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The Psychological Origins of Our Diamond Obsession

Diamond mania has a fascinating history.

Key points

  • Our current obsession with diamonds is a relatively new phenomenon driven in large part by successful marketing.
  • Diamonds are often implicitly linked to relationship longevity, purity, and durability.
  • Legal changes in the early 1900's may have also contributed to widespread diamond engagement ring adoption.
  • Despite the hype, research suggests more expensive diamond rings may predict lower marriage success.
Image by Pixabay ID 526663
Source: Image by Pixabay ID 526663

Among modern-day obsessions, few are as widespread and socially accepted as our preoccupation with the little carbon clusters we call diamonds. The New York Times reported that 75 percent of American brides wear these expensive stones. Consumer research suggests that the percentage of Chinese brides receiving a diamond has increased from around 0 percent in 1990 to 47 percent as of 2017. These rocks come at a considerable expense, with the average American shelling out nearly $8,000 on an engagement ring. How do we make sense of our fascination with this seemingly impractical item? How did psychological strategies influence this behavior, and how are we still convinced to buy these pricey pebbles? To understand our strange obsession with diamonds, we need to take a look into our history.

Humans have a long and storied tradition of gravitating towards shiny objects. Ivory figurines date back to 40,000 BC, while jade and turquoise were popular in prehistoric Mesoamerican and Asian societies. But the rise of the diamond in the ranks of culturally significant gemstones seems a relatively recent phenomenon. In his book Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems, Jack Ogden chronicles the history of diamond use across recorded history. He reports that while diamonds may have been used for industrial purposes as early as the 7th century BC, there’s little evidence for the diamond as a gem until hundreds of years later. And while the current diamond fever seems baked into Western culture, Ogden makes note of the fact that diamonds in European society weren’t really widespread until the late 14th century.

Fast-forwarding a couple of hundred years, it’s important to note that while diamonds have been around for a while, the pervasive compulsion to use them to demonstrate undying love is modern. Evidence suggests that this trend is in large part the reflection of well-executed psychological manipulation (aka, effective marketing). Diamond salesmen over the decades have convinced us to conflate our relationships with these rocks. For example, the longevity and durability of diamonds are supposed to represent that of our relationships. Similarly, the purity of the stone is said to signify the quality of our marriage. A less romantic and thinly disguised psychological undertone connects the monetary value of the diamond with the perceived worth of the recipient.

Effective American marketing of diamonds is thought to have begun in earnest in the 1940s. Much of the credit for this transition is attributed to the diamond supplier De Beers, where the now-famous “A Diamond Is Forever” pitch was born in 1947. In the coming decades, diamonds increasingly wound up on the fingers of women throughout the United States. Building off early American success, De Beers soon expanded their campaigns to other countries. Their marketing wasn’t limited to engagement rings either, with an “eternity ring” campaign launched as a way to rekindle the romance in a marriage, and an ill-fated attempt to promote “Diamonds. From a woman to a man.”

Michelle McEwen/Unsplash
Source: Michelle McEwen/Unsplash

From 1939 to 1980, De Beers’ diamond sales in the US grew from $23 million to over $2 billion. But this meteoric rise may not all have been the result of marketing. As described by law professor Margaret Brining, in the early part of the 20th century, a man breaking off an engagement was a really big deal for the woman. In fact, the harm (due to humiliation and loss of other potential marriage options) allowed women to sue their ex-fiancées for damages due to a “breach of promise action.” However, in the 1930s, multiple states started abolishing this legal pathway. In the absence of legal repercussions to keep fiancés together, Brining suggests that diamond rings filled the gap, becoming a physical reminder of the stated intent. And, as Sara Kohles writes in Diamond Rings, Capitalizing on Social Trends, they acted as collateral, “something valuable a jilted bride could keep as compensation if her would-be husband absconded.”

Regardless of the exact cause, diamond sales skyrocketed in the US in the second half of the 20th century. Of course, all of that was before movies, news reports, and even pop songs made the exploitive nature of the diamond mining industry public knowledge. There’s now also the widespread availability of diamond alternatives like cubic zirconium rings, which retail for less than $100 on Amazon. An increasing desire to showcase self-expression and more diverse demographics may additionally have pushed consumers away from what is seen as a very traditional purchase. Adding to the challenges for conventional diamond miners, lab-grown diamonds are available for around half the price of the “natural” version.

Of course, these developments have been met by attempts to spin the narrative with everything from well-placed adjectives to new campaigns. For example, cubic zirconia emits a rainbow of light, which has been labeled “excessive light dispersion.” Diamonds, on the other hand, give off a pure white light, or “brilliance.” More easily visible is the “Real Is Rare” program, launched by the Diamond Producers Association in 2016. The marketing strategy plays on the twin ideas of an authentic, relationship and the supposed benefit of getting a “real” mined diamond instead of a lab-grown version. This targeted campaign seeks to question the need for a conventional relationship prior to buying a diamond. But maybe it’s time to question the core notion of needing a diamond at all.

At the end of the day, we’re all trying to make the choices that will lead to a better life. If the psychological tethers between longer, more durable relationships and diamonds held water, we might expect to see a dose-response curve, where bigger diamonds predicted longer relationships and more happiness. While a number of apocryphal stories suggest that the largest diamonds may be bad luck or even cursed, researchers have actually looked at this connection in some detail. The creatively named study “A Diamond Is Forever” And Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration” compared marriage success with money spent on the wedding ring. Looking at 3,000 American adults who had been married, it found that more money spent on a ring or wedding ceremony actually predicted shorter marriage duration, exactly the opposite of what conventional diamond psychology would have us believe.

With the advent of lab-grown diamonds, there may not be an ethical imperative to avoid the stones. But we should at the very least be aware of the decades of marketing and other psychological tactics that inform our present-day diamond mania. We should also understand that the connection between marital bliss and an impressive rock is far less durable than it may seem. Beyond this, as we consider the role of diamonds in how we show affection, the way we engage in commitment rituals, or just how we choose to adorn ourselves, we should at the least note that our current obsession with diamonds is in many ways itself a synthetic marketing phenomenon, and our resistance to alternatives may very well represent the vestigial imprint of effective psychological manipulation.