloom. Which is exactly what the diamond industry wanted and part of how they keep the illusion alive.
According to an article by Edward Jay Epstein for the Atlantic called “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond,” quote “The diamond invention—the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem—is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade.” end quote. So what happened? How did we all get tricked into believing diamonds are a valuable investment when really, they have little intrinsic value whatsoever? Let’s take it all the way back.
Diamonds are considered one of the oldest materials on Earth, typically between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years old. Considering Earth is only estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, they are pretty OG. Diamonds form at the center of Earth where extremely high temperatures and pressure change carbon deposits into diamond. However, major misconception here, diamonds are not typically formed from coal. Did you think so? Me too. Nope. According to geologist Dr. Hobart M. King, quote “coal has rarely - if ever - played a role in the formation of diamonds. In fact, most diamonds that have been dated are much older than Earth's first land plants - the source material of coal! That alone should be enough evidence to shut down the idea that Earth's diamond deposits were formed from coal.” he goes on to say that coal “is rarely buried to depths greater than 2 miles” and that “the carbon source of [diamonds] is most likely carbon trapped in Earth’s interior at the time of the planet’s formation.”
So, diamonds form way the heck down there and then are delivered to Earth’s surface during deep source volcanic eruptions. But, diamonds burn up in magma. So, the only ones that survive the eruption are those that are encased, insulated, in a piece of kimberlitic rock. So, super old, super deep, super hard to get up here. How are we ever even finding these things? They seem incredibly rare. Well, sort of. At least, they were at first.
The earliest known mention of diamonds comes from a Sanskrit manuscript from around 300 BC in India called “The Lesson of Profit” which reads "(a diamond that is) big, heavy, capable of bearing blows, with symmetrical points, capable of scratching (from the inside) a (glass) vessel, revolving like a spindle and brilliantly shining is excellent. That (diamond) with points lost, without edges and defective on one side is bad." That’s the first written mention of diamonds. Beads marked by diamond drilling have also been found in sites in Yemen from the 300s BC. So they were clearly a thing by then.
The first diamonds were found around rivers in India but at that time, people were afraid to cut them. They thought the diamonds had magical powers that would be lost if the stones were cut. So they just polished them but they never cut them. Also, diamonds are super hard to cut so that probably had something to do with it. The original word for diamond, from Sanskrit is “vajra,” which means “thunderbolt” or sometimes “indrayudha” meaning Indra’s weapon. Indra is a warrior god from Vedic scriptures which are the foundation of Hinduism. So clearly, diamonds were seen as something quite powerful in ancient India.
Eventually diamonds made their way from India to the Mediterranean. The modern English word, diamond, comes from the Greek word “adamas” which means unbreakable or indestructible. Around the year 78, Pliny the Elder recorded in his encyclopedia “Historia Naturalis,” quote “The substance that possesses the greatest value, not only among precious stones, but of all human possessions, is adamas; a mineral which for a long time, was known to kings only, and to very few of them...These stones are tested upon the anvil, and will resist the blow to such an extent as to make the iron rebound and the very anvil split asunder…These particles are held in great request by engravers, who enclose them in iron, and are enabled thereby, with the greatest facility, to cut the very hardest substances known.” end quote. Pliny the Elder was an ancient Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher who actually died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, refer back to episode 18 about Pompeii for more on that.
Diamonds don’t appear in the rest of Europe until the 13th century when they start popping up in jewelry and regalia belonging to royalty. And it’s likely they would have made it there much sooner, but after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, the world was launched into the “dark ages” for the next 900 or so years so… yeah, just, diamonds were not a priority for a while there.
