Classic Atlantic article on the diamond scam

One of the more useful things to be aware of as an American is the surprising ruthlessness of Madison Avenue’s manipulation. Nowhere is that more evident than in a classic Atlantic story from 1982 exposing how the public was fooled into thinking diamond rings are an integral part of marriage custom. I’d read it a while back, and had forgotten how good a read it is. The most surprising detail is that the “custom” of giving a woman a diamond engagement ring was completely contrived shortly after WWII by a Manhattan advertising agency.

The agency had organized, in 1946, a weekly service called “Hollywood Personalities,” which provided 125 leading newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by movie stars. And it continued its efforts to encourage news coverage of celebrities displaying diamond rings as symbols of romantic involvement. In 1947, the agency commissioned a series of portraits of “engaged socialites.” The idea was to create prestigious “role models” for the poorer middle-class wage-earners. The advertising agency explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’”

The piece also explains the great lengths to which De Beers went to ensure that diamonds, actually a relatively common rock, are kept in artificially short supply to create the illusion of rarity. Furthermore, they control the entire supply chain, keeping wholesale prices much lower than retail (the markup on diamonds is ridiculous, at least 100%) so that it’s impossible for the public to unload their diamonds on the market.

The most interesting part of this piece is the notion that people in 1946 were capable of this kind of cynical manipulation, because it removes one of the most bitter aspects of our current moral degeneracy: that idea that we’ve somehow fallen from a great height. It’s always a relief to find out the fall wasn’t that far.

4 responses to “Classic Atlantic article on the diamond scam”

  1. Diamond rings are a huge scam, especially considering that we can now manufacture diamonds which are of better quality than the ones which come out of the ground.

  2. In a way, I can relate to the notion that the public was fooled by a brilliant campaign. On the other hand, who cares? The diamond industry provides millions of jobs directly and indirectly, as do all industries. Furthermore, people follow popular culture in all aspects of life, let it be religion, music and the arts, technology and so on. People make there own choices in life and who are we to judge?

    • Who cares? I do. People who can barely afford rent waste their money on an industry that provides nothing of value. The fact that this useless industry employs a bunch of people (some of whom are actually not quasi-slaves) is not redeeming. You could say that about anything.

      I’m not judging people for being fooled into thinking they need diamonds, but I sure as hell am going to judge the people that started the myth and the people that decide to spend their lives perpetuating an industry that does nothing for the world.

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