An Anthropologist Talks About Why People Want Diamonds

I am kicking off Diamond Dialogues, a series of interviews with mostly outside experts about the direction of our industry. 

For this first interview, I spoke with Susan Falls, author of Clarity, Cut, and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press). Falls is an anthropology professor at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., and her book is built around conversations with consumers and their feelings about diamonds.

Falls discusses how the industry should be talking about its product, why the hip-hop community embraced bling, and why even people who have mixed feelings about diamonds will buy them anyway.

JCK: How did you get interested in this topic? 

Susan Falls: I teach anthropology, and I work with material culture. I am interested in things, objects; I am interested in the way different kinds of objects have meanings for us.

I am not a big jewelry person, but we do have some diamonds in our family, they are important to me, and I have a lot of memories associated with them. I find them beautiful and interesting. And when you talk to people about diamonds everyone has a story about diamonds. Everyone has an opinion about them.

JCK:  In your research, did anything surprise you? 

Falls: One thing that surprised me was that there was a lot of variety in terms of what people thought about them. I thought the marketing would mirror the way people talked about them. But once people have them in their hands and on their bodies, they were creative in how they talk about them.  

A lot of people told me they felt that diamonds would absorb the characteristics of the person who wore them. That is why they didn’t want to inherit the diamond of someone they didn’t like, or if it was someone they liked, they felt the diamonds would bring those qualities to them.

For many, the memories associated with diamonds are powerful. Sometimes they keep them as a memorial to certain people. They might not interact with them on a daily basis but if they lose them, they go crazy.

JCK: We often hear about the power of the “A Diamond Is Forever” slogan. How much has that played a role? 

Falls: About 85 to 90 percent of the people I talked to during the conversation brought it up, and some didn’t agree with it. It’s part of the American vernacular about diamonds. It’s all around us.

It’s so pithy and succinct and contains a tremendous amount of information and can be read in so many different ways. It is such a genius tagline. They don’t come along that often.

JCK: Many critics say that America’s affection for diamonds is all based on De Beers’ marketing campaigns. But could the same kind of campaign have worked as well for another product? 

Falls: I don’t know. I do think that there is something about the fact that they are clear that makes them a good vehicle for a lot of different type of stories. They don’t have many variables, and that makes them kind of special.

I do think there is something very eye-catching about a well-cut diamond. There is something about them that people respond to.

JCK:  There are some fears that the younger generation does not have interest in diamonds that prior generations did.

Falls: There was a point in time when I felt like my students were rejecting them out of hand, about when the Leonardo DiCaprio movie [Blood Diamond] came out and there was a lot more visibility about blood diamonds. Now that issue is dying down. The diamond industry has done a really good job responding to it. My students who are in their teens or 20s have no qualms and fully expect to wear a diamond ring. They are not saying ‘I will never wear a diamond.’

I do think there are other challenges. I think the changing ideas about marriage and the rituals around marriage are more of a challenge for the industry. The cultural side of things is changing right now, and people are looking at what constitutes an appropriate engagement ritual.

JCK: You talked with people who had negative ideas about diamonds. And yet even many of them said they planned to purchase them.

Falls: People are very contradictory. We as humans are able to hold all kinds of contradictory ideas. Even though sometimes people are aware of the construction of value, or may have issues with certain parts of the production chain, that doesn’t stop people from wanting them or perceiving them as something that is beautiful or as something that has sentimental value for them. It depends on the context. Clearly, we have all kinds of mixed ideas about all sorts of things.

That is true with all sorts of consumer goods. It is not just true for diamonds. People will say I don’t need this or I don’t want it. But then there is something that makes them feel that they want it. The idea that people make economic decisions based on rational self-interest— even economists have begun to recognize that does not capture the way that most people operate. Sometimes it’s just like a feeling or emotion or something that captures the way that people operate.  

JCK: What do you make of the adoption of diamonds by the hip-hop community?

Falls: To me it is so interesting that community took up something that is traditionally associated with women, something more traditional. And then they adopted them in a different way, and did things like wear them on their teeth.… And it was very much from the community, from the people. It wasn’t something marketed to them. 

JCK: The popular idea was, it was a way of conveying status.

Falls: I think so, but in a playful way. I think there was a lot of self-consciousness about it. It wasn’t just a flat-footed way of proclaiming status. That made it very striking.

It was all so different, and that was one of the things that made it fun to watch. The context in placement—such as taking diamonds and wearing them in their teeth—was very much in keeping with the stylish creativity traditionally shown by the hip-hop community.

JCK: Any thoughts on how the industry should talk about diamonds? 

Falls: In many ways, the consumption of diamonds doesn’t start until the person has them with him or her. There are all sorts of interesting things that happen. People imbue diamonds with all sorts of characteristics. They become these magical talismans. So perhaps talking about that.

I don’t think that people are aware of the special characteristics of diamonds. When I talk to people about how old they were or that they might have come from the seeds of meteorites or how they came out of the ground and the geological circumstances involved, they didn’t know any of this and are really interested.

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JCK News Director