At first, diamonds were only worn by male rulers and then, eventually, other prominent noblemen started wearing them. It wasn’t until the 1400s that women started to wear diamonds. This started, it is believed, with a woman named Agnes Sorel. She was a favorite mistress of France’s King Charles VII back in 14 something. He so admired her that he gifted her what is possibly the first ever cut diamond. So, when you find a diamond, it doesn’t really look like a diamond. It just kind of looks like a rock. You can polish it, and then it kind of looks like a chunk of glass. That’s all anybody did until the 1400s when they started to cut diamonds into faceted gems which is what you’re picturing when you think of a diamond, that classic diamond shape with all the little faces that reflect light and illuminate the stone. So Charles VII gifted his mistress Agnes Sorel what is probably the first faceted, cut diamond. She then wore it and the trend caught on with other women. But y’all, while researching that, I got so sucked into this Agnes Sorel character, very interesting. If you google Agnes Sorel, you will see a bunch of portraits of a woman with one boob exposed, yeah not very 15th century. She’s a controversial figure, for sure. Thought of by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in the world, she has also been described by modern medievalists as France’s first bimbo. But, she actually did a lot to basically save France from ruin and then got murdered for it, almost on par with Joan of Arc although not as holy, a slutty Joan of Arc… I feel a mini-fix coming on. Keep your eyes peeled. Anyway, Agnes Sorel popularized diamond wearing for women.
But really, at this point, it’s still just the ruling class wearing diamond jewelry - the aristocrats. In 1499 Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa. And I hate saying discovered because someone else certainly already knew of that route. He discovered it for Europe anyway. So this meant not having to pass through hostile Arabic territory on their way to trade for diamonds in India. It wasn’t exactly a shortcut, but it still made India more accessible because it was wide open and not blocked by enemies.
By the 17th century, small diamonds worked their way down into the jewelry worn by the wealthy merchant class, not just the elite. By the 18th century, diamond mines in South America, mostly Brazil, increased the supply to Europe and diamond jewelry became more and more common, and was mostly just worn by women now. I think men used to be a lot more bejeweled than they are now. I’m not sure why gems and jewelry in general seem to be falling out of fashion for men over the last few hundred years. At this point, diamonds were only worn at night. It was seen as vulgar to wear diamonds during the day. Also, they were still worn only by very rich people. The common man did not own diamonds. I would not be wearing a diamond ring right now if this were still the case.
That all changed in the late 1870s when huge diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa. And this is interesting to me considering Vasco de Gama’s route to India passed right by South Africa. He’s like, “cool, we’ll just zip around here. We’ll be in India in no time,” not realizing that he’s actually passing right by way more diamonds than what they were mining in India. But this discovery, you know seems like a gold mine, or, I guess a diamond mine, but it actually presented quite a problem. Diamonds were only valuable because they were rare. Their scarcity is what gave them value, supply in demand. British financiers behind diamond mining in South Africa were like “uh, well darn,” and feared that, with this new abundant supply of diamonds, they would become semi precious stones, not the elite top shelf gems they had been. According to Uri Friedman in an article for The Atlantic called “How an Ad Campaign Invented the Diamond Engagement Ring,” quote “ The British businessmen operating the South African mines recognized that only by maintaining the fiction that diamonds were scarce and inherently valuable could they protect their investments and buoy diamond prices. They did so by launching a South Africa–based cartel, De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now De Beers), in 1888, and meticulously extending the company’s control over all facets of the diamond trade in the ensuing decades.”
So, enter De Beers, named after Johannes Nicholaas and Diederik Arnoldus De Beer, two brothers who bought a farm in South Africa in 1865. In 1871 they discovered a 83.5 carat diamond on their farm, which began the South African diamond rush and prompted these British financiers to do something about it in order to protect the value of diamonds.
What they did is form a monopoly. De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. fully controlled the world diamond trade for around one hundred years. They stockpiled diamonds from these South African mines and then sold them strategically in small amounts to control the price. De Beer’s chairman Sir Ernest Oppenheimer created a network of diamond wholesalers all over the world so that they had complete control of the market.
According to Epstein in the Atlantic article “Have you ever tried to sell a diamond,” quote “As De Beers took control of all aspects of the world diamond trade, it assumed many forms. In London, it operated under the innocuous name of the Diamond Trading Company. In Israel, it was known as "The Syndicate." In Europe, it was called the "C.S.O." -- initials referring to the Central Selling Organization, which was an arm of the Diamond Trading Company. And in… Africa, it disguised its South African origins under subsidiaries with names like Diamond Development Corporation and Mining Services, Inc. At its height… it not only either directly owned or controlled all the diamond mines in southern Africa but also owned diamond trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.” end quote. Sketchy. De Beers is sketchy.
So they controlled the price of diamonds almost completely by limiting the number of diamonds sold. They controlled the supply. They made diamonds rare. But they also needed to control the demand. By now, common people were able to afford diamonds. They were and still are, very expensive but they were not unattainable. It was just a matter of, do people want to buy them? Do people want to spend this much on a diamond? Why would they? What’s the point? They needed to create a reason to invest in a diamond that otherwise was not all that great of an investment.
So who do they target first? The global economy is in bad shape. Europe is on the brink of war. World War II is about to erupt. Which country has the most potential during these trying times to take the bait and buy into the diamond illusion - the United States. That’s what they decided. So they hired an advertising agency based in Philadelphia called N.W. Ayer and Son in 1938. Now, at the time, diamond sales in the US were down by 50% over the last couple decades, probably because of the Great Depression, if I had to guess.
N.W. Ayer’s whole angle was to figure out what everyone thought about diamonds and then strategically change their minds to support De Beer’s financial motives. Brainwashing, basically. In the late 30s, they did extensive market research and learned that most Americans thought diamonds were a luxury reserved for only super wealthy people. They were extra. They were spending their money, instead, on cars and appliances. So they’re like “okay, well they aren’t buying diamonds because you can’t drive one to work or keep your food cold with it. They have no use for diamonds. We need to make them useful. We need to make them meaningful somehow.” And the only way to do that, because honestly they are pretty useless unless you’re using a diamond blade or drill or something to cut with. Diamonds as gemstones are pretty useless. So the only way to do that was to link them with something emotional, give them sentimental value. They also wanted to keep people from reselling diamonds like you might resell a car, because remember De Beer’s whole scheme relied on them controlling the supply. You can’t have all these cheap second hand diamonds floating around, that’s going to affect the value. So they’re like, what’s sentimental, emotionally charged, and also eternal? Love, that’s what. Marriage.
In a New York Times article called “How Diamonds Became Forever” by Courtney J. Sullivan, N.W. Ayer’s plan was to quote “create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” end quote. Now, engagement rings had been around since medieval times, but prior to the 1930s, only around 10% of engagement rings contained diamonds. By the end of the 20th century, that had increased to 80%. And that is entirely thanks to De Beers and the N.W. Ayers ad agency in Philadelphia.
So how did they do this? How did they change people’s whole perception of diamonds? They started using celebrities in the media, writing newspaper columns and magazine articles about celebrity proposals with diamond rings. They elaborated on the type, size, and value of the diamonds these celebrities were giving and receiving. Fashion designers started talking about the new diamond engagement ring trend in the press and on the radio. According to Epstein in the Atlantic, N.W. Ayer wrote quote "There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea -- the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond," end quote. And through these efforts, they made people believe that diamonds were a mandatory part of marriage, that marriages without diamonds were incomplete or insufficient.
In just 4 years after starting this campaign, between 1938 and 1941, there was a 55% increase in US diamond sales. It’s kind of brilliant, and very terrifying. They took it even further, though, by suggesting, originally, that men spend one month’s salary on an engagement ring for their future wife. This was upped to 2 months salary in the 1980s. They did this with slogans like “Isn’t 2 months salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?,” "Two months' salary showed the future Mrs. Smith what the future would be like,” and "How can you make two months' salary last forever?"
According to Dr TC Melewar, professor of marketing and strategy at Middlesex University in a BBC article by Lawrence Cawley, quote “Once the tradition had been created, they could put a price on it - such as a month or two's salary. And men would pay whatever was expected because it was a "highly emotive" purchase.” end quote
“Highly emotive” also discouraged people from ever re-selling diamonds which would disrupt the market and also reveal that diamonds aren’t actually as valuable as De Beers would have you believe. The whole facade depended on people keeping their diamonds forever. Hence the slogan, “a diamond is forever.” With this strategy, De Beers built up an $80 billion dollar a year diamond industry and completely monopolized it for around a century.
