(Image credit: Flickr user Ryan G. Smith)
A guy giving his girlfriend a diamond engagement ring would seem to us to be a intrinsic part of America and Americana. It is a time-honored American tradition, like watching television, going to McDonald's for lunch, kids riding bikes, or beer and hot dogs at the ballgame. And it is, but it's not quite as old as you might imagine.
While engagement rings have been around for centuries, diamonds are a fairly late addition to the party. For many years, there just weren't that many diamonds on the world market, so diamond engagement rings were pretty rare.
The rock Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy in 1477 was a rare exception, creating a huge buzz around the globe. Despite that high-profile ring, things stayed pretty quiet on the diamond front until the late 19th century.
As recently as the late 19th century, some American women received thimbles as signs of their engagement. After the wedding, they would cut the bottom off the thimble and bride would wear it as a ring. In England, one contemporary practice involved the man and the woman breaking a piece of gold or silver and each keeping half. Then they'd drink a glass of wine and the engagement would be on.
In the 1870's, miners began discovering huge veins of diamonds in South Africa, and ice started flowing onto the world market. Diamonds went from being a scarce gem to a fairly common commodity. This, of course, was bad news for anyone who had diamonds and wanted to make as much dough as possible. The diamond mine owners knew they'd have to get clever to get rich. And it didn't take long for these gentlemen to come upon a plan.
In 1888, several major South African mines merged together to found "De Beers Consolidated Mines.” This merger created a cartel that could effectively control the flow of diamonds from South Africa onto the world markets. As diamonds became scarcer they grew more valuable, and their popularity as a gem in engagement rings increased too.
Okay, this explains how diamonds rose in price and created an illusion of scarcity. But how did diamonds become such an integral part of the marriage process? Depending on your point of view, you can either thank or curse De Beers for this too. While many of us may think of the diamond engagement ring as an ancient "time-honored tradition,” it really is just the end result of a fairly recent (and brilliant) marketing plan used by De Beers in the late 1930's.
In 1938, De Beers executives were in a tight spot. Diamond prices and demand had been on a steady decline since 1919. The tanking economy had caused most wedding-minded men to give their betrothed ladies modest engagement rings that included intricate metalwork rather than fancy gems. De Beers and the cartel needed a way to jump start its revenues.
De Beers approached New York ad agency N.W. Ayer and asked for a marketing campaign designed to convince Americans they desperately needed diamonds. The campaign they came up with was definitely one of the cleverest and most effective in advertising history.
N.W. Ayer started a multi-pronged attack that completely revolutionized Americans' view of diamonds. The agency got Hollywood's biggest stars to wear diamonds and encouraged fashion designers to talk up diamond rings as an emerging trend. The plan worked beautifully. In the first three years of the campaign, diamond sales shot up by over 50%.
While these results were both successful and lucrative, the "masterstroke" had yet to take place. In 1947, an Ayer copywriter named Frances Gerety penned the slogan "a diamond is forever.”
This apparently simple four-word catchphrase caught on with the public like wildfire. It is so popular, it is still used as the main catchphrase of De Beers diamonds to this day, over 60 years later. It is, without question, one of the most successful slogans in the long and storied history of advertising.
The slogan helped to underscore a diamond as an unbreakable, eternal symbol of love. Future brides loved the romantic timelessness of the phrase. Sales of diamond engagement rings shot through the roof.
Within 20 years, 80% of American brides were sporting rocks. Diamond engagement rings quickly became an accepted custom. And receiving a diamond engagement ring (and/or, of course, a diamond wedding ring) remains one of the happiest, most memorable days in most women's lives.
(Image credit: U.S. Navy)
And since I am not a woman, but I know plenty of women, I will omit any commentary on the happiness level of the years following the reception of their respective rings.