The Surprising Resilience of Diamond Engagement Rings



The author of a new book talks about the diamond tradition, industry marketing, and how hip-hop did what De Beers couldn’t

In this latest Diamond Dialogue, I spoke with Rachelle Bergstein, author of Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds, which will be published in June by Harper Collins. Bergstein spoke with JCK about why diamonds are ingrained in our culture, the the history of diamond marketing, and how rappers made diamonds cool—for a moment.

JCK: How did you become interested in this topic?

Rachelle Bergstein: My first book—Women From the Ankle Down—was about women’s shoes. When I started writing that book, I had a question in my mind: How does something that is functional become the object of obsession?

With the Internet there is so much information about engagement rings. I learned about Edward Jay Epstein’s piece in The Atlantic about N.W. Ayer’s campaign for diamonds. That story is really well-trod at this point. I started to think about diamonds in the greater sense, not just engagement rings.

The book came from a question of: Why are we still valuing diamonds? There has been so much negative press about diamonds in the past couple of decades. Yet we still consider this rock to be a powerful symbol of glamour and romance. And advertising is part of the story, but that’s not the whole story.

JCK: So what answer did you come up with?

Bergstein: The advertising campaign is an important piece of it. But you can’t discount that diamonds are beautiful. That is something that gets lost in the conversation now. People are quick to say they are worthless. But they are objectively beautiful, and jewelry is an art form.

Even before the advertising campaign there was a precedent in this country for wearing gemstones as a symbol of wealth. We see diamonds in the movies, we see our celebrities wearing them. We have been shown from many different angles that diamonds are something that people want to wear and that they communicate certain things.

It’s a really a great sound bite to say that De Beers invented the diamond engagement ring, but that is just not the case. I saw articles in The New York Times in the 1920s about how it’s the new fashion that men couldn’t propose without a solitaire. This is all well before De Beers teamed up with N.W. Ayer.

JCK: How do you think that our perception of diamonds has changed?

Bergstein: In the introduction I say that while diamonds are still fashionable, it is not terribly fashionable to love diamonds right now. All the information that has come out of Africa and labor practices has had an effect. Blood diamonds have become part of our vernacular. People know there is a dark side to the industry but they don’t know exactly what that means.

Although people are aware of the negative consequences of the diamond industry people still want them. It is so ingrained in our culture that a marriage comes with a diamond that even smart, educated people can’t undo that message. I think that’s okay. I think that being informed is important and making smart choices is also important, and people should know that the diamond industry has affected some devastating things. And it’s okay to say that doesn’t make the tradition not valid. The Knot found that 88 percent of grooms are still proposing with a ring. It tells you that the tradition is really quite strong.

JCK: Do you think that will it always be strong, even with De Beers cutting out generic advertising?

Bergstein: The diamond engagement ring has proven to be incredibly resilient. There is really nothing else that serves that function for us. However, the industry needs to keep in mind that we are dealing with a savvier consumer now. Just the standard commercial with the proposal and the Diamond is Forever tagline may not be enough. If the advertising were reintroduced, it would need a makeover.

JCK: What do you make of the hip-hop community’s embrace of diamonds?

Bergstein: That was an anomalous moment. The bling moment didn’t come from within the diamond industry. It came from celebrities. For a moment it made diamonds cool in a way that De Beers as not able to do. If you look at the Diamond is Forever ads they are lyrical, they are glamorous, but they are not cool. No one was able to make diamonds cool like the rap industry did.

JCK: What advice would you give to the industry?

Bergstein: There is a long history of underhandedness and manipulation in the industry. The industry would do well to be honest and acknowledge that it has a checkered past and show a way for customers to shop for diamonds and gemstones in good conscience.

I was really fascinated by the above-ground mines. For someone who wants to participate in the tradition but wants to be socially conscious, I thought that was a great option.

JCK: What advice would you give to someone wanting to buy a diamond?

Bergstein: Do your research. Make sure that the diamond is coming from a place that you feel comfortable with. Don’t buy it as an investment because it is not one. Try to find a way to have it both ways: Make sure you are purchasing a moral product, if you can do that, but also have the ring you want.

JCK: Do you own any diamonds, and how do you think about them after writing this book?

Bergstein: I have a diamond engagement ring that I wear every day, and I inherited a pair of diamond studs from my grandmother. I never really thought of myself as a jewelry person, but when my husband proposed and got down on one knee and presented me with a ring, I felt the power of that ritual. It overtook me in spite of myself. To experience that moment with my husband, I can understand why women and men still want a part of it.

JCK: Did you learn anything that surprised you?

Bergstein: There was a lot that I didn’t know. I knew all the sound bites and stories that were available from Google. But I didn’t know the artistry that was involved in cutting gemstones. I didn’t know how seriously jewelers take their work. I didn’t know these families in the diamond industry often go back generations. They are extremely proud of what they do. While I was often interested and surprised by a lot of the negative stuff, there were positive things that I wasn’t aware of that made the story so much more fun. There were people who had so much pride in what they were doing. I tried to represent both sides.

Past Diamond Dialogues:

An Anthropologist Talks About Why People Want Diamonds

The Jewelry Industry and a Changing, Graying America

The Diamond Industry Is Being Disrupted

Why Consumers Pay Less for “Tainted” Rings

 

(Photo courtesy of Rachelle Bergstein)

JCK News Director