According to Mark J. Perry, American economist and professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan in an American Enterprise Institute article I have linked in the description, quote “The next time you look at a diamond, consider this. Nearly every American marriage begins with a diamond because a bunch of rich white men in the 1940s convinced everyone that its size determines your self-worth. They created this convention – that unless a man purchases (an intrinsically useless) diamond, his life is a failure – while sitting in a room, racking their brains on how to sell diamonds that no one wanted. We covet diamonds in America for a simple reason: the company that stands to profit from diamond sales decided that we should. De Beers’ marketing campaign single-handedly made diamond rings the measure of one’s success in America. Despite its complete lack of inherent value, the company manufactured an image of diamonds as a status symbol. And to keep the price of diamonds high, despite the abundance of new diamond finds, De Beers executed the most effective monopoly of the 20th century… Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol. Diamonds, to put it delicately, are bullshit.” end quote.
But that monopoly did not last forever. Which is probably a good thing. Now, De Beers only controls around 20 something percent of the diamond industry and other competitors in the industry have risen up. That fall from dominance happened around the year 2000 when people realized that many of the diamonds we associate with marriage and eternal love, had actually been illegally traded to fund conflict in war-torn countries.
In 1998 a nonprofit organization called Global Witness released a groundbreaking report called “A Rough Trade” that, according to their website, quote “exposed the role of diamonds in funding the civil war in Angola. It also highlighted a global problem, putting the secretive practices of the global diamond industry into the spotlight for the first time and prompting governments and industry to take action to eliminate conflict diamonds from global markets.” This report brought the world’s attention to the shady practices of diamond mining and the diamond industry in general for the first time. According to Global Witness, quote “diamonds have funded brutal wars in countries such as Angola, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. There is a reason they are dubbed ‘Blood Diamonds.’” end quote.
In 2003, the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process in response to this shocking report. This is an international certification system that lets people know that the diamonds they’re buying are conflict free. But according to a Time Magazine article called “Blood Diamonds” by Aryn Baker, quote “while the process did reduce the number of conflict diamonds on the market, it remains riddled with loopholes, unable to stop many diamonds mined in war zones or under other egregious circumstances from being sold in international markets.” end quote. On top of that, there is a huge discrepancy between the lives and the wages of the people mining these diamonds and the fancy, sparkling jewelry store showrooms where they end up, the ritzy, elite folks who buy them and proudly display them. That Time Magazine article tells the story of Mbuyi Mwanza, a 15 year old who works in a diamond mine in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aryn Baker reports quote “Mining work is grueling, and [Mwanza] is plagued by backaches, but that is nothing compared with the pain of seeing his family go hungry. His father is blind; his mother abandoned them several years ago. It’s been three months since Mwanza last found a diamond, and his debts—for food, for medicine for his father—are piling up. A large stone, maybe a carat, could earn him $100, he says, enough to let him dream about going back to school, after dropping out at 12 to go to the mines—the only work available in his small village. He knows of at least a dozen other boys from his community who have been forced to work in the mines to survive.” end quote.
According to the article, teachers in public schools demand payment from students to supplement their insufficient government salaries so many parents, unable to afford school, send their children to the mines to work instead where hundreds die in tunnel collapses every year. Please, if you missed my rant at the end of last week’s child migrant episode about how anything child related is underfunded and underprioritized… please go back and listen. So children forgo education to spend their days laboring in back breaking diamond mines, hoping to dig up a stone large enough to feed their families. Where 1 carat earns you $100. Do you know how much a 1 carat diamond costs consumers on the other side? Anywhere from $3000 to $8000… just for the stone. So we’re talking about up to a $7900 profit somewhere. $7900 that could absolutely change the lives of these child diamond miners in Africa, save their lives and some diamond industry executive in a fancy suit is padding his pockets with it, doesn’t even need it.
So the Kimberley Process came about in 2003 to reduce the number of conflict diamonds or blood diamonds hitting the market - that has helped some in that regard. Before 2003, an estimated 25% of diamonds were, at some point, traded illegally and used to fund civil wars, especially in Angola and Sierra Leone. If you missed the 2006 movie “Blood Diamond,” it’s worth a watch. After the Kimberley Process was established, that has gone down to only around 5 to 10%. Basically countries have to include, like a passport with each shipment of rough diamonds to prove that they are legit, not illegally traded, conflict free, and if they can’t prove this, they are suspended from the international diamond trade. So that’s great. But the Kimberley Process does nothing to combat unfair labor practices and human rights abuses, like Mwanza risking his life to earn $100 off a stone worth as much as $8000. Worth in quotes there because, remember, diamonds aren’t worth anywhere near as much as they sell for.
