The tradition of diamond engagement rings is actually less than 100 years old. How did it become so popular in such a short time?
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Today’s question: Why do most engagement rings feature diamonds? Why not emeralds, or pyrite, or beef jerky nuggets? Turns out, you can trace this precious tradition back to … an ad campaign.
Before the 1940s, opals, rubies, sapphires, and turquoise were way more popular than diamonds as engagement stones. In 1939, only some 10 percent of U.S. engagement rings bore diamonds. And the jewels being used were smaller and of poorer quality than the stones common today. But by the end of the 20th century, about 80 percent of U.S. engagement rings featured diamonds.
Enter an ad campaign. In the 1930s, the world’s leading diamond mining and trading company, De Beers, found itself in a tight spot. De Beers has been in the business, in one form or another, since just after the discovery in 1870 of huge deposits of diamonds in South Africa. Before then, diamonds were truly scarce; they had to be panned from rivers. With this new supply, De Beers flourished. Well, it was really the supply plus careful corporate consolidation and market control. But yes, they flourished. That is, until the Great War, the ensuing Great Depression, and the looming promise of a second world war sent the demand for diamonds into freefall.
So in 1938, De Beers hired ad agency N. W. Ayer to research the market and produce a comprehensive U.S. ad campaign: print, radio, and celebrity publicity. Print ads compared diamonds to paintings by Picasso and Dali – unique and precious. They commissioned portraits of famous couples who’d recently gotten engaged – all sporting diamonds. In 1947, they launched the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever”. By that time, the number of diamonds being purchased for engagement rings in the U.S. had already tripled.
It was – and is – a brilliant campaign. Pun intended, for once. It set up diamonds as a near-indispensable part of engagement traditions. And as heirlooms to be cherished and kept – not to be resold back into the market. Meaning more diamonds would be bought, and almost all of them new.
In the 1960s, De Beers and N. W. Ayers began educating the public about the quality of diamonds, encouraging the purchase of more expensive jewels. And their product placement continues to this day as they loan out extravagant pieces to Hollywood stars for films and the red carpet alike.
Vintage De Beers ads from Vintage Ads:
N.W. Ayer Ad from MagazineArt.org:
Ad of man holding diamond ring from Art of Manliness: