Diamonds are a Fool's Best Friend
What do Hollywood's biggest celebrities, MTV artists, romancing couples, wannabe gangsters and aristocrats all have in common? They all buy into the Great Diamond Illusion
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word diamond as: “A colorless, crystalline, extremely hard form of carbon, valued as a gem and as an abrasive or cutting tool.”
That word: value. So powerful, yet so subjective. What is the value that we put on anything? The flashiest clothes, the shiniest jewelry? Who decides the worth of these things? And why are we so quick to buy into the illusions?
The phrase used to be: “Diamonds are forever.” Today, diamonds are everywhere. A gem once revered primarily by the elite in the West has become a worldwide trend. Anxious fiancés eagerly save their pennies before “popping the question.” Many jewelry stores have financing plans, where a consumer may pay for a diamond engagement ring much in the same way that one finances a car. Rings are passed down through generations as precious family heirlooms.
But the symbol doesn’t stop at love and romance. The symbol now extends to far greater lengths. Diamonds have managed to infiltrate their way into every aspect of culture. Priceless jewels have now become a source of status and street cred in urban life. Today, gangster rappers and bad-boy wannabes proudly wear the once-elitist gems around their necks, in their ears, and, oddly enough, in their teeth. Nelly’s 2006 hip hop hit Grillz showcases the impact precious jewels have had on the urban masses. The lyrics of the song further propagate the notion that power and crime go hand-in-hand: “Rob the jewelry store and tell ‘em make me a grill! Add da whole top diamond and the bottom row’s gold!” The need to showcase their “bling” and don their “ice” has become an essential commodity of the hip hop genre, giving the diamond corporations’ advertising campaigns an entirely new marketing pool.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, diamonds had held great value because of their rarity. Diamonds were found in a few sparse river beds throughout Brazilian jungles and Indian waters. Only a few pounds of diamonds were produced each year, and their rareness made them an exceptional commodity for aristocratic consumers of the time. All of that would change in 1870, when massive deposits of diamonds were discovered in “pipes” of the Orange River in South Africa. Discoveries of large amounts of the compressed carbon quickly popped up all over Africa’s continent. Immediately, corporate diamond sellers took control. In order to uphold the West’s illusion of the rarity of diamonds, the corporations had to strictly control their production. So it was that the corporations took ownership over enormous sections of Africa’s rich soil and created diamond mines, leaving behind barren wastelands and big empty pits. Diamonds became more accessible to the masses, but, through the clever campaigning of companies such as DeBeers, the illusion of their scarcity was somehow well-maintained. Consumers bought into the illusions wholeheartedly and the diamond trade soared. Despite the fact that diamonds were appearing in jewelry stores all over America and Europe by the early twentieth century, the illusions of rarity and pricelessness continued to be swallowed by consumers in the West.
True to its fashion of pushing the boundaries of consumerism, Hollywood quickly jumped on the bandwagon. In the 1953 motion picture Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe seductively told the world that “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” And the world sang back in agreement as the owners of diamond mines found themselves in the thick of a multi-billion dollar industry.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Western diamond craze had exploded into an international frenzy. No longer were the sparkling gems valued solely by the elite in the West. By the 1980’s, Japan had become the world’s second largest importer of diamonds. Ironically enough, the trade of diamonds in Japan had been banned in the aftermath of World War II. It was not until a 1967 marketing campaign by Debeer’s, the world’s largest diamond company (which appears in countries throughout the globe under different names such as The Diamond Trading Company in London) that the concept of diamonds as a symbol of romance had crossed Japan’s border. Prior to 1967, the cultural marriage practices in Japan were the same as they had been for 1500 years: arranged marriages facilitated by parents and intermediaries, consummated by the bride and groom drinking rice wine from the same bowl. The Western ideals of courtship, romance, and seduction were completely foreign concepts to the majority of Japanese citizens. With the mass marketing of diamonds and the advertising campaigns that followed, however, the traditions were quickly wiped out and replaced. In just thirteen years, a 1500-year tradition was broken and Japanese marriage customs quickly adapted to those of the West. By the year 1981, 60% of Japanese brides wore diamonds on their ring fingers. Additionally, similar developments were taking place all over Asia and in Latin America. By the late 1980’s, diamonds had become a staple of life all over the world, earning status as an international symbol for love, romance, and elitism.
Meanwhile, in Africa, diamonds had begun to take on an entirely different meaning. It quickly became known that diamonds were one of Africa’s most in-demand natural resources, and the diamond corporations wasted no time in setting up shop. Diamond mines are one of the easiest to establish; unlike the mining of other high-priced metals such as gold, silver, and platinum, the mining of diamonds does not require elaborate transport systems. Tens of millions of dollars worth of product can often weigh as little as a few pounds. Unlike the heavy freight trains and jet engines needed to export other heavier materials, diamonds need only a safe carrying case and a first class plane ticket for transport. So as the mines were quickly being constructed, African people were taking jobs in them by the droves. These worthless pieces of compressed carbon that had sat dormant in Africa’s rich soil for millions of years suddenly held an incredible amount of power.
That power would have devastating effects. Indeed, the diamond trade has been linked to horrific wars in Angola and the Congo. And in 1991, Sierra Leone erupted into a brutal civil war which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, forced amputations and other human rights violations, and an absolute destruction of the country’s natural habitat. The focal point of this war, organizations in the West would soon argue, was “blood diamonds.” The insurgency of the rebel groups raised the concern of the United Nations and other international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, and sparked a series of “clean diamond campaigns,” encouraging consumers in the West not to purchase diamonds that were the results of the vicious African conflicts.
Yet while blood was being spilled on foreign shores, celebrities at the Grammies each year were proudly donning the sparkly trinkets as status symbols. Famous US-based jewelers loan out millions of dollars worth of diamonds to celebrities each year for elitist events such as the Grammies, the Oscars, and the MTV Music Video Awards. Complimenting their designer clothing and thousand-dollar hair styles, celebrities gladly decorate their bodies with these intrinsically worthless pieces of compressed carbon.
We are told that diamonds are “so valuable” because they are the hardest material in the world. Glass is also a very hard material, and where is the value in that? Glass mirrors can be picked up at the local WalMart for less than ten dollars.
Yet it seems that people from all walks of life buy into the same illusion. Hip hop artists flash their grins to reveal their diamond-coated teeth, while Beverly Hills beauties decorate their poodles with diamond-studded collars. Brides-to-be excitedly show off their engagement rings, and wannabe gangsters find every opportunity to flash their ice. While the diamonds of some solicit fear or respect, and those of others generate admiration and envy, they have all fallen victim to the great diamond illusion. An illusion which has the power to sell billions of dollars in insurance policies annually and to influences crime and violence. An illusion that fuels war and takes lives. An illusion which, when broken down, reveals itself as nothing other than a whole lot of compressed carbon. And who is reaping the benefits? Corporations at the top of the game: big businesses who have made an obscene amount of wealth off of the blood of tens of thousands of the world's citizens and the gullibility of millions of others.