This week I am featuring an article from Free to Pursue, a Canadian blogger who writes about personal finance and related lifestyle matters including great stuff on subjects as varied as Zombies, Flowers and House.
The article deals with the strange social convention of spending large amounts of money on diamond engagement rings. This is one of those habits of humans that would be bizarre to a rational visitor from another planet. F2P brings an independent female perspective that defies traditional stereotypes.
If you haven’t already done so, you should definitely check out her blog.
The Escape Artist
Diamonds: nothing but a brilliant illusion
…and the diamond is a fake.
When we discussed our rings, we decided that my ring’s design would include a pear-shaped diamond and we started shopping for it to ensure we could find it in plenty of time before the Big Day. One stop during our hunt for the right gem was a jewellery store at a local mall. There, we saw a stone that fit our shape and size requirements and the saleswoman started speaking to us about the characteristics of that particular stone—you may be familiar with the 1938-born classic 4Cs: cut, colour, clarity and carat.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed a major flaw in the stone that ran diagonally through it for nearly its entire length. The saleswoman said it was a feather (read: a crack inside the stone itself that affected its durability and clarity). She insisted that this feather was a feature unique to this stone, stressing that features such as this are characteristic of real mined diamonds and help differentiate them from man-made alternatives. I didn’t have to be a gemologist to understand that was a load of bunk. And the price of this one-carat pear-shaped gem in 2000? A cool $6,000!
This conversation, and similar exchanges with other salespeople, made us stop and think about what we were doing. We were buying a diamond because…well…that’s just what you DO! We gave our heads a shake and realized that we didn’t particular need or want a diamond per se, just a stone to complete the design we’d agreed on.
With a quick search online, we found we could get a flawless cubic zirconia, a stone nearly as hard as a diamond, for 1% of the cost of the real deal!
Well, we went for it! I mean, what did we have to lose?
We bought the cubic zirconia on the internet. It’s a beautiful stone. The jeweller who custom-made the setting was upset with our decision (sorry, we didn’t care what he thought) but once finished, the rings were, and still are, beautiful.
Are diamonds really a girl’s best friend?
At age 25, that $6,000 was a SIGNIFICANT sum of money* and we felt we could come up with many better uses for it than a gem that would do nothing useful for us, other than enable us to fulfil a social obligation.
Don’t get me wrong. I grew up with the same thoughts and feelings about diamonds as the next girl. They’re beautiful, lasting and a powerful symbol of love, commitment, security and current or future social standing. In short, it’s a measure of how much you, the recipient, means to the one making the offering, your significant other. The gem communicates all these things without having to utter a single word—effectively portrayed in this poster for the popular TV show “The Good Wife”.
And that’s the problem. Because the relatively recent tradition has simply become an understood step in the courting process, a suitor doesn’t believe there’s a choice and bringing up the subject can have disastrous results. And, for women, there’s perceived value in seeing just how much you mean to your partner; how much is he willing to sacrifice to show he’s worthy of gaining your hand?
The strong social deterrents to opting out of the “diamond offering” as a necessary step in a couple’s courtship masks a number of larger issues due to its strong emotional undercurrents. Namely, we tend to disregard the following realities:
- Diamond engagement rings, and subsequently gifts of diamonds to mark special occasions, is based on a fabricated and fairly recent social expectation based on savvy marketing by the De Beers diamond cartel.
- Diamonds don’t retain their value. At best, they hold their wholesale value, but you can’t sell a diamond for the retail value consumers pay. Don’t believe me? This astounding 1982 article by J. Epstein will convince you of these facts**.
- These precious stones serve no practical purpose day to day and are prone to breakage or damage, loss, and theft due to significant wear—likely causing households to pay insurance costs for holding such property.
So why do we care so much? Blame it on a powerful marketing machine.
It’s been a mere 75 years since De Beers convinced North Americans that diamonds are a necessity thanks to a successful marketing campaign started in 1938. The campaign made heavy use of new marketing vehicles, such as TV and motion pictures. Everybody who was a somebody in Hollywood was sporting some “bling”. We still quote their 1947 campaign slogan today: “Diamonds are forever.” and celebrities still show off these pricey gems on the red carpet and the big screen.
To this day, despite the commoditization of diamonds,—current supply far exceeds demand due to continued discoveries of significant deposits throughout the world—De Beers contends that diamonds are not a commodity because each one is unique in its own right***. That argument could be made for many other commodity products, none of which warrant the exorbitant price.
And it gets better…
Have you heard of “chocolate diamonds”? This is yet another fabrication from the diamond industry. Brown diamonds are now marketed as the newest craze, but what are they? An over-supply of industrial-grade diamonds (see this article on Jezebel.com for more on brown diamond marketing).
Bottom line for the diamond industry: If you can’t sell diamonds, spin the message and the market will eat it up. They’ve been successful so far in regulating supply and spin, so why stop now?
Am I cold-hearted? I think its just the opposite.
It’s never about the “stuff”. It’s about how it makes us feel. At their core, all purchases are emotional. Show me one that isn’t, whether personal or business and I’ll prove otherwise. There’s irrationality in nearly everything we do and the marketing machine knows it all too well.
How else can you explain that a nearly-clear stone of rather modest size compared to most objects we value in our day-to-day life carries such psychological weight and meaning? And what about the box in which it’s setting is presented? Tiffany’s anyone?
When stripped of the marketing hype, it’s nothing more than a clear mineral that, once cut and polished, has come to be understood as a necessary component of a person’s expected life steps in western society.
Every society has such symbols. It’s a natural aspect of cultural evolution. What makes this type of cultural evolution different is that its development was anything but natural and progressive. The more we understand that fact, the more we communicate with our significant other, the more we can invest in what brings the most lasting value to our lives and our relationships, regardless of social expectations or marketing dogma. I only wish those conversations weren’t so taboo.
If my husband and I had not had the touchy “rock” conversation, I’d probably have a pretty naturally-sourced stone on my finger that looks exactly like the one I have, minus an absolutely amazing honeymoon in Jamaica. Now that was a $6,000 we feel was well spent on a truly unique and memorable experience.
*The average cost of a diamond engagement ring is $4,000. If a 25-year-old couple were to invest that sum in the stock market instead, based on an illustrative assumed equity market return of 9% they would have over $125,000 at age 65. That sounds more like a “happily ever after” than does a tiny gem that’s not likely to appreciate in value.
**Written over 30 years ago, I find it shocking that Epstein’s article, and related book, The Rise and Fall of Diamonds, has had little to no effect on the diamond industry.
***For an overview of the De Beers group of companies and its diamond production and distribution, see Inside De Beers, Bloomberg’s Unprecedented Access.
This article originally appeared at Frugal Fringe.com