March 8, 2004

The lords of the rings

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Ring season is finally over. Men propose throughout the year, of course. But Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day are the three most popular times. At least that’s the impression I get seeing the countless television, magazine, and newspaper ads from November to February. They’re relentless. What woman over the age of, say, 25, doesn’t know the heartache that comes when first Christmas, then New Year’s Eve, and finally Valentine’s Day all pass without that hoped-for, dreamed-of proposal?

I almost feel sorry for men, too. So much of the diamond mystique is the direct result of the savviest marketing strategy in history. That clear rock was not always the gem of choice for the newly betrothed. I have a quite smart three-stone ruby ring that was my great-grandmother’s engagement ring. Diamonds are the hardest gemstone, but they’re certainly not the rarest. At least not naturally.

The De Beers Diamond Trading Company has had a virtual monopoly in diamonds for over a century. Diamonds are quite plentiful in its South African mines, but the London-based company restricts supply ruthlessly. (It has also faced antitrust litigation in this country and a lawsuit in South Africa stemming from its treatment of workers during the apartheid era.)

De Beers’ marketing campaigns are also incredibly effective. Ask any woman how much a man should spend on a diamond engagement ring, and she will quickly answer, “Two months’ salary.” Why this arbitrary number? De Beers, of course. It’s quite something that the company that sells you diamonds has also created the etiquette, if you will, of how they are purchased.

But even De Beers’ relentless campaign is not enough for the modern woman. Exhibit A is the jewelry trend du jour, the right-hand diamond ring. Women are marrying later and later, sometimes forgoing marriage indefinitely for live-in relationships. But who wants to forgo a diamond ring? Not even the most self-sufficient of women. And the right-hand ring is being marketed to just that type. “Independent women of the world, raise your right hand,” reads one ad. Others list some of the accomplishments that might merit a woman buying herself a diamond ring–good work at the office, for example. They veer awfully close to just saying, “For all you do, this Bud’s for you.”

The modern woman now eschews romance in favor of the rock. Exhibit B from my research: a recent visit to Tiffany and Co. on Fifth Avenue in New York City. On a sunny Saturday morning, the second floor, filled with the most exquisite engagement rings in the country, was packed. But not with thoughtful men–the room was filled with couples. A group of three males was the sole exception to the rule. The little blue box may scream, in an understated way, tradition, but at least one tradition seems to have ended. Gone are the days when a man (taking the woman’s taste into account, of course) would buy a ring and surprise his girlfriend with a proposal. Women now would rather have the ring of their choosing than mystery and romance.

(Perhaps this is a relief for men, who have such a difficult choice on their shoulders. An article in the March Vogue sympathizes, yet urges men to follow the time-honored tradition. Expecting them to ask for the Coco-inspired pieces at Chanel doesn’t seem to make this burden any easier, though.)

Tradition may be changing in other, even more fundamental ways, too. In fact, the entire industry may be at risk of extinction. Already, the discovery of diamond mines in places like Canada and Siberia have some questioning how long De Beers can hold on to its infamous monopoly. But what has the company really shaking in its boots is the increasing innovation of the synthetic diamond industry.

Wired recently ran an excellent article detailing the work of two pioneering American companies, one in Sarasota, Florida, one in Boston. Wired, unsurprisingly, was particularly interested in these new technologies’ applications to the computer industry–diamonds make excellent semiconductors, much better than silicon. As a woman, I, unsurprisingly, was particularly interested in what these new technologies mean for perhaps the most special thing a woman will ever own.

The story of synthetic diamonds is fascinating–there’s an international cast of characters (American entrepreneurs, Belgian gem dealers, British mine owners), intrigue, and romance. The Wired reporter describes his visit to the Boston producer: “We get in his blue Saab and begin driving. In a half hour, I realize I’m seeing the same scenery. I ask if we’re driving in circles. ‘We’re not taking the most direct route,’ he allows.”

This is more exciting than any Tom Clancy movie I’ve ever seen. The son of one of the synthetic pioneers told the magazine that an industry insider “said that my father’s research was a good way to get a bullet in the head.”

How good are these synthetics? The ladies at the club won’t be able to tell the difference. But diamonds produced by the Sarasota company, Gemesis, Wired explains, “grow in a metal solvent, and tiny particles of those metals get caught in the diamond lattice as it grows.” Sophisticated testing equipment can tell the mined from the manufactured. And this matters. Wired notes that the price of synthetic emeralds, first introduced en masse in the mid-1970s, was high at first. But gemologists determined they could sort the natural from the man-made using a microscope, and the synthetic stones now cost less than 3 percent of the price of naturals.

A diamond produced by the Boston company, Apollo Diamond, on the other hand, “precipitates as nearly 100 percent pure diamond and therefore may not be discernible from naturals, no matter how advanced the detection equipment.” The latter is the company whose president was warned his work could be lethal.

But will women be willing to wear a diamond made in a lab in Sarasota rather than one mined in South Africa? Synthetic diamonds are much cheaper (one company is growing wafers for semiconductors as about $5 per carat), and women could get a lot more bling-bling for the price. Manufactured diamonds are not cubic zirconias–they have the same structure as mined diamonds and, as I said, the naked eye cannot distinguish between the two.

Imagine if the century-old De Beers’ artificial scarcity was destroyed by a little American startup. Imagine a world of hundred-dollar diamonds. We would soon see that it is not the beauty of the diamond that is important to women, but the price of that diamond. If a ring that now costs $30,000 were suddenly $1,000, does anyone think women are going to be happy with that ring? It’s just as luminous as before, but it loses rather a lot of sparkle when it’s accessible to all.

Innovators see opportunities and markets tend to open up–monopolies can be hard to sustain. But (sorry, guys) don’t count on De Beers to give up easily. “If people really love each other, then they give each other the real stone,” a representative of the diamond industry told Wired. “It is not a symbol of eternal love if it is something that was created last week.”

And so begins De Beers’ next brilliant marketing scheme.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is