Nearly three years ago, I got down on one knee on a beach in Gaansbai, South Africa, and proposed to the woman who is now my wife.
Owing to a retrospectively hilarious series of cock-ups, I had failed to bring my late grandmother’s ring with me; I’d only found some bizarre brassy thing with huge fake rubies in her jewellery box. Thus I was forced to say with one breath, “I love you; will you marry me?” and with the next, “This isn’t the real ring, please don’t feel you have to use this ring, it’s just a placeholder. Also, can I stand up now? This is my bad knee.” The next day, we drove to Knysna, a lovely coastal town in the Western Cape, and bought a ring. Naturally, that ring had a diamond, tastefully set within the band.
That diamond was a tiny inconsequential thing compared with the whopping, and flawless, 232-carat leviathan that has just been dug out of the Cullinan mine in Pretoria, 750 miles from Knysna. That was the mine that also gave birth to the Great Star of Africa, the centrepiece of the royal Sceptre; that was far larger still, but even the new stone is expected to raise £9 million when it is cut and sold. That for a lump of carbon the size of a conker.
Humanity’s love of shiny, rare and useless things – gold, gems, those glass beads Western settlers traded with North American Indians – is as old as humanity; we are a magpie species. Neanderthals may have worn shell jewellery; our more recent ancestors have known about and worn diamonds for perhaps 6,000 years.
The symbolism of diamonds is powerful and – like the cut stones – multifaceted. They are forever; they are a girl’s best friend; they embody true love, eternal love, fidelity. And, of course, they are expensive – very expensive, so they symbolise 1) the fact that you love someone so much that you’ll spend extremely large amounts of money on them, and 2) that you have extremely large amounts of money to spend.
But the symbolism is an invention. In an extraordinary 1982 article, Edward Jay Epstein explained how an American advertising firm, NW Ayers, created the link between diamonds and romantic love – and, crucially, eternity – to avert the impact of a terrible economic reality for diamond sellers: that there were enough diamonds around already. Their value depended on scarcity, and the discovery of those South African mines in the early 20th century had rendered them too common.
When Epstein was writing, there were about half a billion carats of cut diamonds in the world; since the global demand was satisfied by the 50 million or so carats of diamonds mined each year, they had to stop people selling those diamonds on, or they would become at best semi-precious stones. So in one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever, first in America, then in Europe and much of the world, it became almost unthinkable to propose marriage without a diamond.
Next, the “A Diamond is Forever” slogan was created; suddenly, diamonds bought second-hand wouldn’t do. Demand for new diamonds rocketed, while demand for sloppy seconds dropped. (De Beers, which then controlled the large majority of global sales, helped this process by buying and stockpiling second-hand diamonds.)
Things have changed since. De Beers has been broken up and its stockpile sold, new markets have sprung up, and diamonds are once again subject to the usual economic laws of supply and demand. But those not-that-rare, largely useless shiny lumps still hold their value, because people believe they symbolise true love.
I can’t affect too cynical an air, though. It worked on me – and three years later, the little stone on my wife’s ring finger still looks beautiful.