Diamonds Are Not This Girl's Bestfriend

BY KAVITA PILLAY
Apr 03, 2009
*Special to asia!

Several months ago, my then boyfriend/ now husband found himself on the receiving end of a begfest-cum-tantrum courtesy of yours truly.

 

A traffic-stopping bauble large enough to count as weight-bearing exercise had beckoned me to come hither.  It had me in its power, and I had to have it in return.  I pressed my nose against the window of the store, my pupils contracting from the glint of the golfball-sized diamond engagement ring of my dreams, one that met all of the 4 c’s and then some.  Namely, cheap, caloric, consumable and candy, candy, candy.

The ring came in the form of a ruby-hued diamond-shaped lollipop, set within a matching plastic ring. Mr. Kavita handed over the 50-cent asking price and we debated the merits of strawberry versus sour cherry. Appeased by this treasure, I looked into his eyes, ready to exclaim, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”

I’m as much a sucker for shiny, pretty things as the next suburban-raised, college-educated, upwardly-mobile, occasionally-hypocritical, bohemian-bourgeoisie American lass. But diamonds lost their shine for me once I learned that they were mostly an invention of one of the slickest ad campaigns in history.

It goes something like this: With the late 19th century discovery of vast troves of diamonds in South Africa, colonial financiers soon realized that the stones, once valued for their scarceness, would descend into the realm of the semi-precious unless the supply was strictly controlled and the image of diamonds remade.

Dubbed “the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce,” the DeBeers Consolidated Mines, Ltd came to life in 1888 and soon took control of the diamond trading houses in Europe and diamond mines in South Africa.  With supply reined in, demand became the issue. Capitalizing on the Victorian era penchant for ascribing intangible sentiments to tangible items, DeBeers set about strategically introducing ads that equated diamonds ostensibly with love while also employing images that suggested conventional notions of social class, female submissiveness and male financial prowess.

Several generations later, the myth that “A Diamond is Forever” has so effectively overshadowed the fact that a diamond can be reduced to ash (as well as discoloured, cracked, shattered and otherwise damaged) that the truth now feels false. Perhaps because the human desire to triumph over the inherent transience of our existence is more powerful than any truth. That a stone can grant us some semblance of triumph over this transience says less about the psychological triumph of DeBeers than it does about this most human of weaknesses.

As for the diamond industry’s ties to apartheid, civil strife and child labour, these topics deserve the kind of doctoral thesis that the limits of this page will not oblige. Whether or not the human toll of diamonds has changed industry practices behind the scenes, it seems clear that DeBeers’ advertising strategy will continue to evolve in order to maintain the kind of demand that the industry needs to survive. Rings associated with betrothal (the engagement ring), enduring marriages (the anniversary ring) and other unspecified romantic milestones (the trilogy ring) have more recently been joined by rings celebrating the financial empowerment of a generation of single women (the right hand ring), itself a reflection of the fact that the number of marriages are diminishing in places like the US, where just over 50% of adults are now unmarried.

So maybe it is only a matter of time before DeBeers et al present us with rings to celebrate the more quotidian landmarks of our lives. A Morning-After Ring, perhaps? The 60,000- Kilometre-Oil-Change Ring? Or how about a ring for the one life event that truly is forever; death. Now that’s what I call an Eternity Ring.

 

kavita pillay

Kavita Pillay is a Boston based documentary film-maker, wanderluster and occasional soapmaker. She is the creator of ‘Scrabya’ (http://scrubya.com), a soap company she started in 2006, which donates all of its proceeds to nonprofit groups that are “cleaning up the mess” it blames on Dubya & Co.