Rapaport Magazine

An Object of Obsession

The love affair between Americans and diamonds has been going on for centuries. A new book highlights the people and events that helped make the diamond dream a reality that is still relevant today.

By Phyllis Schiller
For the American rich of the Gilded Age, diamonds were a reflection of wealth and one’s place in society. Mrs. Bradley-Martin, shown dressed as Mary Queen of Scots for her costume ball of 1897, wearing a gown with a jeweled stomacher, is decked out in an array of diamonds. Photo from Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

From the Hope diamond to blood diamonds…apartheid to beneficiation… Harry Winston to hip-hop bling, Rachelle Bergstein’s book, Brilliance and Fire, A Biography of Diamonds, takes a comprehensive look at the highs and lows of the diamond industry.

An Engaging Idea
   In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria offered Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring as a symbol of their engagement. While it might have impressed her gem-loving father, Charles the Bold, Bergstein surmises in her book, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that the giving of a diamond engagement ring became a true trend.
   Since then, the giving of a diamond engagement ring has been reinforced by the many celebrity couples who showcased high-end jewelers’ creations, including FDR and Eleanor — Tiffany & Co.; JFK and Jackie — Van Cleef & Arpels; Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier — Cartier. But it wasn’t just the sparkle of the diamond engagement ring that shone bright.

Marketing Magic
   So much of what Americans think about diamonds can be traced back to the N.W. Ayer & Son campaign. Hired as DeBeers representative in America, the advertising agency churned out ads and press releases beginning in 1939 to convince the American consumer that a diamond ring was the true symbol of enduring love. It was an idea that took hold. From that first ad campaign through 1941, Bergstein points out, U.S. diamond sales rose 55 percent. Then in 1947, Ayer copywriter Frances Gerety came up with the tagline, “A Diamond is Forever” that became the crown jewel of the campaign. The rest, as they say, is history.
   Along the way, other clever ideas helped keep diamonds in the news. Harry Winston’s traveling “Court of Jewels” allowed average Americans to view famous diamonds of the day, including the Jonker, the Idol’s Eye, Star of the East and the Hope Diamond, in a five-year journey across America. Lending his diamonds to be placed in ads for high-end products such as Cadillacs was another promotional gem. Then there was jeweler Paul Flato’s connection with Hollywood movie stars, such as Paulette Goddard, Ginger Rogers, Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich, who wore his sparkling creations both in films and to high-profile events, a precursor to today’s red-carpet celeb placements.

An Object of Obsession
   From the Gilded Age’s society doyennes dripping in diamond necklaces, earrings, bracelets and tiaras to Wallis Simpson’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s impressively opulent jewelry “collections,” the appeal of diamonds has been, Bergstein states, an obsession. In a conversation with Rapaport Magazine, she relates that when her husband “got down on one knee and presented me with an engagement ring he had picked out for me, it really made me feel the power of that moment. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
   There was also a darker side to the early days of the diamond industry, from DeBeers control of the pricing and supply of diamonds to its expansion in South Africa under Cecil Rhodes’ leadership, growing its empire at the expense of native Africans, Bergstein says in the book. She also covers the conflict diamond issue, laboratory-grown diamonds and even the rise of bling thanks to hip-hop artists and sports figures.
   After writing the book, Bergstein says, “I came out feeling that the symbolism of the stone is something we should honor. The fact that there was an advertising campaign that helped invigorate the engagement ring custom doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s ingrained in our culture at this point. As far as the negative stuff goes, I personally am happy to have a much fuller view and a deeper understanding of what those negative things are. I think a lot of people talk about ‘blood diamonds’ because it’s become a sort of catchphrase and they don’t really know what it means. So I tried to explain it to people so at least if they’re talking about the dark side of diamonds, they know exactly what it is.”

Dealing with the Dark Side
   “I think people have at least a cursory understanding of these stories,” continues Bergstein, “and my book is just giving them the real information. I don’t think it will necessarily change their relationship with diamonds.” When she started looking into the engagement ring story, Bergstein notes, “I came across Edward Jay Epstein’s famous article written in 1982 in The Atlantic magazine, ‘Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?’ that exposed DeBeers practices at the time. I interviewed Epstein and he said that soon afterward, he spoke with a friend who said he wanted to buy a special diamond for his wife. Ed said, ‘I know this great secondary market where you can buy a diamond for half the price you’d spend retail.’ And his friend said, ‘That’s not the point. My wife would kill me if I didn’t spend a lot of money.’ Even though we have the information, it doesn’t necessarily take away from what the diamond represents.”
   Sums up Bergstein, “Diamonds are the rare item that has remained a symbol of status and romance for so long. Despite so many changes in what we value, and so many changes in gender roles and relationships, the diamond has continued to be a potent symbol. I think my takeaway from exploring the role of diamonds in our culture is that we are still looking at the diamond as if it is the symbol of status, of romance, of glamour. It may be evolving but I don’t think it’s going to change in a dramatic way.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2016. To subscribe click here.

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