On top of that, the Kimberley Process definition of a quote “conflict diamond” is extremely narrow and exclusive. They define conflict diamonds as those sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow a state. Period. So when the army of Zimbabwe seized a major diamond deposit and killed over 200 miners in 2008 - that didn’t technically qualify them as conflict diamonds. They weren’t rebels. They were the army. And even when it does manage to work, blood diamonds are still smuggled out and end up on the market anyway - that 5 to 10%. In 2013, the Kimberley Process banned the Central African Republic where diamonds funded a genocidal war that has killed thousands. They can no longer sell their rough diamonds in the international diamond market. But these diamonds are still making their way out of the country. According to that Time Magazine article, a UN panel of experts estimates that 140,000 carats with a retail value of $24 million have been smuggled out of the Central African Republic since it was banned in 2013 and that armed groups there raised $3.8 million to $5.8 million dollars a year through the illicit diamond trade. Money that was used to fund that genocidal war until a ceasefire was declared in 2021. But violence continues to plague civilians there today, violence purchased, paid for by diamonds.
Diamond brands like Tiffany & Co. and even De Beers have become more strict about where they source their diamonds from. But at a certain point, it becomes impossible to tell where a diamond has come from. The brand Brilliant Earth is committed to only selling conflict free diamonds so they mainly source theirs from Canada. But, this hurts people like Mwanza who labor away in diamond mines in the Congo, hoping to score a stone worth enough to keep their families from starving. According to Brilliant Earth cofounder Beth Gerstein in that Time Magazine article quote “The unfortunate reality is that there are so many problems that have to be solved before we can offer fair-trade diamonds from the Congo.” So boycotting diamonds altogether doesn’t help. Yes the labor conditions in these African diamond mines are horrible and dangerous but they are the only work some of these people have, their only way of earning any kind of money. It’s going to take major infrastructure changes to turn that around, but for the time being, we can’t cut off their only source of income by refusing to buy their diamonds. According to Mwanza, quote “If people stop buying our diamonds, we won’t be able to eat. We still won’t be able to go to school. How does that help us?” Brilliant Earth is aware of the ways avoiding conflict areas affects people like Mwanza, though, and have actually helped fund a school in the Congo to get children out of the mines. So, yay. But it’s a drop of water in an ocean of problems.
Aryn Baker concludes the Time Magazine article, quote “Consumers who care can trace the fish on their plate back to the patch of sea it was taken from. They can choose fair-trade apparel that benefits the cotton farmers and seamstresses who produced their clothing. But the lineage of one of the most valuable products that many consumers will ever buy in their lifetime remains shrouded in uncertainty, and too often the people who do the arduous work of digging those precious stones from the earth are the ones who benefit the least. The only way that the blood will finally be washed away from conflict diamonds is if there is a true fair-trade-certification process that allows conscientious consumers to buy… diamonds with peace of mind—just as they might a cup of coffee.”
It’s a mess y’all. There are alternatives - lab grown diamonds, Canadian diamonds - but they aren’t helping those who depend on the diamond industry for survival. Kind of a lose-lose. And really, at the end of the day, diamonds aren’t worth all that much anyway. Diamonds are bullshit, right? So why do they dazzle us, fascinate us so? They always have - lightning on Earth, Indra’s weapon, unbreakable, indestructible. But the reason I cherish my engagement ring, the reason I admire it daily as it sparkles and glistens on my ring finger, the reason I’d never part with it, my grandmother’s stone, a family heirloom, a symbol of my husband’s love, I’d be devastated if something happened to it… that’s all thanks to De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., the N.W. Ayers and Son advertising agency in Philadelphia, and Frances Gerety’s late night stroke of genius. Thanks to them, for better or for worse, a diamond is forever.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from Time Magazine, Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, BBC, Galeries du Daimant, Vice, geology.com, CBS News, the Atlantic, American Enterprise Institute, CNN, and the New York Times. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.